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May 2005

Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond by Doug Ramsey (Parkside)

Did anyone really know Paul Desmond? Surely not his parents, Shirley and Emil Breitenbach. His mother, bedeviled by phobias and obsessions, kept her distance. His father, a highly respected musician, shipped nine-year-old Paul off to relatives because of the dysfunctional maternal scene. Even his musical alter ego, Dave Brubeck, who maintained a unique contrapuntal ESP with the altoist for some 30 years, admitted he knew little about Desmond the man. In Take Five, biographer Doug Ramsey explores what he labels Desmonds's "compartmentalization" with everyone who played a role in Desmond's enigmatic life. Ramsey unearthed copious amounts of memorabilia and precious photos, and he met with Desmond's ex-wife as well as the endless models, showgirls and cognoscenti (including Gloria Steinem) who came in contact with the alto saxophonist’s lonely, self-destructive quest for that elusive idea.

Ramsey, a musician and friend of Desmond's, induced many greats to analyze the famous solos reprinted in the book. Bu the author's most significant contribution, through his overview, is putting the various compartments of Desmond's life together into a cohesive whole. Desmond emerges as a gentle intellectual blessed with an alto-sax tone of pure poetry, a musician confident enough not to follow the post-Charlie Parker frenzy and an excellent writer and wit worthy of a seat at the Algonquin Round Table. (Desmond famously compared his to a "a very dry martini") Take Five is a meticulously researched portrait and an invaluable resource for music scholars.

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