Dave Brubeck, Beyond ‘Take Five’John Edward Hasse, Ph.D
When pianist Dave Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, he was both thrilled and embarrassed. At age 33, he was only the second jazz artist to be so honored— Louis Armstrong was fittingly the first—and Brubeck felt the distinction should go to his idol Duke Ellington, who would wait two years to be recognized.
In the 1950s, it seemed that Brubeck was everywhere—on college campuses and world stages, on records, radio and TV—becoming a household name. He forged a singular trail in American culture as a musical magnet, popular pianist, and—his supreme calling—composer.
Born on Dec. 6, 1920, and raised on a California ranch, Brubeck took piano lessons from his mother. As a teenager, he began playing jazz. He studied counterpoint and orchestration with the French émigré composer Darius Milhaud, one of the 20th century’s finest, who deeply influenced Brubeck’s purpose. Brubeck called himself “a composer who plays piano.”
In the 1950s, he and his wife, Iola, hit upon the novel idea of booking his band at college campuses, where legions of students became lifelong fans and where albums such as “Jazz at Oberlin” were recorded.
In 1958, his quartet jelled as the now-classic foursome—the tightest of his career—with the supremely lyrical alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, the versatile drummer Joe Morello, and the solid bassist Eugene Wright, who was Black. When asked to undertake lucrative tours of the South and of South Africa with only white musicians, Brubeck refused.
Fighting a Cold War with the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1950s, the U.S. State Department began sending American jazz musicians abroad to promote the ideal of freedom. In 1958, they sent Brubeck to perform a two-month tour of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.
The Black musicians whom the U.S. sent abroad were hailed wherever they went (in the Congo, Louis Armstrong was carried on a throne), but they returned home to the same old pernicious racism and exclusion from many hotels and restaurants. Inspired by jazz diplomacy, Dave and Iola Brubeck wrote a one-of-a-kind musical, “The Real Ambassadors.” Featuring Armstrong and singer Carmen McRae, the 1962 album is a complex mixture of celebration, satire and social commentary. In the song “Cultural Exchange,” Armstrong sings:
The State Department has discovered jazz
It reaches folks like nothing ever has.
Arriving for a 1958 concert in Istanbul, Brubeck encountered a folk dance in an unfamiliar rhythm. “I was on my way to a radio station to be interviewed in Turkey,” said Brubeck in a Smithsonian oral history. “There were street musicians playing in 9/8.” That unfamiliar beat inspired him to compose “Blue Rondo à la Turk” around the rhythm. His recording of it works magically, in part because of a contrast: Brubeck’s firm piano playing grounds the performance, while Desmond’s ethereal lines lift it skyward.
“Blue Rondo” became a cornerstone of his landmark 1959 album “Time Out,” which featured seven pieces in such unusual meters as 6/4 and 7/4. Brubeck was not the first American jazz musician to explore odd meters—drummer Max Roach had been doing that—but Brubeck popularized the idea. To the surprise of all, the album became a bestseller, earning a gold record, and spawning a radio hit with Desmond’s “Take Five.” The piece melded the simple—a repeated vamp—with an unexpected 5/4 meter. The first jazz album to sell one million copies, “Time Out” was a breakthrough—all-new material in meters that challenged listeners used to tapping along.
Brubeck’s embrace of repertoire stretched from Disney songs—the album “Dave Digs Disney” drew flak from jazz purists—to popular standards, jazz originals, and even Japanese koto music, as in his “Koto Song.” Among his over 400 jazz compositions, two became standards: “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke,” inspired by Ellington.
Eschewing the prevailing bebop style, Brubeck developed his own piano sound, marked by block chords, a solid touch, polyrhythms, polytonality (harmonies in two different keys at the same time), and experiment. His music and career sparked frequent controversy—over his classicism, sense of swing, and commercial success. Yet, as a warm and gracious performer, he made many friends for modern jazz.
Deeply religious, he composed large-scale choral and orchestral works starting in the 1960s, including the oratorio “The Light in the Wilderness” and cantata “The Gates of Justice.” The classic quartet broke up in 1967, Desmond died in 1977, but Brubeck kept performing until 2011. He died on Dec. 5, 2012.
His centennial is being marked by Philip Clark’s refreshing new biography, “Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time”; his last studio album, “Lullabies,” recorded for his grandchildren; “Time OutTakes,” alternate versions of his 1959 album; and a series of live and streamed concerts.
“You can’t understand America without understanding jazz,” said President Obama when Brubeck received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009. “And you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.”
—Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the dates of the breakup of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet and Paul Desmond’s death.