I spoke to a lot of friends yesterday about Dave Brubeck. The hardcore Jazz guys I know don’t care much for his music while other friends were really broken up about Brubeck’s death.
From my friend Alan, a record engineer:
My dad passed when I was five, making me prone to attach great significance to any object of his that was left is his absence. Through these various collections of books, paintings, and my personal obsessive favorite, records, I hoped to get a semblance of what it might have been like to actually hang out with him. Among the mostly classical records he had, there were a couple of notable exceptions, one of which was Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Goes To College, which was easily the first jazz record I had ever seen. I say “seen” because it was probably some time before I actually listened to it, as I seemed to enjoy collecting records even more than listening to them at the time. As years went on, and as I actually began to appreciate all the music I had accumulated, I always had a special place for Dave Brubeck’s music, as something that I could have enjoyed with my dad.
I never felt Brubeck sought to provide a puzzlement, in the same way Monk did so beautifully, or challenge beyond the point of pleasure, like another one my musical heroes, Frank Zappa. His music, specifically “Time Out”, plays out like lovely complex equations, in which you are being given the question and the answer simultaneously. Like he was walking you through a wonderful garden maze with neatly trimmed hedges that were not over your head, but revealed intricate patterns to you the further you went in. You never get the sense that you were hearing something that hadn’t been attempted to that point, but seemed to make perfect sense, both emotionally and mathematically.
And our pal Eric Sanders:
My father is a folk musician. The only classical music I heard in the house was Rossini’s William Tell Overture, but I played classical in school band my entire childhood and ending going to university to study classical music. The only jazz record my pop had was Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. I played in jazz band for my entire childhood, went for a masters in jazz music and have co-lead a successful jazz trio in Atlanta for a decade.
The “odd time” stuff is what I like best. Most is in 4 beats to a bar, with a 1/4 note pulse. Think a simple rock tune. 1-2-3-4. Boom-bap, boom-boom bap. This is “common time.” The other main time signature is 3. Think a waltz. Boom-bap-bap, boom-bap-bap. along with this, there is the lilting 6/8 feel. think a slow blues/ballad.
Brubeck mixed odd meter in jazz. The most famous piece is “Take 5”, in 5 of course. Odd meter wasn’t in swing, odd metered tunes weren’t hits, jazz songs weren’t hits, songs with long unaccompanied drum solos were not hits–yet Brubeck and his magical quartet covered this all with one tune.
Tunes in 5 started popping up everywhere, including on my beloved Blue Note label. Brubeck has many other tunes in 5. The lead track on Time Out–”Blue Rondo a la Turk”–is in 9, not grouped in even 3’s, but phrased: 2-2-2-3 and other permutations. He has jazz pieces in 11 beats and one in 13, that is mostly phrased 3-3-3-4 and they’re all *swingin’. Not easy to do.
The father connection is a compelling one. Here’s Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic:
It wasn’t the music, at first, that I loved. It was the way my dad so clearly enjoyed the music and how much reverence he showed for men like Brubeck and Oscar Peterson and many other jazz legends who had come to Montreal and played there. It was only later, after I had heard these pieces over and over, that I came to appreciate the sound. Looking back, I suppose what I really appreciate is both the music, and the loving memories of hearing that music, of my life when it first washed over me as a child, which is why I was so sad to learn of Brubeck’s death.
We grieve of course when we lose a loved one. But we may grieve again years later when we lose someone, even a stranger, who we know meant something special to the loved one we have lost. The new death reminds us anew of what the old death took from us. I feel that way about Dave Brubeck. His death today makes me think of all those Sunday mornings, and the joy my dad shared with us, a joy which now is gone from this earth. I suppose I could look at it that way. Or I suppose I could see the vivid memory of it all as just another blessing the two men, strangers but collaborators, each in his own way, bestowed upon my life. And I suppose I could make sure that I play “Blue Rondo” this Sunday for my own son.
For more on Brubeck, check this out from Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz:
Dave Brubeck was achieving even more dramatic popularity with his Time Out recording. “Take Five,” the Paul Desmond composition included on this album, achieved unprecedented sales for a modern jazz instrumental performance and did much to legitimize unusual time signatures. But this represented no sudden rise to fame for Brubeck. Rather, the building blocks of this success had been slowly put in place during the course of the prior decade. In the late 1940s, Brubeck started drawing attention for his advocacy of the new and unusual, initially through the work of his Octet. This ensemble, which drew on the most progressive strains in both jazz and classical music, was formed during Brubeck’s stint at Mills College, where he and many of his colleagues in the Octet were studying with modernist composer Darius Milhaud. Subsequently, Brubeck broadened his following while leading a piano trio that mostly showcased his adventurous reworkings of jazz standards. But Brubeck’s greatest popularity came with the formation of his quartet, where his thick harmonies and strident rhythms were set off by the smooth alto work of saxophonist Paul Desmond. The Quartet recorded a number of outstanding live performances for the Fantasy label, in which the dictates of modernism and melodicism were artfully balanced. In 1954, Brubeck left Fantasy for the Columbia label and, that same year, his photo graced the cover of Time magazine. His gradual building of a mass market audience, and the growing polish of the quartet, aided by the addition of the exceptional drummer Joe Morello (in 1956) and journeyman bassist Eugene Wright (in 1958)—to form what many consider the “classic” Brubeck quartet—set the stage for the Time Out success.
