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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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Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

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Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.