With the forthcoming release of Dave Brubeck‘s final concert from 1967 with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, author Stuart Nicholson takes a look back at the career of a jazz pianist who broke the mould, upset the critics yet won a legion of fans with his polyrhythmic, polytonal playing and inspired other musicians to experiment.
Pianist and composer Dave Brubeck readily agrees that for many, he is defined by the composition Take Five, his 1959 hit that featured on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for over two years. The epitome of hip, sleek modern jazz, it has appeared on the soundtrack of countless films and television programmes and has been covered by almost 40 artists from Al Jarreau to the Swedish rock band Plankton. It was even used as the signature tune for the NBC Today programme in the 1960s, securing an enduring relationship between Brubeck and middle America that lasts to this day. When the tune’s composer Paul Desmond (Brubeck’s alto saxophonist) died in 1977, he left the royalties for the tune to the American Red Cross, who have reputedly enjoyed an annual income of $100,000 ever since.
Dave Brubeck Quartet: Take Five (Belgium 1964)
Yet there has always been much more to Dave Brubeck than Take Five, even though the tune’s popularity brought his name to the attention of a world-wide audience. Long before it shot to popular success, Brubeck was already carving out his own special niche in jazz. By 1954 he had been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, only the second jazz musician to be accorded the honour at the time. In 1955, he made the influential Downbeat Reader’s Poll “his personal property” (according to the magazine) by topping the Best Instrumental Combo and Jazz Personality of the Year categories and only losing out by 13 votes in the Piano category to Oscar Peterson, while Paul Desmond won the Alto Saxophone poll. The Brubeck Quartet then went on to top the 1959, 1962, 1963 and 1965 Downbeat polls.
Had he retired in 1960, the year his album Time Out sold a million copies (which included the hit Take Five), his place in jazz history would have been assured. Still selling well to this day, it remains one of the most popular and influential albums in jazz history. Instead, the quartet went on to become, according to Brubeck’s biographer, “The most successful jazz group of the 1960s” (Fred M. Hall: It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story; University Of Arkansas Press, 1996). And more than 50 years later, Brubeck is still performing. Last year he appeared at several jazz festivals and at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club. A documentary on his life called In His Own Sweet Way, produced by Clint Eastwood in 2010, was made to coincide with his 90th year and showed the breadth of his accomplishments, not only in jazz but as a composer of classical music. During the last two decades, awards and honours have been showered on him, including an NEA Jazz Masters award, a Library of Congress ‘Living Legend’ award and even a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
But it was not always that way. A 1957 cover feature in Downbeat magazine by the highly respected West Coast columnist Ralph J. Gleason claimed Brubeck was: “Quite possibly the most provocative musician in jazz and…the centre of a continuing controversy” (Dave Brubeck: A Searching Look; Downbeat; 5 September 1957). Listening to his work today it is almost impossible to imagine a time in the 1950s and 1960s when critics queued up to damn Brubeck with faint praise or praise him with faint damns. The English critic Benny Green was one of those leading the charge, writing in 1964 that, “The quartet is so markedly deficient in certain essential jazz qualities that its popularity can hardly be regarded as a success for jazz at all”
(Benny Green: Such Sweet Thunder; Scribner, 2001).
Throughout, Brubeck remained unperturbed, maintaining a dignified silence and determined to follow his own muse. He responded to criticism in print only once, to a put-down in 1963 by the drummer Chico Hamilton in the pages of Downbeat, when he wrote: “For 20 years now my name has been popping up in Downbeat and other jazz magazines – sometimes in praise, sometimes not. I’ve made it a policy to avoid writing letters to editors to defend myself (though tempted), because I know that the only true defence lay in the integrity of the music I continue to produce” (Downbeat; 9 May 1963). His eloquent response is as true today as the day he wrote it and typical of the man. Easy-going with a ready smile, it conceals a steely resolve to succeed, which navigated him to the top of his profession where he has remained for almost 60 years. As he said in 1957, “The idea was that I was pretty sure I was going to make it so that when I did, they couldn’t say it was because of anything but the music” (Ralph J. Gleason: Brubeck: What Makes Him Tick?; Downbeat, 25 July 1957).
