Book Notes

Volume CVI, No. 5May, 2006

All reviews by Bill Crow.

“Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond,”
by Doug Ramsey (Parkside Publications, 2005).

Since Paul Desmond’s death in 1977 at the age of 52, his reputation as an impeccable and lyrical jazz alto saxophonist has remained undiminished, and examples of his inventive wit have long been circulated among musicians and on the internet. Now Doug Ramsey has created a wonderful book about Paul, generous in size (10.5 inches by 11.25 inches) and in scope. A fine writer, Ramsey has an impressive reputation as a journalist, editor and communicator, and comes to the subject of Paul Desmond as a musician and a friend.

Paul Desmond was a contemporary and admirer of Charlie Parker, but he refused to be swept into imitation of Parker. Finding his own voice as a jazz player was of primary importance to him, and he remained true to that imperative throughout his career. Desmond’s music was intertwined with that of Dave Brubeck, and the magic they created together brought the Brubeck quartet great success. They became the first jazz group to sell a million records when they recorded “Take Five.” Dave and his wife Iola have written a charming introduction to this book.

Ramsey has done a monumental job researching Desmond’s life and career, and has written it in a most readable manner. The wealth of detail that he presents is staggering, and it is a tribute to his skill with words that his narrative remains buoyant throughout the book. A great contribution came through the fortunate discovery of a cache of Desmond’s letters, photographs and documents that had been stored by his cousin Rick Breitenfeld (Breiten-feld was Desmond’s family name). Both Paul and his father Emil were frequent and eloquent letter writers, and many of their letters are reproduced here, giving a fascinating glimpse of Desmond’s formative years and his thoughts on music and life as a musician. Paul was intelligent, thoughtful and articulate, and his writing reveals much about the way his musical mind worked. It also bears good examples of the wit and charm that his friends remember so well.

Ramsey’s book is illustrated with many appealing photographs, and there are some good transcriptions of Desmond’s solos. A complete discography is at the back. Highly recommended reading.

Ramsey writes regularly for Jazz Times and many other magazines and newspapers, and recently went online with a blog that he calls “Rifftides,” which can be found at

The book can be ordered directly from the publisher with free shipping by calling (206) 839-1191 or visiting

“The Musical Worlds of Lerner and Loewe,”
by Gene Lees (University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

Anyone with an interest in the American musical theatre or the American popular song tradition should enjoy this book. Gene Lees, well known as a jazz journalist and critic, is also an excellent lyricist, and so he brings an informed view to his subject, an in-depth portrait of the songwriting team which created many successful Broadway shows and motion pictures, including “Brigadoon,” “Camelot,” “Gigi,” “Paint Your Wagon” and their crowning achievement, “My Fair Lady.”

Mixed into his well-constructed narrative describing in detail the lives of these two men and how they came to collaborate so successfully is Lees’s rich commentary on lyric writing, song structure, the music business, backstage gossip, social mores, and whatever else strikes a chord with him as he examines his subject matter. He has researched his material well and has presented it in an engaging manner, following many interesting byways of information which add to the three-dimensional dual portrait that he presents. The book includes a bibliography and an index.

“Paul Whiteman, Pioneer in American Music (Volume 1),”
by Don Rayno (Scarecrow Press, 2003).

This book covers the life and career of Paul Whiteman from his birth in 1890 to the year 1930 – the year that ended a decade during which he enjoyed great popularity as a bandleader and musical personality. Whiteman’s meteoric career became one of the casualties of the Great Depression. His return to success, his later career which continued into the 1950’s, and his last years in retirement will no doubt be considered in Volume 2.

Rayno has provided us with amazing detail, following every move Whiteman made in creating the musical organization that made such a mark on this country in the 1920’s, especially with his “symphonic jazz” concerts. The 19 anecdote-filled chapters in the main text are very readable, and give the flavor of the era and a strong sense of what it was like to be with the best-known band of its time. This account refutes the accusations that accumulated in the jazz press in later years that Whiteman was an exploitative entrepreneur who squelched jazz luminaries in his band like Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. Joe Venuti is quoted as saying, “Don’t ever make fun of Paul Whiteman. He did great things for American music. He took pride in having the finest musicians in the world as sidemen, and he paid the highest salaries ever paid.”

Rayno researched this book for nearly twenty years, wading through an immense amount of material on Whiteman, and he has provided a useful text for scholars. Every quote in the text is referenced in the note section. He has also provided a chronology of Whiteman’s engagements, recording dates, business transactions and personal activities, and an exhaustive discography. There is also a section that contains 56 photographs of Whiteman and his musicians. This book is available in the Local 802 library.