Brubeck, who died in 2012, was a celebrated pianist and jazz pioneer, who became the first jazz artists to produce an album that sold over a million copies with his 1959 release, Time Out.
Brubeck will most commonly be remembered for experimenting with time signatures throughout his career, recording “Pick Up Sticks” in 64, “Unsquare Dance” in 74, “World’s Fair” in 134, and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” in 98. He was also a composer of orchestral and sacred music and wrote soundtracks for television, such as Mr. Broadway and the animated miniseries This Is America, Charlie Brown.
Dave Brubeck was born in the city of Concord, California, just north of San Francisco. Brubeck originally did not intend to become a musician (his two older brothers, Henry and Howard, were already on their way), but he still learnt the piano from his mother, who taught on the side to bring in some extra money whilst he was young.
With the Intention that he would end up working with his father on their ranch, Brubeck entered the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific), to study veterinary science. He changed to music on the urging of the head of zoology, Dr. Arnold, who reportedly told him, in no uncertain terms: “Brubeck, your mind’s not here. It’s across the lawn in the conservatory. Please go there. Stop wasting my time and yours.”
Later, Brubeck was nearly expelled when one of his professors discovered that he could not read music on sight (he later claimed that he skipped learning early on because he could not read the pages due to his poor eyesight), but was granted permission to stay given his ability to write counterpoint and harmony – as well as providing a promise to never attempt to teach once he had graduated.
After graduating in 1942, Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served in Europe for the Third Army. During this period he volunteered to play piano at a Red Cross show and was such a hit that he was spared from combat service and ordered to form a band instead. Off the back of this order, he created one of the U.S. armed forces’ first racially integrated bands, ‘The Wolfpack’.
In 1951, Brubeck damaged several neck vertebrae and his spinal cord while diving into the surf in Hawaii (he would later remark that the rescue workers who responded had described him as a “dead on arrival”). Brubeck recovered after a few months but suffered with residual nerve pain in his hands for many years after. The injury also influenced his playing style towards complex, blocky chords rather than concentrating on speedy, high-dexterity, single-note runs, performed by other well known piano players.
It was the same year that he founded the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with his friend Paul Desmond on alto sax. They took up residency at San Francisco’s Blackhawk Nightclub as well as building up their followers touring college campuses. Brubeck originally signed with Fantasy Records, where he was made to believe that he had a half interest in the company. He even took on A&R responsibilities, which led to the signing of contemporary jazz performers, including Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Red Norvo. In reality, all he owned was a half interest in his own recording, which saw him quit to sign up with Columbia.
In 1954, he was featured on the cover of Time, becoming only the second jazz musician to do so, after Louis Armstrong in 1949. Brubeck personally found this accolade embarrassing, since he considered Duke Ellington more deserving of it. It was said that he was convinced he had been shown favouritism as a white performer.
In 1956 Brubeck hired drummer Joe Morello, whose skill suddenly made possible the rhythmic experiments that were to define Brubeck’s most creative period. In 1958 African-American bassist Eugene Wright joined for the group’s U.S. Department of State tour of Europe and Asia. Wright became a permanent member in 1959, making the “classic” Quartet’s personnel complete.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s Brubeck canceled several concerts because the club owners or hall managers continued to resist the idea of an integrated band on their stages. He also canceled a television appearance when he found out that the producers intended to keep Wright off-camera.
In 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded Time Out, contained all original compositions, almost none of which were in common time: 98, 54, 34, and 64 were used, inspired by Eurasian folk music they experienced during their 1958 Department of State sponsored tour. Nonetheless, on the strength of these unusual time signatures (the album included “Take Five”, “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, and “Three To Get Ready”), it quickly went Platinum and went on to become the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. Often incorrectly attributed to Brubeck, the song “Take Five” (which has gone on to become a jazz standard) was actually composed by his long-time musical partner, Paul Desmond.
Time Out was followed by several albums that took a fairly similar approach, including Time Further Out: Miro Reflections, which used more 54, 64, and 98, and a first attempt at 74; Countdown—Time in Outer Space, featuring 114 and more 74; Time Changes, with much 34, 104 (which was really 5+5), and 134; and Time In. These albums (except the last) were also known for using contemporary paintings as cover art, featuring the work of Joan Miró on Time Further Out, Franz Kline on Time in Outer Space, and Sam Francis on Time Changes. At its peak in the early 1960s, the Brubeck Quartet was releasing as many as four albums a year.
This success had not come without reservations, especially from this within the jazz world. Brubeck was often disregarded due to the fact his music made money, which saw him packaged as a sell-out by more hardline music fans and critics. Seen as fairly tame now, his complex tempos were also seen as a cocky parade of cleverness that lionized European classical devices at a time when black American jazz was dumping much of its formal baggage, with fiery improvisers, such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, becoming leading figureheads on the scene. Others were dismayed by his musical choices choosing to misuse the improvisational talents of Desmond, his lyrical and long-serving alto saxophonist.
In the early 1960s Dave Brubeck became the program director of WJZZ-FM radio, helping him to achieve his long-held vision of forming an all-jazz format radio station along with his friend John E. Metts – one of the first African Americans in senior radio management. The final studio album for Columbia by the Desmond/Wright/Morello quartet was Anything Goes in 1966, featuring the songs of legendary composer, Cole Porter.
His legacy is so immense, encompassing so many different musical forms and settings, that he hardly needed to add a parting grace note; but in a fitting elegy motivated by love of family, he still recorded a final lulling session for his grandchildren. In anticipation of Brubeck’s 100th birthday, Verve released what was to become Brubeck’s final studio album, “Lullabies,” a dreamy solo piano project that drew the curtain on an incredible career.
Brubeck was one of jazz’s leading voices supporting racial justice and the civil rights movement. At a time when Black musicians risked severe career repercussions for speaking out against racism and few White musicians stepped into the breach, Brubeck toured internationally with his integrated quartet, refusing to play for segregated audiences.
A master of his craft, whatever music emerges from the vaults since his passing will only help to fill in the margins of one of jazz’s most productive and rewarding careers. However difficult, or fiddly, his compositions are presented as, their genius will always lie in their ability to have you humming them soon after they finish playing.