Paul Desmond (born Paul Emil Breitenfeld, November 25, 1924 – May 30, 1977) was an American jazz alto saxophonist and composer, best known for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and for composing that group's biggest hit, "Take Five". He was one of the most popular musicians to come out of the cool jazz scene.
In addition to his work with Brubeck, he led several groups and collaborated with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, and Ed Bickert. After years of chain smoking and poor health, Desmond succumbed to lung cancer in 1977 after a tour with Brubeck.
Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco, California, in 1924, the son of Shirley (née King) and Emil Aron Breitenfeld. His grandfather Sigmund Breitenfeld was, according to an obituary, born in Austria in 1857. Sigmund Breitenfeld, a medical doctor, emigrated to New York City with his wife Hermine (born Hermine Lewy) at the end of the 19th century, and the Breitenfelds raised their four children (including Desmond's father Emil) with no religion. Interviewed by Desmond biographer Doug Ramsey, Desmond's first cousin Rick Breitenfeld said that no one in the Breitenfeld family could find evidence of Jewish ancestry or Jewish religious observance, but Paul Desmond and members of his father's family "frequently speculated as to whether or not Sigmund or Hermine Breitenfeld had Jewish backgrounds". Biographer Ramsey notes that "the name Breitenfeld could be Jewish or non-Jewish. There are plenty of Breitenfelds in Germany and Austria to support both sides of the argument. Lewy, the maiden surname of Paul's paternal grandmother Hermine, is more likely to be of Jewish origin, but no evidence of her genealogy has surfaced." However, Fred Barton, songwriter/arranger and Desmond's cousin, found extensive genealogical proof that both the Breitenfeld and Löwy families were Bohemian Jews. The Breitenfeld family in Bohemia and Vienna featured musicians in every generation throughout the 1800s, 1900s, and to the present day. Desmond's mother, born Shirley King, was Catholic, and of Irish descent.
Desmond's father, Emil Breitenfeld, was a pianist, organist, arranger, and composer. Breitenfeld accompanied silent films in movie theaters and produced musical arrangements for printed publication and for live theatrical productions. During World War I, while Breitenfeld was training with the 17th New York Regiment in Plattsburgh, New York, he composed The Last Long Mile, one of the best-known soldiers' songs of that war.
Desmond's mother Shirley was emotionally unstable throughout his upbringing, and appears to have suffered from obsessive–compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses. Starting in 1933, Desmond spent nearly five years living with relatives in New Rochelle, New York due to his mother's mental health problems.
Desmond began to study clarinet at the age of twelve, which he continued while at San Francisco Polytechnic High School. During high school, he wished to study violin, but his father dissuaded him, saying that violin players were "a dime a dozen....with the violin, you'll starve." Desmond developed a talent for writing during high school as well, becoming co-editor of his high school newspaper. In that capacity, he interviewed comedian Bob Hope for his school newspaper during one of Hope's visits to San Francisco. As freshman at San Francisco State College, Desmond began playing alto saxophone. In his first year of college, Desmond was drafted into the United States Army and joined the Army band while stationed in San Francisco. He spent three years in the military, but his unit was not called to combat.
In 1946, following his military discharge, Desmond legally changed his last named from Breitenfeld to Desmond. He told many stories over the years regarding how he chose the name Desmond, but his biographer Doug Ramsey offers an account from Desmond's friend Hal Strack that the two were listening to the Glenn Miller band singer Johnny Desmond in 1942, and Desmond told Strack "that's such a great name. It's so smooth and yet it's uncommon....If I ever decide I need another name, it's going to be Desmond."
Desmond was married from 1947 to 1949 to Duane Reeves Lamon. Following his divorce, he remained single for the rest of his life.