I want to start with the assurance I'm not criticizing Charlie Parker, or "Bird" as he's known to his many fans – including Clint Eastwood, who made a very good movie about him. Nor am I trying to damn him with faint praise when I say I like most – but not all – of his music. But there are some interesting comparisons to be drawn between Parker and Paul Desmond, a saxman I first began to admire about 45 years ago when I encountered the music of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
For many years Parker was probably the best known and most admired alto sax player in the world of jazz, and his influence on young musicians was profound. Desmond considered Parker a friend and admired him a lot, but was determined not to emulate him as so many others did. He wanted to forge his own style, and he proceeded to do just that.
He had first learned to play on a clarinet before migrating to alto sax and that might have helped form his approach to playing, which leaned into the upper register and was clear, pure, and lyrical. (The resulting sound appealed enormously to me, maybe because I, too, was a former clarinet player – although, in my case, I was awful, and moved on to football.)
When Desmond met up with Dave Brubeck in the late forties, they discovered a musical affinity that eventually led to the formation of the quartet. It struggled for a while, but eventually became a huge hit with their breakout tune "Take Five," composed by Desmond. (A heavy smoker, he teased that the name derived from the fact that he wrote into it a long drum solo to allow himself a smoke break.)