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Article: Paul Desmond: American alto saxophonist and jazz composer

Paul Desmond: American alto saxophonist and jazz composer - MGLeatherWork

Paul Desmond: American alto saxophonist and jazz composer

An American alto saxophonist and jazz composer, Paul Desmond, emerged as a prominent figure in the musical world of the 1950s and 1960s. He enchanted the listeners with his distinctive saxophone performance, full of lyrical and smooth patterns. In this article, we’re featuring the key moments of his career.
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Paul Desmond’s Early Years

The musician was born in San Francisco in 1924 into the family of a pianist, organist and composer, who accompanied silent films in theaters. Paul started his musical journey with playing a clarinet at the age of 12 and later switched to an alto saxophone. He studied at San Francisco Polytechnic High School, then at San Francisco State College. During his study in the college, he began to show interest in the alto saxophone, inspired by the styles of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. In addition, during his first year of a college, Paul was called up to serve in the United States Army.

Paul Desmond’s Early Years

Paul Desmond’s Musical Career

Paul Desmond is best known for his collaboration with Dave Brubeck Quartet, where he was playing for seventeen years. He met pianist Dave Brubeck during the military service in 1944. Together, they founded the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951. The band gained its great popularity among college-age listeners. They played concerts in college settings, created many great hits and albums, including “Jazz at Oberlin” (1953), “Jazz goes to College” (1954), “Time out” (1959), which featured the well-known song “Take Five”. In 1967, Brubeck decided to focus his time and energy on composing, and the quartet disbanded.

Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck Quartet

Generally, after the World War II Desmond worked in San Francisco as a backing musician, sometimes he played in a small jazz combo at the Band Box together with Dave Brubeck. Paul Desmond worked on many albums as a leader, successfully collaborating with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan on his two albums – “Gerry Mulligan - Paul Desmond Quartet” (1957), and “Two of a Mind” (1962).  He had a successful studio collaboration with guitarist Jim Hall, who played on several Desmond’s albums. Paul also collaborated with guitarist Ed Bickert, playing concerts with him at clubs in Toronto during 1974–1975. He also played for Chet Baker as a guest artist and recorded songs with him in the 1970s.

Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck Quartet

Paul Desmond’s Impact on Jazz

Paul is a creator of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s biggest hit – “Take Five”. This song takes a special place in Desmond’s musical legacy, as it became a jazz standard and one of the best-selling jazz singles. Moreover, the song “Take Five” featured the distinctive melody of Paul’s saxophone, which impressed the world of jazz with its unusual rhythm.

Desmond's playing style drew the attention of the audience with its melodic approach, filled with an airy tone. The musician was skillful at improvisations that didn’t go unnoticed by his fellow musicians and fans. Paul’s melodies had an ability to capture the mind and linger in memory for a long time. His solos were full of wit and humor.

Desmond died of cancer on May 30, 1977, at the age of 52. Even after he had known his diagnosis, he never lost the sense of humor. He played his last concert in February 1977, with Brubeck in New York City.

Paul Desmond American alto saxophonist and jazz composer


As a talented saxophonist and composer, Paul Desmond left a noticeable mark in the history of jazz music. Despite his struggles with addiction and health issues, his passion for music never weakened. Paul’s music continues to inspire generations of jazz musicians and draw attention of jazz fans with its improvisations and melodic lines.

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You can also read a brief summary of 10 interesting facts about the life of Paul Desmond to enhance your knowledge.

If you want to discover interesting facts about other musicians, check out our articles about Allen Vizzutti, Sonny RollinsMaurice André.

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