Reflecting on his career in a plush London hotel with his wife Iola in 2002, he said, “This period now I seem to be getting a lot more praise. For years I didn’t get any, hardly. Once in a while I’d run into a critic, and – who was the one who gave me one star? – they’d all say ‘It’s Chinese torture that Take Five!’” But this was the 1950s when the sine qua non of jazz was swing, and while everybody else was swinging like mad, Brubeck was swimming against the prevailing current by experimenting with odd time signatures – Take Five was in 5/4 – and polyrhythms. “The way I want to swing is the most difficult,” he explained in 1961, “to superimpose over what the bass and drums are doing. And the polyrhythmic qualities that should be inherent in jazz are only going to be attained through the idea the bass and drums are playing together and the pianist is a superimposition over this – which is a very African approach” (Gene Lees: About This Man Brubeck; Downbeat 22 June 1961).
And as if to confuse matters even further, at the same time as he was experimenting with polyrhythms, he was also experimenting with polytonality – the use of one or more keys simultaneously. No wonder the critics of the time didn’t get it. Even Brubeck was moved to wonder whether they were musically qualified to write about what he was doing. The impact of his experimentation was such that by 1957, Brubeck was able to say, “Polytonality and polyrhythms would be two avenues that I think we opened up more than any other group [in jazz]… There’s so few people that will stick their necks out and do something different because you’re going to get it cut off if you stick it out. And that is what I’ve been willing to do” (Ralph J. Gleason: Dave Brubeck: A Searching Look; Downbeat 5th September 1957).
Today, it is clear that Brubeck was right all along. What his critics failed to understand was that he was a modern jazz musician without succumbing to the conventions of the then prevalent style of modernism, bop and hard bop, preferring to forge his own style and own way of doing things. It is perhaps one reason why his work still sounds freshly minted today, and the work of so many others passé.
Brubeck’s rugged individuality has endeared him to many of his fellow musicians; pianist Cecil Taylor, for example, was one of many who cited him as an early influence. More importantly, the public loved him. They supported his concerts in droves and bought his records in the hundreds of thousands, Downbeat reporting in 1957 that, “Not every Brubeck LP has outsold all LPs by other modern jazzmen, but most of them have and the effect of this makes him the undisputed king of record sales in jazz” (Ralph J. Gleason: Dave Brubeck: A Searching Look; Downbeat 5th September 1957).
Today, looking back at Brubeck’s long and distinguished career, it is impossible not to be drawn to his 17-year musical association with the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond that began in 1951. It was during these years that Brubeck became a major jazz star and the standard bearer of a brand of sleek modern jazz that seemed to reflect the sunny optimism of the Eisenhower era.
Born in 1920 into a musical family, Brubeck was taught piano from the age of four by his mother, “My mother studied at Mills College in Oakland, California,” he recalled. “It was a girls’ school, my mother went there and studied with Henry Cowell, can you imagine? I just found a book recently where my mother was in his class and he signed the textbook.” At the age of 12, his father bought a 45,000 acre cattle ranch on the edge of the Sierras, and during the school holidays he enjoyed life as a cowboy helping his father with cattle farming chores. But this was also the swing era, and Brubeck was drawn to the sound of the big bands he heard regularly on the radio, and by his early teens he was performing in local dance bands.
When he enrolled at the College Of The Pacific it was as a pre-med major with plans to become a veterinary surgeon and return to a ranching life. But the lure of music – and jazz – was too great, and it was clear to his teachers that his mind was elsewhere, prompting them to suggest that it may be in everyone’s best interest that he change his major to music. Graduating in 1942 with a bachelor of music degree he married Iola Whitlock and enlisted in the army. It was around this time he first met alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.
