Music Memories: Dave Brubeck

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Dave Brubeck on the cover of his album, The Essential Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck on the cover of his album, The Essential Dave Brubeck

On December 6, 1920, Dave Brubeck was born. For more than sixty years, Brubeck was one of our most popular and acclaimed jazz pianists, particularly noted for his experiments with unusual rhythms.

He was born near San Francisco. His father was a cattle rancher, and his mother was a pianist who had studied in England with renowned concert pianist Myra Hess. Brubeck took lessons from his mother. He never learned to read music very well but was skilled enough to fake his way through his lessons well enough that she never realized it.

Intending to join his father in ranching, he attended the College (now the University) of the Pacific to study veterinary science. It was clear, though, that his real interests were elsewhere, and a zoology professor finally told him, “Your mind's not here. It's across the lawn in the conservatory. Please go there. Stop wasting my time and yours.”

When his music professors realized that he couldn’t sight read, Brubeck was nearly expelled from the music department. Some of his professors stood up for him, pointing out that his skills in composition and harmony were advanced enough to compensate; Brubeck was allowed to graduate, but only after he agreed never to teach piano.

In 1942, Brubeck was drafted into the Army and sent to serve in Europe. He volunteered to play piano at a Red Cross event and was such a hit that he was pulled from potential combat duty and ordered to form a band. “The Wolfpack” was one of the military’s first integrated bands. He left the Army in 1946 and began his graduate study in music at Mills College, where his teachers included composer Darius Milhaud.

Brubeck suffered a serious spinal injury in 1951, while swimming and diving in Hawaii. The first responders initially assumed that he wouldn’t survive. Brubeck recovered but had nerve pain in his hands for several years, and the injury changed his playing style; he now tended to emphasize playing block chords, rather than rapid, virtuosic runs.

After his recovery, he formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet. In the group’s early years, several bass players and drummers came and went, but Paul Desmond, playing alto saxophone, was with the group from the beginning. The Quartet did a lot of touring of college campuses in the early 1950s, leading to live albums that included Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz at the College of the Pacific, and Jazz Goes to College. The Quartet’s most enduring lineup was established when Joe Morello became the drummer in 1956, and Eugene Wright joined on bass in 1958.

Book cover for Jazz At Oberlin
Jazz At Oberlin

Brubeck and the Quartet were popular enough that Brubeck made the cover of Time magazine in 1954; he was only the second jazz musician to do so, after Louis Armstrong. He found the honor somewhat embarrassing; he thought that Duke Ellington was more deserving, and that Time had favored him over Ellington because Brubeck was white.

Brubeck was more conscious of racial issues than many white musicians of the era. Eugene Wright was African-American, and throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brubeck often canceled concerts in venues that wouldn’t treat all members of the Quartet equally.

In 1958, the Quartet went on a tour of Europe and Asia, sponsored by the State Department. That tour led to the album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, one of several Jazz Impressions albums they recorded. The others were impressions of the USA, Japan, and New York; the New York album was made up of music Brubeck had written as the score for the TV series Mr. Broadway.

That State Department tour also introduced Brubeck and Desmond to the rhythms of European folk music, which would lead to their greatest popular success. Most of the music we hear is organized in patterns of 2, 3, or 4 beats; for their 1959 album Time Out, they avoided those rhythms, writing mostly in patterns of 5 or 7 beats. Desmond’s composition “Take Five” was released to radio as a single in 1961, and became an unexpected pop hit, reaching #25 on the charts. It had been a difficult song to record, taking more than 20 attempts to get the rhythm right. Time Out was the first jazz album, and “Take Five” the first jazz single, to sell more than a million copies.

Book cover for Time Out
Time Out

Brubeck continued to explore unusual rhythms on a series of albums—Time Further Out; Countdown: Time in Outer Space; Time Changes; and Time In. Time Further Out gave him another pop hit, as “Unsquare Dance” made the lower half of the American pop chart and reached the top 20 in England; it was written in a 7-beat pattern.

In 1962, Brubeck wrote songs for a jazz musical, The Real Ambassadors, inspired in part by his experiences on State Department tours. His wife, Iola, wrote the lyrics, and they recorded the musical with a cast that included Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, and the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. The album was released a few months before the musical’s performance at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

The classic lineup of the Quartet released its last studio album, a Cole Porter tribute called Anything Goes, in 1966; a few concert recordings followed, and the group’s 1967 final concert was finally released in 2011 as Their Last Time Out.

From 1968 to 1972, Brubeck led a group that was billed as “The Dave Brubeck Trio with Gerry Mulligan.” Mulligan played baritone sax. This group made relatively few recordings, but they can be heard on Live at the Berlin Philharmonie and The Last Set at Newport, and they are joined by Desmond on We’re All Together Again for the First Time.

After 1972, Brubeck performed with a variety of quartet lineups, but most frequently with three of his sons. He re-teamed with Desmond in 1975 for a duets album.

In the latter half of his career, Brubeck began writing music intended for the concert hall—oratorios, art songs, and a 1980 mass, “To Hope.” After writing the mass, Brubeck joined the Catholic Church. "I didn't convert to Catholicism,” he said, “because I wasn't anything to convert from. I just joined the Catholic Church.”

Book cover for Brubeck Plays Brubeck
Brubeck Plays Brubeck

While most of Brubeck’s recording was with one version or another of his quartet, he did record a few solo piano albums, from Brubeck Plays Brubeck in 1956 to Private Brubeck Remembers in 2004. His solo work also includes his only holiday album, the 1996 A Dave Brubeck Christmas.

Brubeck received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2008. He was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009.

In 2000, Dave and Iola established the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific. It was originally intended as a simple archive of Brubeck’s papers, but over the years grew into an organization that provides encouragement and financial support for jazz students at the university’s music school.

Brubeck died on December 5, 2012 of heart failure. A few albums of earlier work were released posthumously, including a 1962 White House performance with Tony Bennett.

Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time is a biography by Philip Clark. Much more of Brubeck’s music is available for streaming at Freegal and hoopla.