Paul Desmond was revered for the pure, gentle tone of his alto saxophone, and the elegant lyricism of his improvisations. For seventeen years he was the lead soloist in the most commercially successful jazz combo ever, the Dave Brubeck Quartet. In an era that worshipped the frenetic, bebop style of Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond found his own sound, a tone that he claimed imitated a "dry martini." It was a sound that made him a favourite with critics and fans alike, and won him jazz poll after jazz poll. "I have won several prizes as the world's slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness." He was a modest, retiring man, known to his friends for his wit and charm. Twenty years after his death from cancer, his music still sells, is still played, and still moves people.
To me his lyricism has never been equalled, as far as logic and lyricism combined, because there's always a strand going back some place in his melodies, and in his choruses that shows a great intellect combined with a great emotionalism, and usually you don't find the two things in one person. —Dave Brubeck
Born in San Francisco in 1924, Desmond was one of the leading proponents of the West Coast "cool" style. Influenced by Lester Young and Pete Brown he originally played clarinet in the big bands of Jack Fina and Alvino Rey. But it was his simpatico partnership with the formally-trained pianist Dave Brubeck that rocketed him to fame on the concert stages of the world. Desmond's melodic solos were in marked contrast to the polytonal rhythms of Brubeck, but somehow they clicked and drove each other to greatness. After meeting and playing together in the late 40s, they formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 and never looked back.
For the critics it was a strange musical relationship. Some found Brubeck's playing heavy-handed. In one Down Beat review he was described as "oftimes loud and pounding and seemingly at a loss for melodic ideas." Desmond meanwhile was gaining a reputation for his "original, intensely personal style." Famed critic Nat Hentoff called him "one of the most creative figures in modern jazz." No wonder that articles started appearing questioning the basis of the Desmond-Brubeck collaboration. In 1953, Down Beat proclaimed, "It is again a case where the sideman (in this instance Desmond) seems to be quite superior to the leader as a jazzman." But through their years together Desmond remained remarkably loyal to his partner, "There's certainly nobody else with whom I would have stuck around this long." Perhaps it was their uncanny ability to play counterpoint that endeared them to their fans and to each other. Theirs was a musical rapport that Desmond described as "kind of scary."