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Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond

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Doug Ramsey
Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond
Parkside Publications
ISBN: 0961726679
2005

Paul Emil Breitenfeld is better known by jazz fans as Paul Desmond and still more widely known as "the guy who wrote 'Take Five'". Desmond's distinctive alto sound and his inventive and impeccably constructed solos go far beyond the composition of his greatest hit, as catchy as that tune is. Now, almost three decades since his death, it's high time someone produced a biography of one of the great voices of jazz' first century. Which is why it's disappointing that Doug Ramsey's new biography, though beautifully produced, is not a more compelling read.

Ramsey's book is valuable for many reasons: its portrait of Desmond's formative years gigging in different California cities, pre-Brubeck; the revealing correspondence between Desmond and his father, Emil; its astute attention to such performances as the Brubeck quartet's phenomenal 1953 concert at Oberlin; and for including some superb Desmond solos transcribed and annotated by such sax greats as John Handy and Bud Shank.

But too much of Ramsey's text—upwards of around half, it seems—is simply transcribed interviews with his sources. When the source is as articulate and insightful as Darius Brubeck, extended quotes are welcome. But the cumulative effect of the technique is that Ramsey cedes his authority as biographer and the narrative of Desmond's life lacks a unifying authorial voice leading the reader through it.

One of the book's treasures is a 4,000-word letter written by the 25-year-old Desmond to his father. More of a journal entry than correspondence (and at times giving the impression of a self-conscious Desmond writing for posterity) the letter lays bare his early frustrations, as well as a developing aesthetic of jazz improvisation. "I can't see the point in throwing away one's individuality," he writes, "and working like mad to become a carbon copy of Charlie Parker."

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