The fame and enormous record sales that Brubeck enjoyed were all the more remarkable given the uncompromising nature of his piano work. His approach to the keyboard was almost totally purged of the sentimental and romantic trappings or the oh-so-hip funkiness that characterized most crossover hits. His chord voicings were dense and often dissonant. His touch at the piano was heavy and ponderous—anything but the cocktail bar tinkling fancied by the general public. His music tended to be rhythmically complex, but seldom broached the finger-popping swing of a Peterson or Garner. Only in his choice of repertoire, which was populist to an extreme with its mix of pop songs, show tunes, traditional music—indeed anything from “Camptown Races” to “The Trolley Song” might show up on a Brubeck album—did he make a deferential gesture to the tastes of the mass audience. But even these familiar songs were apt to take on an unfamiliar guise under Brubeck’s hands. He may have put aside the twelve-tone row in favor of “Tea for Two,” but by the time he had finished with the Vincent Youmans standard it could sound like Schoenberg had tampered with the sheet music.
And here’s Scott Yanow from All Music Guide to Jazz, 2nd edition.
Dave Brubeck has long served as proof that creative jazz and popular success can go together. Although critics who had championed him when he was unknown seemed to scorn him when the Dave Brubeck Quartet became a surprise success, in reality Brubeck never watered down or altered his music in order to gain a wide audience. Creative booking (being one of the first groups to play regularly on college campuses) and a bit of luck resulted in great popularity and Dave Brubeck today remains as one of the few household names in jazz.
From nearly the start Brubeck enjoyed utilizing polyrhythms and polytonality (playing in two keys at once). He had classical training from his mother but fooled her for a long period by memorizing his lessons and not learning to read music. Dave studied music at the College of the Pacific during 1938–42. Brubeck led a service band in General Patton’s Army during World War II, and then in 1946 he started studying at Mills College with the classical composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his students to play jazz. Brubeck led a group mostly consisting of fellow classmates and they recorded as the Dave Brubeck Octet; their music (released on Fantasy in 1951) still sounds advanced today with complex time signatures and some polytonality. The octet was too radical to get much work so Brubeck formed a trio with drummer Cal Tjader (who doubled on vibes) and bassist Ron Crotty. The trio’s Fantasy recordings of 1949–51 were quite popular in the Bay Area but the group came to an end when Brubeck hurt his back during a serious swimming accident and was put out of action for months.
Upon his return in 1951, Brubeck was persuaded by altoist Paul Desmond to make the group a quartet. Within two years the band had become surprisingly popular. Desmond’s cool-toned alto and quick wit fit in well with Brubeck’s often heavy chording and experimental playing; both Brubeck and Desmond had original sounds and styles that owed little to their predecessors. Joe Dodge was the band’s early drummer but after he tired of the road the virtuosic Joe Morello took his place in 1956 while the revolving bass chair finally settled on Eugene Wright in 1958. By then Brubeck had followed his popular series of Fantasy recordings with some big sellers on Columbia and had appeared on the cover of Time (1954). The huge success of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (1960) was followed by many songs played in “odd” time signatures such as 7/4 and 9/8; the high-quality soloing of the musicians kept these experiments from sounding like gimmicks. Dave and Iola Brubeck (his wife and lyricist) put together an anti-racism show featuring Louis Armstrong (The Real Ambassadors) which was recorded, but its only public appearance was at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the early ’60s.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet constantly travelled around the world until its breakup in 1967. After some time off during which he wrote religious works, Brubeck came back the following year with a new quartet featuring Gerry Mulligan, although he would have several reunions with Desmond before the altoist’s death in 1977. Brubeck joined with his sons Darius (keyboards), Chris (electric bass and bass trombone) and Danny (drums) in Two Generations of Brubeck in the 1970s. In the early ’80s tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi was in the Brubeck Quartet and since the mid-’80s clarinetist Bill Smith (who was in the original Octet) has alternated with altoist Bobby Militello.
There is no shortage of Dave Brubeck records currently available, practically everything he has cut for Fantasy, Columbia, Concord and Telarc (his most recent label) are easy to locate. Brubeck, whose compositions “In Your Own Sweet Way, “The Duke” and “Blue Rondo a La Turk” have become standards, has remained very busy (despite some bouts of bad health) into the mid-’90s.
There’s some background. Now, here’s some music.