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Jazz Legends

Dave Brubeck

Born on December 6, 1920 in Concord, California

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His college degree was almost withheld because his professors discovered he could not read music. He was often dismissed by the critics, who called his piano "heavy-handed" and suggested that Paul Desmond should be the group’s leader. (Relations between Brubeck and Desmond, always touchy, grew a little more uneasy.) In some eyes he was either too intellectual or too simplistic – and today he is called old-fashioned. Yet Dave Brubeck inspired the most modern of all pianists, mixed jazz and classical music years before the "Third Stream", was among the first musicians to form his own record company, created a new touring circuit for the musician, and singlehandedly broke the 4/4 stranglehold on jazz. Not bad for a guy whose résumé was so seemingly against him.

Dave Brubeck was exposed to music at an early age; his mother was a piano teacher, and he began composing at the age of four. Entering the College of the Pacific in 1938 as a veterinary student, he quickly lost interest and changed his major to music. He coasted through his classes, and graduated from Pacific in 1942, upon which he was immediately drafted. A conscientious objector, he served by playing in various Army bands, and by entertaining troops in Europe – "armed with a piano", as one biography puts it. It was in the Army that Dave first met, and briefly played with, Paul Desmond; their lives would intersect for the next 25 years.

At the end of World War II, Brubeck enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, studying composition under Darius Milhaud. Brubeck’s class included Jack Weeks, Dave van Kreidt, and Bill Smith – all would join Dave’s first band, and all would achieve some acclaim in classical music. Their fugues and rondos, written as class assignments, were also played by the Dave Brubeck Octet in their weekly show at San Francisco’s Black Hawk. (This group was recorded, but would not be released until Brubeck became famous.) The Octet disbanded in 1949, and Brubeck joined the Paul Desmond Trio; after three weeks Desmond left his own group to pursue another job. Dave was furious: he renamed the group The Dave Brubeck Trio and worked steadily at Palo Alto’s Band Box, earning a reputation. When Desmond’s gig fell through, he sat in with the group frequently; Dave would not officially hire him until a few years later.

In 1949 Dave made his first formal recordings, in a trio with Ron Crotty on bass and Cal Tjader on drums. Subtitled Distinctive Rhythm Instrumentals, this album was initially released by Coronet Records – a label run by jazz fans, with no experience in the record business. Having no contact with pressing plants, Coronet asked a plastics extrusion firm to make the record; the company, owned by Sol and Max Weiss, did the job – and did it on credit. The album sold so well that Coronet lacked the funds to press enough copies to fill their orders; in time the label went bankrupt, and Brubeck obtained rights to the album. With the Weiss brothers for partners, Dave reissued the album on his own label, Fantasy Records – it continued to sell well for a year, and encouraged Brubeck to make more recordings.

The Brubeck Quartet signed with Columbia Records in 1954. While he had no formal contract with Fantasy, the Weiss brothers claimed he owed them material; Dave compromised by recording five further albums for Fantasy, at the rate of one a year. These albums were made with various groups, often with Bill Smith replacing Desmond. (Brubeck ended all contact with Fantasy when he moved to New York; when the label was sold in the ‘Sixties, Dave received no compensation.)

With the band growing in popularity, offers were pouring in from all corners – but Breubeck was getting tired of the jazz clubs. Thinking it would be of interest to their music departments, Dave compiled a list of colleges and had his wife contact them, offering them "the world-famous Dave Brubeck Quartet in a special concert." Fifty colleges accepted in the first year; for many of them, it was the first jazz concert they ever sponsored. The tour generated more income for the group than was possible in the clubs, and produced a series of memorable live albums. (The first was Jazz at Oberlin in 1953; a 1954 date at the University of Michigan produced Jazz Goes to College, Brubeck’s first major seller.) When Dave hired Eugene Wright as his bassist, several Southern colleges tried to prevent Wright from taking their stage. Brubeck refused to play without Wright, and the uproar from local fans caused the schools to relent. These tours led the way for other musicians, and jazz appears on the performance schedule of many colleges today.

