Remembering The Vital Force Of Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck

Written by Jack Zahora from National Public Radio

For millions of Americans who came of age in the 1950s, Dave Brubeck was jazz. His performances on college campuses, Top 40 radio play, his role as a jazz ambassador for the U.S., his picture on the cover of Time magazine — all made him one of the most recognized and recognizable musicians of the era.

He died Wednesday morning, the day before his 92nd birthday, in Norwalk, Conn. The cause was heart failure.

Brubeck’s start in music was like the jazz he played: unorthodox. He never learned to read sheet music growing up. He refused classical training. And he developed his chops playing in a military band for Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. In the ’50s he formed a quartet with saxophone player Paul Desmond that broke into the Top 40 with “Blue Rondo à la Turk.”

That song is in 9/8 time — a radical departure from the 4/4 rhythm that Brubeck says Americans were comfortable with at the time. Audiences weren’t the only ones taken aback by his music. In interviews that aired on NPR’s Jazz Profiles series, Brubeck and Desmond said their musical styles often clashed.

“I was very wild harmonically in those days,” said Brubeck. “And the first chord I hit scared Desmond to the point where he thought I was stark raving mad.”

“Well,” said Desmond, “I was trying to play some sort of melodic chorus, and he would be in 15 different keys on an out-of-tune piano, and there were occasions where I was totally desperate about the situation.”

Nevertheless, the two collaborated for decades. In 1959, a song that Desmond wrote earned the quartet its greatest success.

“Take 5” was named after the song’s 5/4 time signature.

It appeared on the album Time Out with other tunes that jumped back and forth between different rhythms. The president of Columbia Records was excited that the album was so different from anything else on his label.

But Brubeck said the marketing department was not. “They said, ‘You’ve broken all the rules — the unwritten laws of Columbia Records. You have all originals on this album. Also, you want to use a painting on the cover, and people can’t dance to this.’ “

Radio stations in Chicago and Detroit disagreed, playing “Take 5” repeatedly.
Brubeck saw the fruits of that exposure firsthand. “In Detroit,” he said, “that whole ballroom was dancing in 5/4 — you know, where they throw couples up in the air and between their legs and over their shoulders.”

The song climbed to No. 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100. College students across the country were dancing to it. In fact, Brubeck made his name playing colleges in the early ’50s. One of his early successes was his recording Jazz Goes to College.

After the original Dave Brubeck quartet broke up in the ’60s, he came out with an album composed of music he once thought was too structured. In 1968, Brubeck collaborated with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on a religious piece called The Light in the Wilderness.

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff says he was blown away by Brubeck’s transformation from jazz player to classical composer. “He’s a much underrated composer. I heard a concerto — it was a religious work, and it was so powerful that it brought me to tears.”

Later, Brubeck joined the Catholic Church. He became fascinated with composing religious fugues, operas and symphonies. That’s not to say Brubeck stopped touring with his jazz groups — some of which included his sons.

Even after bouts of serious illness that forced him into a wheelchair, Brubeck seemed transformed as he sat at the piano — striking the keys with an energy he never seemed to lose. He played hundreds of gigs around the world almost till the end of his life.

Hentoff says Brubeck’s professional longevity will be his legacy. “Professional musicians eventually may say, ‘OK, we figured out some changes in rhythms that influenced us to think about.’ But the main point is the vitality that keeps going. I always called jazz the life force and, my goodness, Mr. Brubeck exemplifies that.”

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

4 thoughts on “Remembering The Vital Force Of Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck

  1. Have been listening to Brubeck since I was 12.  His passing was noted on all the evening newscasts.  I’m very disappointed there is no special on the air tribute from Jazz24.  I listen to the station 5 hrs daily, did I miss it?

  2. I grew up listening to Dave Brubeck because my father was a big jazz fan which I inherited. Whenever  I hear “Take 5”  it brings back memories of my dad.  Thanks for your contributions to the jazz world!!  You will be missed.

  3. I first heard Brubeck on the radio in 1954, saw him live in 1961 and again in 2003.  In the spaces between those dates I bought a lot of his recordings and have enjoyed listening to them regularly.  Jazz owes Dave a large debt, musically of course, but even more important because he made jazz “legitimate” for a wide (and affluent) audience.  My early college days coincided with the early years of high fidelity systems;  if you walked into any dormitory room which had a hi-fi system, you would be sure to find at least three records:  Beethoven’s Fifth, Ravel’s Bolero, and……Jazz Goes to College.  Dave, we will miss you but continue to give thanks for your contributions for as long as jazz is played.

    Robert

  4. My first exposure to Bru was during a music appreciation class, freshman year in college, 1984. It was unsquared dance, in 7/4 time. Being raised on rock, R&B, and disco, I’d never heard anything so cool or groovy. It sparked my interest in jazz, and 30 years later, I’m an absolute jazz addict. Today, I’m more interested in avant-garde, post-bop, and fusion, but that one cool jazz tune changed the way I look at music forever. I was lucky enough to see Brubeck live twice, once at the Berklee School in Boston, and again at the Sheldon in St. Louis.

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