“The Duke” (1955) Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond

“The Duke”

Composed by Dave Brubeck.

Recorded live by the Dave Brubeck Quartet for Columbia at Basin Street in New York on July 23, 1955.

Dave Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, alto saxophone; Bob Bates, bass; Joe Dodge, drums.

The story:

The musical relationship between Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond started in the 1940s, almost stopped permanently in 1949 due to Desmond’s perfidy, then resumed in the early 1950s, through the great years of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet, until Desmond left the group in 1967. Brubeck and Desmond remained friendly for the rest of Desmond’s life. (He died in 1977 of lung cancer at age 53.)

For the purposes of this post, I will pick up the Brubeck-Desmond story in 1949, when Brubeck was working as a sideman in a group led by Desmond at a place called the Band Box in Palo Alto, California. This was during a brief period when Desmond fancied himself as a buccaneer bandleader, one who would take someone else’s musicians to form his own band for whatever gig presented itself. He did just that when he secured the gig at the Band Box. In essence, Desmond took the musicians, Brubeck included, who had been working at a place called the Geary Cellar in San Francisco in a band called The Three Ds, led by a saxophonist by the name of Daryl Cutler. The other two “Ds” in the band were bassist Don Ratto, and Dave Brubeck. When Ratto left, he was replaced by Norman Bates (not the Norman Bates of the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho). Brubeck dubbed him Dorman Bates so there would still be three Ds in the band. There was also a girl singer, Frances Lynn. Paul Desmond, whose home town was San Francisco, stopped at the Geary Cellar often, and was asked to sit-in. He and Brubeck were developing a strong, mutually inspiring musical rapport. At some point, Desmond got the gig at the Band Box, but needed a band. He simply took everyone in The Three D’s, except Cutler, and made the gig with them.

Things went well musically at the Band Box largely because of the ever more stimulating interaction between Desmond and Brubeck. Music was more important than money for Brubeck, even though he was married, with two children, and had taken a cut in pay from $100 a week with Cutler to $42 a week with Desmond. Decades after this engagement, both Brubeck and Desmond had fond recollections of the music at the Band Box.

I will cite to Doug Ramsey’s excellent essay in the booklet that accompanies the multi-CD set called Dave Brubeck …Time Signatures – A Career Retrospective, Columbia Legacy 52945 (1992), to finish this story: “While Brubeck was scuffling on the Band Box pay under Desmond’s leadership, Paul got a job at the Feather River Inn, northeast of San Francisco in the peaceful countryside above Sacramento, and stole the band. He took (Norman) Bates and Frances Lynn with him, hired another pianist, and refused to let Brubeck take over the job at the Band Box, insisting that he would come back to it at the end of the three months’ run at Feather River. He didn’t. In early 1950, he took a chair in the saxophone section of (pianist) Jack Fina’s band, and (after that) in Alvino Rey’s band.”

All of this left Brubeck without work or prospects. After casting about for a time, he was able to get a gig with a trumpeter who led a quartet at a remote tavern near Santa Rosa. The gig was for scale, plus a place to live. “The place to live was a corrugated tin enclosure. Its only opening was a door. In the daytime it was too hot to occupy.”  Brubeck was living in this situation with his wife, Iola, and their two small children. It was about this time when Brubeck said to Iola, ‘I never want to see Paul Desmond again.'” (At right: 15 year-old Paul Desmond in 1939, when he was a fan of Artie Shaw’s clarinet playing,(*) performing with his high school marching band at a football game in San Francisco.)

From this nadir, Brubeck slowly worked his way back into a good gig in San Francisco, with a trio he led, with Cal Tjader on drums and vibes, and Ron Crotty on bass. Several influential Bay area people, including KNBC disk-jockey Jimmy Lyons, and upstart record producers Max and Soul Weiss, got behind the Brubeck trio, and a couple of records they made caused a stir on the West Coast. It was at this time that Paul Desmond reappeared.

“Dave left standing instructions with Iola that if Paul Desmond ever showed up, she should not let him in the house. But one day, …Desmond came to the door. (He had heard the Brubeck Trio recordings.) Iola let him in. Dave was on the back porch pinning diapers to a clothesline. Iola was susceptible to Paul’s charm from the first time she met him. She told Gene Lees forty years later that he looked so forlorn, she went out back and told her husband ‘You just have to see him.’  Brubeck did, and Iola said ‘he was full of promises to Dave.He said ‘if you just let me play with you, I’ll babysit, I’ll wash your car.’ Brubeck was unable to keep up his resistance.”  The first Dave Brubeck Quartet, featuring Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, debuted in 1951. (At left: Brubeck and Desmond in 1952 in Brubeck’s 1949 Kaiser Vagabond. Needless to say, Paul Desmond never washed Brubeck’s car.)

The music:

Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, like most jazz musicians, loved the music of Duke Ellington. The influence of Ellington’s music is something that seeps into the thinking of anyone who plays or listens to jazz, and is aware, even dimly, of Duke’s vast legacy. Little did they know when they were growing up in California in the 1930s that they would one day meet Ellington, and be accepted by him as fellow artists. (Above right: Dave and Iola Brubeck with Duke Ellington – early 1960s.)

