Remembering Dave Brubeck

Dec 8, 2012

One of the great names in jazz, Dave Brubeck, passed away a day before his 92nd birthday, on December 5, 2012.

Most popular as leader of the famed Dave Brubeck Quartet, he had a profound influence upon jazz music, its acceptance and popularity.

Brubeck was raised on a ranch in California and initially studied veterinary science in college, however his professor advised him to transfer to the conservatory at College of the Pacific inasmuch as Brubeck, who had taken lessons from his mother, seemed to have more inclination in a musical direction. Brubeck entered WWII in Patton's Army and there formed one of the army's first integrated bands. He also meet alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in the army.

After the war Brubeck entered Mills College and studied under composer Darius Milhaud. He formed the Dave Brubeck Octet in 1946, that included Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader, and later a trio including Tjader that played in San Francisco area clubs. In 1951 Brubeck formed a quartet that included Desmond – an association that was to continue for many years. Bassist Bob Bates and drummer Joe Dodge rounded out this group. They traveled in Brubeck's station wagon and played various clubs, however, Brubeck aimed at a different audience and began playing at colleges and junior colleges where the quartet's music was enthusiastically received. The emergence of the long-playing record in the early 50s allowed musicians to stretch out on solos, as opposed to a standard cut length of about three minutes that had prevailed during the era of 78rpm records. The enhanced format allowed live recordings, among which Brubeck's were some of the first. The success of “Jazz At Oberlin” on the Fantasy label eventually garnered the quartet a contract with Columbia records, for which label “Jazz Goes To College” was released in 1954. This album sold over 100,000 copies – a surprising number for jazz music. Brubeck also appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in that year - the article describing him as “the most exciting new jazz artist at work today” and the quartet's music as “some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born”. Brubeck was apologetic concerning the TIME cover as he thought Duke Ellington would have been a more appropriate jazz musician to receive attention, but this was deep within the segregated era and putting a white face on the cover was indicative of the times. Another perspective suggests that Brubeck's music heralded a new generation of artists and direction in jazz evolution.

At this point in time bebop music had been at the forefront of jazz popularity and was tainted by drug use and largely a niche market while West Coast jazz, propelled by such musicians as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Shorty Rogers was gaining prominence and, if not free from the ravages of drug use among some of its artists, it did present a more laid back, accessible sound at times. Miles Davis had also been elemental in this movement and while not regarded as a “west coast” musician (which he was not), his early 50s “Birth of the Cool” sessions proclaimed an evolutionary departure from so-called “head” arrangements featuring brief melodies as jumping off points for improvisations toward more complex chord structures and arrangements. During this same period the incredible trumpet player Clifford Brown was also achieving immense popularity with his beautiful sound; also influencing musicians in his eschewing of drugs (Brown's life was cut far too short in 1956 in an automobile accident). Indeed, there were two prominent schools of jazz during the 50s – east coast and west coast; the east coast school dominated by black artists and steadily moving from bebop toward a more soulful and rhythmically intense structure that came to be known as “hard bop” and the west coast school embracing swinging combo jazz and “third stream” classical influences. The Brubeck sound seemed to reside somewhere between east coast hip and west coast cool.

With the TIME magazine cover, popular concerts and albums, The Dave Brubeck Quartet became one of jazz music's most popular groups. Numerous live albums were released – the aforementioned “college” dates, , “In Europe”, “Newport 1958” and an absolutely stunning studio date “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia” following a State Department tour in 1958. In 1956 drummer Joe Morello had joined the group and in 1958 bassist Eugene Wright became the fourth member comprising the classic Brubeck Quartet that would then remain together until 1967. The group was poised to embark upon jazz history.

“Time Out” from 1959 was a milestone. The Paul Desmond number “Take Five” catapulted to the top of the charts and the album itself has endured exceedingly well over time. Brubeck had become fascinated with unique time signatures as a result of the group's travels and exposure to foreign rhythms as well as an interest in more challenging forms of improvisation. The album was not, however, an easy sell for Brubeck who had first to release a more traditional album “Gone With The Wind” to quell the record label's insecurity about the viability of such a “time” project. But the departure from more predictable beats, embellished with Morello and Wright's exquisite sense of time and Desmond's “dry martini” alto saxophone sound and fluent style captured the audience's ears. Subsequent projects involving unique time signatures were to follow: “Time Further Out”, “Countdown – Time In Outer Space” (this was the 60s), “Time Changes” and “Time In”. These five albums are available in a box set "For All Time" on Columbia/Legacy.

Studio recordings also probed the compositions of various composers such as Matt Dennis “Angel Eyes”, Richard Rogers “My Favorite Things” and Cole Porter "Anything Goes"; and there were additional“Jazz Impressions” recordings - “Jazz Impressions of Japan” and “Jazz Impressions of New York”. An early 60s project “The Real Ambassadors” featured Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The quartet also recorded with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic “Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein” and with an orchestra on “Brandenburg Gate Revisited”.