“The first time I met Paul I was on my way overseas in the army,” he recalled. “[Saxophonist] Dave Van Kriedt who had been in college with me, told me there was a vacancy in a dance band. Kriedt and Paul Desmond had gone to high school together in San Francisco, and now they are in the band at the Percedio in San Francisco. At this point I knew I was going overseas but they said, ‘Come and audition for the band’. At that time I was playing really advanced compared to what some guys, older guys, were playing because I was using a lot of polytonality and polyrhythms. So when I played with Paul I was playing in two keys at once, he didn’t know what was going on! So after our first meeting he said he thought I was stark raving mad! Paul wasn’t ready for a lot of things that I did then, but he later came around.”
On the album Private Brubeck Remembers (Telarc), a solo piano album from 2004 where he performs music associated with his wartime service, he is interviewed by Walter Cronkite about his experiences of leading a band to entertain the troops during General Patton’s push through Western Europe. “How I longed to be [home],” he remembered. “My mind would wander back to my life on the ranch, a period in time that now seemed ages ago, a totally different life. I thought of old bunkhouses I had stayed in, the campfires we sat around with my dad, and my childhood when I was free and happy with no thoughts of war” (Liner notes, Private Brubeck Remembers; Telarc CD 83605). In January 1946 he finally returned home, and taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he entered college once again, this time to study under the composer Darius Milhaud.
“Pete Rugolo and my brother were two piano majors and they were the first graduate students of Darius Milhaud to come out of Mills College,” recalls Brubeck. “Mills College was a girls’ school, and they allowed my brother and Rugolo to come and stay with Milhaud because Milhaud had started teaching there, and then they allowed GIs after the war to come and study at this girls’ school with Darius Milhaud. So that’s when my octet was formed – with students of Milhaud. It was formed by five guys that were Milhaud students – Bill Smith, David Van Kriedt, Dick Collins, Jack Weeks, and me, that’s the five of the eight. Then Paul Desmond came over from San Francisco State because he was friends with these guys and Cal Tjader was also from San Francisco State. And then Milhaud suggested that we play for the assembly of the girls in the auditorium and the first octet concert was at his suggestion at Mills College. The second was at the College Of The Pacific where we graduated, and we went up there and played, and then we played at the University Of California. This would have been ‘46, ‘47.”
Brubeck’s Octet first recorded in 1946, and put into practice within a jazz context some of the concepts of counterpoint, fugue and composition he had learned under Milhaud. What is immediately striking about the album Dave Brubeck Octet is how these recordings actually anticipated the celebrated Birth of the Cool recordings by Miles Davis in 1949-50 by some while. No wonder Brubeck was moved to observe in 1956 that he was, “Confident today as when these tunes were first performed that the Octet is a major contributor to jazz”. Perhaps when the ledger of jazz history is rewritten, these recordings will get their due. But they did at least bring Brubeck and Desmond together for the first time on record. “Our first job after the war – I got home in ‘46 – was in a nightclub called the Geary Cellar and all the musicians that would come through town like Woody Herman and Stan Kenton and Ellington, Goodman would drop into this club because it was the club where you could hear some new guys, and Paul would come in every night and want to sit in and the leader wouldn’t want him to sit in, but Paul would stay until the last set when there wasn’t a lot of people around and then sit in, and we got along very well at that point.”
After his studies with Milhaud, Brubeck formed a trio with Cal Tjader on drums, working cocktail lounges and occasional jazz clubs. “At that time, in almost the entire United States, very little was being done in jazz, it was a very arid period,” he recalled in 1966. He made his first hesitant step in moving out of the relative obscurity of San Francisco by starting his own record label Fantasy, involving a difficult financial sacrifice. The first Fantasy 78 rpms to be released in 1950 were with his trio. With work short, he took an engagement in Honolulu, taking his family with him. But a near fatal swimming accident confined him to hospital, where he contemplated his future: “After my accident in Honolulu, when I hurt my neck and my arms, I wrote to Paul from the hospital and said I can’t play for a while, but when I do get back to San Francisco we can form a quartet, and told him who to hire, bass and drums, and who not to hire and the only ones he could get were the ones I said don’t hire! But we gradually got a rhythm section I liked.”