Dave Brubeck said this about “The Duke”: “The idea for ‘The Duke’ came to me when I was in the car, taking my son Chris to nursery school. The original title was: ‘The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud.’ When I first wrote it, I didn’t understand how complex it was. It goes through all twelve keys in the first eight bars. It hits all the roots. It could be the first jazz tune that does that. Gil Evans made a wonderful arrangement of this tune for Miles Davis.” (1)

Edward Kennedy Ellington had long been a Dave Brubeck fan (the feeling was reciprocal) and had even heard Dave with the Three Ds in San Francisco’s Geary Cellar. To many listeners, the Ellington feel in “The Duke” is immediately apparent. But, Brubeck said “One of the better-known critics wrote about that piece that it ‘had nothing to do with Ellington.’ I know he knows Ellington, but he doesn’t know the Ellington know, because recently I heard what must have influenced me in ‘The Duke,’ and it was very similar to something Duke had done very early, the title of which I wish I could remember. I do find a little of ‘Jack the Bear’ in ‘The Duke.’ …Ellington’s composition was written to star bassist Jimmie Blanton. It combined a ritornello, a thirty-two bar song form, with five choruses of twelve-bar blues.’

“(A)fter Blanton’s death, Brubeck came to know his successor, Alvin ‘Junior’ Raglin, who still played Blanton’s set-piece. It was Raglin whom Dave ran into backstage at an Ellington one-nighter in California in the early 1940s. Dave was still a student. Responding to Brubeck’s wish to meet (Ellington), Raglin led Dave to Duke’s dressing room. Dave walked in and was so awed, he couldn’t say a word.”(2)

The early Dave Brubeck Quartet – 1954, with Joe Dodge on drums, Bob Bates (Norman’s brother) on bass, Paul Desmond and Brubeck.

The story continues: Musicians who are serious about playing jazz, and this certainly included Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, dedicate most of their time to perfecting their ability to play jazz. This is never easy, but it is made much less difficult if the musicians involved are playing together regularly. And in order to play together regularly, these musicians have to have a place to work which will provide them with a base of operations, a workshop if you will, where they can develop their music. This is the all important “gig.” In addition, though of less importance to musicians, whatever gig they are playing has to pay enough money to sustain the musicians. Usually, the amount of money involved is just enough to allow basic human subsistence. It is not mere coincidence that jazz musicians refer to money as “bread.” Very often, the amount of money they earn from playing jazz is barely enough to survive on, as in “bread and water.”

This process inevitably causes musicians to come into contact with that unique species of humanity called club owners. The club owners Brubeck was drawn to were Guido Caccienti and his partner Johnny Noga. They and their wives operated the venue called the Black Hawk, 216 Hyde Street, at Turk, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Caccienti often told Brubeck, “I’ve worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer.” Brubeck played often at the Black Hawk in the early 1950s. It was “…a monument to dimness, dustiness and the proposition that in a sympathetic setting the listener can become a part of the creative process. His Black Hawk experience must have had a lot to do with the development of Brubeck’s often-quoted observation that the success of the quartet was due in large part to the participation of its fifth member, the audience.” (3) Be that as it may, there were other rather large factors that led directly to the great success of the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the early 1950s.

It seems that frequently the “formula” for success for any musical group was to keep working, keep improving the music, and hope that for whatever reason, at some charmed moment, you will find yourself in the right place at the right time in front of the right people.Here is how that worked out for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “A key producer at then CBS-owned Columbia Records, George Avakian, came to the Bay area in the summer of 1954 to be with his wife, the violinist Anahid Ajemian, who was doing a series of concerts with her sister Maro on KQED radio. Avakian took advantage of the opportunity to listen to some local talent. He did this at a time when industry executives rarely sought out music anywhere but in New York City. Avakian went to the Black Hawk. He was aware of the music polls the Brubeck group was winning and had heard some of their records on the Fantasy label. ‘The impact, in person, of the Quartet was quite different from what I had expected,’ said Avakian. ‘It wasn’t as aggressive as, for instance, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, but depended on a rhythmic excitement that was understated and more relaxed. There was a wonderful contrast between Dave, who was an explosive player in up-tempo pieces, and Paul, who was laid-back and floating. It was a combination of styles that don’t sound as though they would fit together, yet we all know that they did. The impact of seeing the group together for the first time completely sold me. I decided, then and there, that I had to sign the Dave Brubeck Quartet.” (4) (Above right: George Avakian and Dave Brubeck – mid 1950s.)

Once the Dave Brubeck Quartet signed with Columbia Records, doors began to open for them. Soon, as a result of Columbia’s public relations department’s efforts, Brubeck was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine. Promoters all over the USA began clamoring to book the Quartet. Their asking price soared. By the time “the Duke” was recorded in mid-1955, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was well on its way to national, and then international success. (Above left: the cover of the November 8, 1954 Time Magazine.)

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) Paul Desmond’s real name was Paul Breitenfeld. His father, Emil Breitenfeld, was a skilled and schooled musician who played the organ and wrote and arranged music for the California Theater in San Francisco. He was also an active member of the music publishing firm Villa Moret, Inc. As such he composed and arranged music. In the spring of 1939, he copied out the parts of Artie Shaw’s song “Moon Ray” for Jerry Gray, who had arranged it for the Shaw band.

(1) It’s About Time …The Dave Brubeck Story, by Fred Hall (1996), 58.

(2) Ibid. 58-59.

(3) Dave Brubeck …Time Signatures – A Career Retrospective, Columbia Legacy 52945 (1992), notes by Doug Ramsey; 47.

(4) It’s About Time …The Dave Brubeck Story, by Fred Hall (1996), 54.

Here is a link to a performance of “The Duke” from about the same time as the one presented in this post, except it is on film. I am able to present this courtesy of vintage cinema expert, and the man behind “Jazz on Film,” Mark Cantor:


Here is a great performance by the mature Dave Brubeck Quartet, and more information about Brubeck:


And here is some music from another San Francisco Bay area artist, Vince Guaraldi, and more info about the jazz scene in that city in the 1950s:


Related Post


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.