The band received a major boost in 1956: drummer Bob Bates was replaced by the flashy Joe Morello. Desmond hated him at first, and threatened to quit the Quartet, but Morello’s adventuresome nature led to Dave’s next innovation – unusual time signatures. The album Time Out was a surprise success, leading to sequels and a more eclectic choice of material. The Quartet toured the world on several occasions, leading Mort Sahl to quip that "whenever John Foster Dulles visits a country, the State Department sends that Brubeck Quartet in a few weeks later to repair the damage." Their work included soundtracks, a ballet, and many more albums; when the group broke up in 1967, it had played together, in one form or another, for 16 years. Dave Brubeck was ready to move on.

In the 30 years following the Quartet, Brubeck might be even busier than in the past.. He has written a large body of symphonic and liturgical music, often playing at the works’ premieres. As his children got older, they also entered the music business; he’s toured with them often, as The Brubeck Family or Two Generations of Brubeck. He has also re-formed the Quartet on a few occasions: Gerry Mulligan for a short time, reuniting with Desmond on different occasions – and a full-scale Reunion Tour in 1976, the group’s 25th anniversary. Current versions of the group may include Bobby Militello, or clarinetist Bill Smith, who has played with Brubeck since the ‘40s. It has all led to a very full musical life, which has shown no signs of slowing down.

People who influenced him: Errol Garner, Teddy Wilson

People whom he influenced: Cecil Taylor

Played with: Louis Armstrong, Jerry Bergonzi, Alan Dawson, Paul Desmond, Carmen McRae, Joe Morello, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Rushing, Cal Tjader

Quotes by Dave Brubeck:

"Any jackass can swing. But to try something new and swing at the same time, that’s hard."

Quotes about Dave Brubeck:

"Your group don’t swing, but you do." – Miles Davis

Recommended Reading: "Dave Brubeck: A Biography". On the Internet at http://www.duke.edu/~smt3/brubeck.htm

Fred M. Hall, It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story.

Recommended Recordings:

As leader: Brubeck a la Mode (Fantasy, 1960) Dave’s rhythm section is joined by clarinetist Bill Smith, and every tune is modal. (This was the second such album in jazz history; the first is Miles’ Kind of Blue.) Smith’s soft, mellow sound is a nice alternative to Paul Desmond; the music, while not exceptional, is certainly enjoyable.

Brubeck Plays Brubeck (Columbia, 1956) Recorded at Brubeck’s home late one night, this was Dave’s first disc of solo piano. (It’s much better than a similar date for Fantasy, Dave Brubeck Plays and Plays and Plays.) More active than with the Quartet, Dave strides on "Walkin’ Line" – and tiptoes on the first version of "In Your Own Sweet Way". This should be heard by anyone critical of Brubeck’s piano style.

Dave Brubeck Octet (Fantasy, 1948) Home recordings and radio broadcasts from Dave’s original group, with Paul Desmond, Cal Tjader, and a host of Pacific College students. The horn charts are unusual for the time, and many tunes sound like classical music. (Some were written as class assignments for Darius Milhaud.) Highlights are "Prelude", "Fugue on Bop Themes", reworkings of "Prisoner’s Song" and "The Way You Look Tonight", and a hilarious "jazz history" version of "How High the Moon", played in many styles. Hear Brubeck play boogie-woogie, for maybe the only time!

Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1963) With a program of their greatest hits, this show starts strong and gets better from there. Morello is ferocious on "Bossa Nova USA", and Desmond whispers on top like a flute. "For All We Know" is the definition of "wistful", and wait’ll you hear Morello on "Castilian Drums". This album is energetic and fun.

