Dave Brubeck, pianist and composer, died on 5th December 2012 just before his 92nd birthday. Many of us will say “Wow, he was some day my prince of jazz” because with his Quartet in the period 1951 to 1967 he brought jazz out of its minority Afro-American slot, and made it acceptable and interesting to a much wider audience. His Time Out LP was the first jazz album to sell more than 1 million copies: the lyrical alto sax of Paul Desmond contrasted with the strong, blocky piano improvisations of Dave himself, complemented by first-class musicians Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. They often used very tricky time signatures – like 5/4 and 9/8– but played them with such skill as to make it sound really easy, while providing an intellectual challenge to listeners!,
David Warren Brubeck was born in 1920 in Concord California, to a cattle rancher father and a piano-playing mother who was a classical pianist of concert standard. Although he studied to become a vet, he switched to music (his brothers were already musicians) but graduated from college not able to read music – but with exceptional skills in counterpoint and harmony. When asked later how he could deal with such rhythmic complexities as he put into his improvisations, he said it was like being on a horse in his cowboy days, when he had to find his balance on top of the irregular rhythms of the horse’s movements!
He joined the US Army in 1942, but was soon directed to form a band and entertain the troops, travelling round. After the war, he went back to study classical music with Darius Milhaud, forming an Octet and a trio to experiment in what was known as cool West Coast jazz, and his recordings began to sell well.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Although in the early 1950s the Quartet had several different bassists and drummers, the key member apart from Dave Brubeck himself was Paul Desmond, a lean, lanky alto sax player with a quirky sense of humour. This is how he describes himself on a record sleeve of one of his own albums: “… I’m this saxophone player from the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with which I’ve been associated since shortly after the Crimean War. You can tell which one is me because when I’m not playing, which is surprisingly often, I’m leaning against the piano. I also have less of a smile than the other fellows….” Apart from sharing Dave’s ability to play tricky rhythms, Paul had a wonderful ability to create flowing phrases, improvising above a sequence of harmonies – which is the essence of jazz. After leaving the DBQ in 1967 (his place was taken by Gerry Mulligan, and then for long years by Bobby Militello) Paul Desmond played with many famous jazzmen, embraced bossa nova, and died in 1977 from lung cancer, having chain-smoked most of his life.
In the most famous DB Quartet, the bassist Eugene Wright was the only Afro-American. This was still before Civil Rights, but Brubeck would defend integration, touring black clubs in the Deep South, while refusing to play at other venues which objected to the presence of his coloured bassist.
The remaining member was the extraordinary Joe Morello, the drummer of light, precise touch who could play all those weird rhythms and never get lost!
Someday my Prince will come
The DBQ’s most famous track is Take Five, written by Paul Desmond (see how they swing in five time!) while other favourites are Blue Rondo a la Turk, Three to Get Ready (which alternates two bars of 3/4 with two of 4/4), Unsquare Dance, Brandenburg Gate. However, my favourite is Some Day my Prince will Come, a simple song from Disney’s Snow White. On YouTube you can find several versions of the DBQ playing this song, but listen to the 1957 version from This is Jazz Vol 3 to get a microcosm of what their music was like. It opens with a classical-sounding intro by Brubeck on the piano, then changes key and slips into a lovely 3/4 rhythm, while Paul Desmond blows chorus after chorus of wonderfully fluid inventive variations, never repeating an idea, always fitting his phrases perfectly to the chord changes. After 3:40 minutes of this, Brubeck starts with some melodic variations, which gradually turn to chords, which he turns into 4/4 time on top of the drums still in 3/4; then the melodic variations return, sounding more like Bach, then more bluesy, then blocky chords rocking against the rhythm – a quote from a pop tune – and back to the melody, which resolves quietly to the end some 4:40 later.
This, with some variation, is how they presented practically all their numbers, making a success for this group for some 16 years, until Dave himself began to branch out into other musical forms.
He preferred to describe himself as a composer who played piano, and wrote both classical and jazz – a ballet, a mass, various cantatas, Chorales for choir and jazz orchestra. His sons followed him into the music profession: Chris, Dan and Darius played with him, and later son Matthew also – improvising on the cello. He continued to tour widely (he was in Brazil once in 1978) and was widely regarded as a cultural ambassador for the US. Comedian Mort Sahl remarked during the Cold War that “After John Foster Dulles visits a country, the State Department sends in Dave Brubeck to repair the damage”.
Not everyone was comfortable with Dave Brubeck’s success, because he took an Afro-American culture but played it without that hurt and protest so typical of the blues and the jazz idiom, made it complicated, sophisticated, suitable for middle-class white America – and made money at it. But the man himself was tolerant, hard-working, resolutely original, a solid family man, and a big contributor to American music. And he kept active right into his 90s!
So thanks for everything, Dave….
Now find the Time Out album on YouTube – and Good Listening!