After a lengthy tour of the USA’s jazz clubs, Brubeck was keen to get away from the club environment of noisy diners, half attentive audiences and smoky atmosphere. His wife Iola remembered the concerts the octet had played at Mills College, the College Of The Pacific and the University Of California and hit on the idea of writing to several hundred colleges soliciting college dates. The response was immediate and favourable, and enough to begin a new way of life, pioneering what became known as the college circuit. Two albums stand out from this period, Jazz At Oberlin from March 1953 and Jazz At The College Of The Pacific from December 1953. “Now you’re talking,” says Brubeck when the subject of these albums is brought up. “They’re my favourites.” The Oberlin date has Ron Crotty on bass and Lloyd Davis on drums, and of especial interest is the performance of The Way You Look Tonight, which was adapted from Brubeck’s arrangement of the song for the octet.
Jazz At Oberlin: Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Ron Crotty, Lloyd Davis
On the College Of The Pacific date Joe Dodge replaces Davis. On both occasions Desmond plays as well as he did at any point in his career, “Paul is fantastic in this concert,” says Brubeck. “Of the many, many years I’ve enjoyed Paul’s playing, some of my favourite uptempo work by him comes from those dates; his ideas just flowed. Crotty joined me when he was 19; Lloyd Davis was a senior in San Francisco State where Paul [Desmond] was once a student. Lloyd was very ill, and had a fever that night [of the Oberlin date], Paul and I were okay. Crotty was, I don’t think, well, but I think it’s the most inventive that I have heard Paul on record. He digs in hard yet sounds so relaxed. Joe Dodge was the drummer on the College Of The Pacific, we keep in touch with Joe, his first concert is Jazz At The College Of The Pacific, he had just joined the group.”
College Of The Pacific Vol.II: Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Ron Crotty, Joe Dodge
In 1954, after releasing several successful albums on his own Fantasy label, Brubeck was signed by record giant Columbia. “A lot of people thought that group was great with Joe Dodge and then Bob Bates on bass joined us,” said Brubeck. This group can be heard on their first release for Columbia, recorded live at the University Of Michigan at Ann Arbor called Jazz Goes To College. Their first studio album for Columbia also came from 1954 and used Boris Artzybasheff’s original portrait of Brubeck from the cover of Time magazine for the cover art, the album called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Brubeck Time. However, probably the most important single event in the history of what was to become known as the ‘classic’ Dave Brubeck Quartet was the addition of drummer Joe Morello in 1956: “Joe Dodge’s wife said either come home or we’ll get a divorce, so he left the group,” says Brubeck.
“Paul took me to hear Joe Morello at the Hickory House in New York. He was playing with Marian McPartland’s trio at the time. Joe was Joe and he wanted to step out and play and be featured and we talked about polyrhythms and things like that, and I wanted him to be free and get into a lot of areas where I couldn’t get into with Lloyd or Joe Dodge, they’d stay in 4/4 swinging, and I wanted to branch into polyrhythms – I had started that with the octet way before and with the trio with Cal Tjader.”
The rhythmic spring that Morello brought to the quartet is immediately apparent on Jazz Goes To Junior College, recorded at concerts at Fullerton and Long Beach Junior Colleges in California. Morello was the first non-West Coast member of the quartet, and he brought with him the accomplishment of a thoroughly trained percussionist. He added a new dimension to the quartet with his virtuoso technique and a willingness to explore polyrhythms as well as becoming a third solo voice within the group. With the addition of Gene Wright on bass at the end of 1957, the group were poised to make their greatest impact on jazz. In 1958, the group made the first of many international tours sponsored by the US State Department, with Brubeck taking on the role of Goodwill Ambassador for his country with distinction.