Dave Brubeck Trio: 24 Classic Original Recordings (Distinctive Rhythm Instrumentals) (Fantasy, 1950) Dave’s first three albums (originally released on 10" LPs) combined in a wonderful package. There are lots of surprises: fast bongos on "You Stepped Out of a Dream", with Dave equally percussive; broad washes of sound on "Singin’ in the Rain", a calypso rhythm on "Body and Soul". They don’t play standards in the standard way, which makes this album a treat.

Dave Digs Disney (Columbia, 1957) The concept seems silly: the tunes have no connection to jazz, so you expect this to be lightweight. Far from it: Desmond’s intricate, eloquent solo on "Alice in Wonderland" belies the simple song it’s written around. Norm Bates’ bass is in fine form, and Morello is surprisingly restrained, sticking mostly to brushes. You won’t believe how funky "Heigh Ho" can be!

Double Live from the USA and UK (Telarc, 2001) Two different concerts with slightly different groups; Dave can still stir the emotions, in faint clouds of sound. An arrhythmic, reharmonized "Cherokee" will shock you; Dave hasn’t sounded this abstract in years. Bobby Militello has something of Desmond’s tone, with some bite: he snarls a little on "Easy to Love", and tootles through "Three to Get Ready". This isn’t essential, but is certainly worth a listen.

Jazz at Oberlin (Fantasy, 1953) When this album was made, Brubeck’s reputation was growing, but limited to the West Coast – that changed with his college tour. Dave’s use of tone clusters and dissonance sounds exactly what Cecil Taylor would be doing in a few years. Paul’s "dry martini" sax is in full force; the sound is fuzzy but it will do.

Jazz Goes to College (Columbia, 1954) This one sold 100,000 copies, which is unheard of for a jazz album. Given ten minutes of themeless blues on "Balcony Rock", Desmond solos endlessly and inventively. Paul is more emotional on "Le Souk", where he twists a theme similar to Ravel’s "Bolero". Beautiful, nearly flawless music.

Jazz Impressions of New York (Columbia, 1964) Originally written for the TV show Mr. Broadway, these numbers are sweet and classy – imagine the Guaraldi trio, with Paul Desmond as a bonus! Loneliness reigns on "Autumn in Washington Square", and the theme of "Sixth Sense" reminds you of Thelonious Monk! This album is a pleasant surprise for anyone who finds it.

One Alone (Telarc, 2000) His fifth solo album, Dave takes it more leisurely than his previous efforts. He’s thoughtful on "That Old Feeling", mulling over each note and then playing it softly. "Someone to Watch Over Me" is told mostly in chords, with some Tatum-like flourishes; "Over the Rainbow" becomes an impressionist mist. This quiet effort is enjoyable, though probably not the first Brubeck you should listen to.

Re-union (Fantasy, 1958) Tenorman Dave van Kreidt had been a member of Dave’s original octet; ten years later he was a music professor, joining Brubeck on this underrated gem. Van Kreidt blends wonderfully with Desmond, slithering together as one. Listen to "Shouts", "Prelude" (remaking a tune from Octet), and a transformation of a Bach chorale.

Time Further Out (Columbia, 1960) The sequel to Time Out isn’t nearly as breathtaking but it has its moments – including "Unsquare Dance", a great little tune in 7/8.

Time Out (Columbia, 1959) The original classic; while some musicians were writing jazz waltzes, other time signatures were completely unexplored. The 9/8 rhythm of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" was suggested by a trip to the Middle East; Joe Morello loved to play solos in 5/4, which led to Desmond’s "Take Five". Good tunes, outstanding drumwork, and Paul at his strongest – it all adds up. An edited version of "Take Five" made it on Billboard’s Pop Top 100.

We’re All Together Again (For the First Time) (Atlantic, 1972) The horns are Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan – Dave’s first two-sax album since Desmond and van Kreidt on Re-union. Gerry sounds like Desmond on a bigger horn on "Unfinished Woman" – he also can groan, and does it mightily on "Rotterdam Blues". Sloppy in places, but fun.

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