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Happy Birthday, Paul Desmond and Willie (The Lion) Smith

A couple of pretty important jazz folks celebrate birthdays this week.

Paul Desmond was the alto saxophone player in Dave Brubeck’s Quartet. He wrote “Take Five,” which was the group’s biggest hits and is one of the most recognizable jazz songs.

Here is more on Desmond, who was born on November 25, 1924.

Willie (The Lion) Smith’s given name was William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith. That’s one of the greatest things ever. Smith, who was born on November 23, 1893, was a stride piano player and had an interesting life story:

According to Smith, Frank Bertholoff, his birth father was Jewish. As a boy, he delivered clean clothes to his mother’s clients, including to a prosperous Jewish family who invited him to sit in on Hebrew lessons on Saturday mornings. Willie was Bar-Mitzvahed in Newark at age thirteen, and later in life worked as a Hebrew cantor for a Black Jewish congregation in Harlem.

Here is more on Smith. “The Lion,” by the way, refers to “The Lion of Judah.”

Above, Smith plays a medley which consists, apparently, of pieces of “Hurricane,” “Here Comes the Band,” “Echoes of Spring” and “Tea for Two.” His ability to play the piano, sing and hold onto the cigar without missing a beat — literally and figuratively — defies several laws of physics. It’s highly unlikely that Desmond was as colorful a character, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t great. Below, he plays the pretty “Emily.”

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