When they went into the Columbia recording studios at 30th Street in New York City on 1 July 1959, none of the quartet realised that this would turn out to be the most important session in the history of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The concept of Time Out was a series of originals each with a different time signature. “For a number of years the Quartet frequently used a polyrhythmic approach within improvised solos,” said Brubeck in 1996. “In 1958 we shared the experience of travelling in the Middle East and India and playing with musicians from those countries, where folk music wasn’t limited to 4/4. Morello astonished Indian drummers by his ability to answer their tabla rhythm patterns within the raga; and I felt immediately intrigued with the 9/8 rhythm I heard on the streets of Istanbul.
“Combining the Turkish 9/8 pattern with the classical rondo form and the blues resulted in Blue Rondo A La Turk, the flip side of Take Five which was the hit single that finally emerged from Time Out. The album defied all expert predictions, and instead of becoming an experimental ‘dud’, of interest only to other musicians, had ‘caught on’ with the general public, despite lack of interest by the record company and a generally hostile reaction by jazz writers and critics” (Liner notes, Time Out; Columbia/Legacy CK 65122).
Dave Brubeck Quartet: Blue Rondo A La Turk (Dave Brubeck Craven Filter Special hosted by Digby Wolfe on the ATN Channel, Sydney, Australia – April 1962)
When Take Five was released as a 45rpm single, it went to 25 in the US singles chart, a feat almost unheard of for a jazz instrumental, repeating its success in the UK when it was released in 1961, reaching No 6 in the UK pop chart.
Brubeck’s contract with Columbia called for a remarkable three albums a year, which he fulfilled and sometimes exceeded. Among the highlights were an important series of Jazz Impressions albums that saw Brubeck interpreting the music of the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Japan and Mexico and The Real Ambassadors, which featured Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross as well as the Brubeck Quartet. Written by Brubeck and his wife Iola, it was a musical play concerned with the use of jazz as a medium of international goodwill. These albums reflected Brubeck’s growing skill as a composer, which in 1962 began moving to more ambitious forms with Brandenburg Gate Revisited that took its name from a track from the album Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia. It presented five Brubeck originals in a fuller, orchestral form together with the quartet reflecting Brubeck’s growing musical ambition.
In 1967, the quartet, nearing the end of its 17-year run, visited Mexico for a series of sold-out concerts that resulted in Bravo! Brubeck!, their second to last album, that bubbles with exuberance. The quartet’s final concert, recently released in the States from newly discovered tapes, took place in Pittsburgh on Boxing Day that year, and has been released as Their Last Time Out (due out in the UK in April). In all, Brubeck recorded some 50 albums for Columbia, a reflection of Brubeck’s and the quartet’s creativity, since they are all of uniformly high standard, with the very best numbering among the very best recordings in jazz.
1968 opened a new chapter in Brubeck’s life, as his move towards more ambitious forms and larger ensembles was finally realised with the premiere of his oratorio for symphony orchestra Light In The Wilderness. The following year came The Gates Of Justice based on the works of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Old Testament.
The Dave Brubeck Trio & The Baltimore Choral Arts Society: The Gates Of Justice (Recorded March 2001, Milken Archive)
Since then, he has divided his life between jazz and classical composition. In more recent times, he has hired an orchestra (four major pieces were recorded in London with the LSO), a conductor and a recording studio himself to document his work when no recording company could be found to release his work. “I’ve worked all these years writing all this music and I’m still around and if nobody else is going to do it, I’m going to do it,” he says. “The way that we felt about it is, let’s go for it – if nobody wants it, it will go into archives at the Brubeck Institute, and it will get it out, but I’d rather get it out on a label. I remember in 1968, Goddard Lieberson, who was a musician and composer and head of Columbia, saw Decca was going to put out Light In The Wilderness, he said ‘Dave, all the money that you made when I was President of this company, why are you going to Decca?’ I said, ‘The company won’t put me out as composer’. He said, ‘I am embarrassed for my company’.”