While “Take Five” is the group's most popular recording, the most striking example of the quartet's live engagements can be heard upon “The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall” - a double LP (or CD) recording from a 1963 concert. Herein all of the thrills of a Brubeck concert are evident in the ebullient improvisation and enthralling energy that manifested between the group members. I had the opportunity to see the quartet in performance on several occasions during the 1960s, owing to the good sense of my parents in exposing their children to a variety of music. The expectant hubbub of a concert audience was eventually satiated when Brubeck, Desmond, Wright and Morello would walk onstage to thunderous applause. After a brief tuning, adjustment of the drumset, tightening of a reed, a few plucks of the bass and piano in tune and they were off. Almost invariably the opening selection was “St. Louis Blues”, the group's “warm-up” number. By its end they were hot. Desmond would lead with a solo, interpolating the melody, navigating strange twists and turns and building to a thrilling peak whereupon Brubeck would commence his solo. With a style both imbued with ragtime and boogie-woogie influence and classical training he would probe the melody and build his solo into a block chord crescendo that would leave the audience breathless. A final, resonant minor note or chord would precede Gene Wright's bass solo and a display of why Joe Morello was as thrilling and resourceful a drummer as ever occupied the stage.

Paul Desmond said that he once won a special award for quietness – a reference to his frequent position standing beside Brubeck's grand piano as other members of the group were in the spotlight. He lifted the alto as Morello finished his drum solo for the tune's close, after which the audience roared. Usually a ballad would follow and the concert would proceed with popular numbers from the group's repertoire – always “Take Five” at some point – and compositions from their latest album or one in the works. Near the middle of the concert Morello was featured. This was an obligatory part of every appearance. The quartet played a brief intro (“Castillian Drums” most likely) after which Brubeck, Desmond and Wright simply walked off stage. It was Morello for the next ten minutes. Beginning with soft overtures using fingertips, elbow scrapes and brushes across the skins, he steadily built both momentum and tension through minor crescendos and releases – a rapid attack at the snare drum followed by just foot pedal tapping out a beat, ever more insistent. Eventually he would literally erupt into a cataclysmic blur of motion with cymbals crashing, sticks a blur and audience out of control with enthusiasm. The remainder of the group walked onstage to close the piece and Morello would wipe his face and neck with a cloth as the audience went wild and pleaded for “more”. Dave would sometimes say “we have to give Joe a break” and the group would then lead into the daunting 9/8 beat of Blue Rondo a la Turk. Much musical humor passed between group members – a trade of phrases or musical quotes and unexpectedly placed notes. Brubeck and Desmond were so naturally attuned to each other that their counterpoint was a highlight as they traded phrases. They were crowd pleasers.

Some have criticized Brubeck's style as heavy handed and it is true his exuberance could manifest itself with blowtorch-like intensity upon the piano. Yet one only has to listen to compositions such as “In Your Own Sweet Way”, “Brandenburg Gate”, “Strange Meadow Lark”, “The City Is Crying” or numerous other tracks to appreciate Brubeck's lyrical side and classical skills. His touch was all-encompassing.

After the group disbanded in 1967 Brubeck pursued more personal musical interests such as choral and orchestral works as well as having opportunity to spend more time with his family. Five of his six children are musicians and have played and recorded with him on various occasions. Brubeck recorded with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and in the mid-70s recorded duets with Paul Desmond and there was a 25th Anniversary Quartet reunion album. Indeed, he continued to record and perform until just recently in a variety of contexts. Brubeck played for four presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton), at the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow Summit in 1988, received six honorary doctorate degrees, was a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale, in the Down Beat Magazine Hall of Fame, a long time Playboy Jazz Poll winner and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts And Sciences. Regardless of subsequent achievements, however, it can be said the era of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello produced the most rewarding and energetic music of his career, as well as numerous albums that withstand the test of time and remain inviting and invigorating for the jazz listener. Dave Brubeck was certainly a profound influence in jazz and his immense legacy ranks among the great names in this music.


Jazz at Storyville (live) (1952)

Jazz Goes to College (1954)

Brubeck Time (1955)

In Europe (1958)

Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958)

Time Out (1959)

Time Further Out (1961)

Countdown—Time in Outer Space (1962)

At Carnegie Hall (1963)

Jazz Impressions of Japan (1964)

Angel Eyes (1965)

Anything Goes (1966)

Bravo! Brubeck! (1967)

The Last Time We Saw Paris (1968)

Blues Roots with Gerry Mulligan (1968)

DBQ 25th Anniversary Reunion (1976)

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Dave Brubeck (1984, released 1993)

Moscow Night (1987)