Desmond Digs

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog about my favorite jazz musician and original inspiration behind this website. It’s also been a while since I wrote anything at all on here. To correct both wrongs, here then is this post! It’s from the archives, so to speak, so it’s rather special.

I sought out a hard-to-find copy of Down Beat jazz magazine’s 1957 Yearbook due to it containing a feature of Paul Desmond’s photography. What I didn’t know when I bought it was that it also had Desmond’s first blindfold test, which appeared originally in one of the magazine’s regular issues in 1956. For those who don’t know, a blindfold test described a practice where Leonard Feather would get a famous jazz musician, play a selection from a jazz record, and document the musician’s response and reaction. The kicker was that Feather gave absolutely no information at all about what was being played, leaving the musician to try and guess who it was. This made for some rather amusing and brutally honest analysis and reviews of other jazz musicians by their contemporaries. It’s kind of a nifty idea and one that should be brought back, I say.

Instead of just posting the scan of the article, I thought it would be more fun to type some of Desmond’s responses in full and include the song as well, to hear what he heard. Disclaimer: I don’t own the words or the pictures. Down Beat does, and I’m just serving as an amateur historian and professional fan of Paul Desmond. In other words, please don’t sue me Down Beat! With that, here’s Feather’s intro!

“Because Paul Desmond is one of the most articulate of the poll-winning jazzmen, and because the infrequency of his trips to New York prevented us from getting together previously on a Blindfold Test, his visit was an event to which both of us had looked forward for some time. Paul can claim to have enjoyed the fastest rise to jazz fame of all the name alto sax men. Born in San Francisco in 1924, he was an obscure sideman in bands such as Jack Fina’s and Alvino Rey’s as recently as 1951. Only two years after that, as a result of the resounding dual success scored by Dave Brubeck and Paul, he won the first Down Beat critics’ award as New Star on alto sax. Paul was given no information whatever, wither before or during the test, about the records played.”

Here’s Desmond and his responses:

“Stardust” – Sonny Stitt (Roost)
“I know it sounded like Bird, but I don’t think it was, because I’ve never heard it before. I’d say about three stars. It sounded like someone was telling him to play the melody and he didn’t much want to. I think it’s an excellent imitation if it isn’t Bird.”

“Recuerdos” – Stan Kenton, with Lennie Niehaus on alto, Sam Noto on trumpet, and Carl Fontana, trombone (Capitol)
“That’s the kind of record I very much like to listen to on a car radio of a convertible on a late summer night. It has a lush, wild quality that’s very appealing. I like the alto player particularly. I hope it was Charlie Mariano because I don’t think he’s been recorded yet as well as well as he can play, although it could be at least three other guys I can think of. I don’t know who the band is, but I like the trumpet and trombone very much. Four stars.”

“Cynthia’s In Love” – Cannonball Adderley (EmArcy)
“That sounds sort of like jukebox-style alto. It’s well done, but there isn’t too much jazz to it, and I don’t really like it too much. It may be James Moody or Tab Smith. I’d say about 2 1/2 stars.”

“Together We Wail” – George Wallington, with Phil Woods on alto sax, Donald Byrd on trumpet, Teddy Kotick, bass, and Art Taylor, drums (Prestige)
“There’s much more of a feeling of conviction to this than in anything I have heard so far today. Especially the alto and trumpet together, I thought was marvelous. There’s a creative anarchy in this which is my favorite type of jazz. Was that the Jazz Messengers? Anyway, I liked it very much. The rhythm section sounded good, although they were better in the first part than toward the end. The piano seemed to run into difficulties in his chorus, but the rest of the time he sounded very good. Four stars.

“The Song Is You” – Benny Carter, with Buddy Rich on drums (Norgran)
“Somebody at that date should be shot – whoever decided they wanted that particular sound. I don’t know whether it was the engineer or one of the record executives, but if some time they would start making rhythm-and-blues records that sound like jazz records, instead of the other way around, it would be a good thing. All you could hear was the drums and I didn’t like them at all. I felt sorry for the other guys involved, although I have no idea who they are. Two stars.”

“There Will Never Be Another You” –Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh (Atlantic)
“It sounded like Lee and Warne. I think Lee’s chorus on that is the most creative I’ve heard today. Listening to Lee always for me has the fascination of someone construct a mobile while riding a unicycle, when it comes off as it did there. I think Warne has sounded better -especially in the earlier records, where he just sounded fabulous- on those old Capitol ones. I think both he and Lee are not always right in their opinion of when they sound best, although I wouldn’t want to disagree with them on that. I know Lee in particular has sounded wonderful to me under circumstances in which he has expressed dissatisfaction with himself.
“The funny thing about this record – when they played together (which for them should be the strong point, because they have a genius for that) they didn’t seem to come off as well as that number you played three or four records ago (Wallington’s “Together We Wail”). I would like to find out if the simultaneous improvisation on the other record was improvised or not, because they actually came off better, and that shouldn’t be, considering Warne and Lee’s talent for that. Four-and-a-half stars for Lee’s chorus.”

Afterthoughts by Paul
“My favorite kind of jazz is where one or more musicians playing together come up with something which is greater than either of them could do apart, which is not always easy. I would say this has to be in small groups and demands a paradoxical mixture of freedom and discipline. When it comes off as it did in that record you played, it’s very thrilling to listen to. Yes, I like Phil Woods very much. I’m still surprised that the counterpoint made it that well.”

Here’s the complete feature as it appeared in ‘Down Beat”s 1957 yearbook.

3 thoughts on “Desmond Digs

  1. Fantastic, I really enjoyed reading this. Was the Blind Test a running feature in Down Beat (im not too familiar with the magazine)?

    1. Yes, the Blind Test was a regular feature in Down Beat. I’m not sure when they stopped doing it, but it was certainly a fascinating feature while it was running!

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