After the ‘classic’ Brubeck Quartet broke up, Brubeck was looking forward to a period of rest, but out of the blue came a date with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in Mexico. The chemistry felt right, confirmed by the album of the event, Compadres. Together with Jack Six on bass and Alan Dawson on drums they would tour the world together for the next seven years. In the 1970s he performed frequently with his musical sons Darius, Chris and Dan in a ‘generations’ band and in the 1980s formed a quartet featuring clarinettist Bill Smith, an old associate from their Mills College days when they studied under Milhaud and played together in the Brubeck Octet. The group toured extensively, including a performance at the 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit – Moscow Night.
In more recent times his quartet with saxophonist Bobby Militello travelled the world before Brubeck finally made a concession to age and announced in 2006 he would no longer tour Europe. “He’s something else,” Militello told Downbeat. “He’s not laying back at all. He wants to keep himself sharp and push himself to the edge of what he can do. And he doesn’t stop growing. Every day, every time we play a gig it’s, ‘Be ready for what he’s gonna do. Keep your ears open’” (Downbeat, January 2008).
Brubeck’s ferocious level of creativity has continued unabated. When he is at his home in Connecticut, a day does not pass when he doesn’t spend time at the piano composing. Talking about his musical achievements, he is justifiably proud of his association with Paul Desmond and the heights his ‘classic quartet’ achieved, but it is impossible not to get the feeling that composing is his first love. Even by 1956, he had written a substantial body of work, and drawing on just nine of his originals he recorded Brubeck Plays Brubeck which included In Your Own Sweet Way and The Duke, both of which would be recorded by Miles Davis and go on to become jazz standards. However, one senses that today, his classical writing and hearing those works performed gives him the greatest pleasure. He speaks enthusiastically of his pieces that are now being performed by orchestras and choirs in Berlin, Moscow, Prague, Vienna and Rome, where he wrote two pieces for the Pope.
Dave Brubeck Quartet: In Your Own Sweet Way (Belgium, 1964)
Yet as the conversation continues around his career of conspicuous overachievement, and returns to jazz, one area emerges where he rightly feels he has never been given credit, and that is his influence on other players, “I know pianists from India, Ceylon, Turkey, Russia, we correspond with some of these guys, and there is the feeling in the background, the feeling of jazz, you’d be surprised – I’m a little reluctant to tell you, how many players will say their first influence was me!
“Think of a Cecil Taylor, or a Bill Evans, I opened doors and said, ‘C’mon, jump through!’ Listen to Keith Jarrett, see the guys I’m naming? They’re all the individuals who didn’t all go to a school or a type of thinking which is very dangerous, even Chucho Valdes said I was a great influence on him, it goes on and on. But the critics don’t realise, in fact Leonard Feather wrote I never influenced anybody, can you figure that out? A lot of pianists grew up getting their encouragement from listening to me, ‘Well that guy can do that, I can do my thing!’ [Adam] Makowicz, said one of his early influences was me, he said if I could use odd time signatures – their culture is full of odd time signatures – then so could he! And they always thought that isn’t jazz and all of a sudden he starts utilising his own folk songs – ‘Well, it’s a great way to play jazz!’”
A true legend in his own lifetime, Brubeck remains remarkably unaffected by the magnitude of his own achievements. Part of the reason he remains so grounded is his wife Iola, a constant companion on even his most gruelling tours, with whom he shares the same ready humour and love of life. He once said in a BBC interview that he loved music that gave him goosebumps, and listening to some of his greatest recorded performances with his quartet or of his classical work, it is impossible not to get goosebumps too. That, in its own way, is quite some achievement to share with the world. Unique among jazz’s elder statesmen, most of whom have remained locked in eternal competition with their past and struggling to approximate heroic statements made in their prime, Brubeck has simply waited for audiences to catch up with him. More and more the world of jazz is rediscovering Dave Brubeck and finally acknowledging what a true American original he is.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Their Last Time Out is released in the UK on Sony in April. Check out our Dave Brubeck catalogue online at propermusic.com