Dave Brubeck: Pianist and composer hailed as a major figure of 20th century jazz

His ensemble stirred up great controversy with its eccentric use of strange time signatures

Arriving at a racetrack where the Dave Brubeck Quartet was due to play a couple of concerts as part of the Orange County State Fair in Middletown, New Jersey, altoist Paul Desmond picked up a copy of the local Middletown Record. On the centre page (of four) he found a two-column headline over a piece advertising the concerts: Hear Dave Brubeck Sing And Play His Famous Hits, Including ‘‘Jazz Goes To College’’, Jazz In Europe’’ and ‘‘Tangerine’’. (Brubeck never sang, and Jazz Goes To College and Jazz In Europe were the titles of two of his LPs.)

When one of the officials looked into the quartet’s estate wagon and asked, ‘‘Where’s the piano?’’, the men realised, in Brubeck’s piquant phrase, which way the hole sloped. On the 10ft high platform next to the horse show they found one mic and a vintage electric organ. In the circumstances of Brubeck’s subsequent enforced performance on the battered organ, it was perhaps fortunate that the horse show, which continued loudly throughout the concerts, had a vastly superior sound system to the quartet’s.

The classic version of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which, with minor changes in personnel, survived from 1951-67, rose to become one of the major attractions on the festival and concert scene. It was one of the first jazz groups to achieve truly worldwide eminence, recording the first million-selling jazz album, Time Out, in 1959.

Although Brubeck was the leader and musical innovator, it was Paul Desmond who supplied the real musical weight (he remained in the quartet for all but the last 10 years of his career, obscuring the fact that he was one of the greatest of the post-Charlie Parker saxophonists. The two men met in 1944 but it was not until the late ’40s that they began working together.

“The afternoon I met Dave Brubeck, early in 1944, I was in an army band in San Francisco and he was on his way overseas as a rifleman,” Desmond remembered. “After the war Dave and I would occasionally find ourselves together with some small group. We were still too radical for anything in the nature of a steady job. I was mostly screeching away at the top of the alto, and Dave appeared to be playing Bartok with his right hand and Milhaud with his left. Together we could empty any club in half an hour with no mention of the word ‘fire’.”

Brubeck’s mother, a pianist, began his classical training on the piano when he was four, and by the time he was 13 he was playing professionally with local country and western and jazz groups. In 1941-42, while studying at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, he formed his own 12-piece band. He studied classical composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California.

His main interest was always composition, and he claimed his inspiration came from Milhaud and Duke Ellington. He wrote many works, some of symphonic length, but only two, “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke”, became jazz standards. Miles Davis thought them good enough to record both. It is strange that Brubeck was able to compose such beautiful melodies and yet remain so heavy-handed and unswinging when he played.

“We’d been playing standards with the quartet for several years when Paul Desmond asked me, one night in Rochester, New York, why I didn’t do some originals for the group. I answered: ‘Paul, I can write two originals in half an hour.’ So I sat down and proved the point by writing ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ and a thing called ‘The Waltz’, within 30 minutes. That was the real beginning. ‘The Duke’ and all the others followed.”

In 1944 Brubeck led an army service band in Europe, where he was able to study under Arnold Schoenberg, and after his discharge in 1946 continued with Milhaud – who was later to insist, hearing him in concert playing original themes, that his future lay as a composer. The classical form was to remain a substantial force in his music, particularly after his conversion to Catholicism, when he began writing a number of religiously inspired oratorios and longer works. But it was also strong at the end of the 1940s, when he formed the Jazz Workshop Ensemble in the San Francisco area.

This was a rather precious band, influenced by contemporary European music, but it produced at least two passionate players, Desmond and the underrated trumpeter Dick Collins. The technically gifted vibraphone player Cal Tjader played drums and reed man Bill Smith was to remain an associate for the rest of Brubeck’s life.

Most of the writing was done by Brubeck and the tenor player, Dave Van Kreidt. For the first time Brubeck began using unusual time signatures. The group recorded as The Dave Brubeck Octet between 1948 and 1950. Brubeck also used a trio over the same period and it was when he added Paul Desmond to the trio that the quartet first came together.

From the start its work engendered turbulent controversy. Brubeck began using waltz time and pieces with five, nine or 11 beats to the bar. This eccentric use of strange time signatures seemed irrelevant – in fact it inhibited the quartet’s sound and prevented it swinging – but it was to remain one of Brubeck’s main characteristics as a composer. The big band of the late trumpeter Don Ellis was the only jazz group to master such time signatures and still be able to swing.

In this country Steve Race, the leading broadcaster and writer, staked his reputation on his belief that a large part of jazz’s future lay in Brubeck’s hands. Race came under attack from those who found the music enervated and out of the jazz tradition. Extreme positions were struck; the true answer lay somewhere between.

The audience for Brubeck’s music increased with the release of Jazz At Oberlin, music from a college concert at a time when Brubeck and his men were suffering from an assortment of internal tensions. Nevertheless the quartet achieved a peak from the beginning of the concert and maintained it until the end. Desmond showed his true greatness on “The Way You Look Tonight”, and subsequent albums recorded at concerts on the college circuit, where the quartet reigned supreme, usually matched the quality of the Oberlin set.

By this time Brubeck had developed a frequent use of hammered piano chords which roughly approximated to the sound of someone trying to raze a forest. He rightly assumed that this created excitement in the audience, but all musical thought had to stop until the process had subsided. However, the dynamic contrasts produced by opposing these onslaughts immediately with delicate filigree piano passages worked wonderfully, and it says much for his mannered music that the albums from this period (1953-56) remain are as exciting now as they were then. They are also  important as a repository for some classic alto saxophone performances.

The quartet came to Britain in 1959, by which time the pre-eminent line-up of Brubeck, Desmond, bassist Gene Wright and drummer Joe Morello had come together and the group, and its individuals, began winning jazz polls. They made friends everywhere. Brubeck had the quality of an affectionate sheepdog, wanting desperately to be liked, and it was impossible not to respond. He and his wife Iola, who travelled with the band, were serious but delightful people.

It was left to Desmond to provide the humour. If he had not been such an outstanding saxophonist he could have been a genuinely great writer. He was fascinated by English literature and, for a short period I exchanged Penguins with him by post for a selection of American paperbacks. It is a lamentable fact that he never completed his autobiography, to be titled How Many Of You Are There In The Quartet? Joe Morello was a complete master of the time signature games  and was one of the most gifted small group drummers of the time, thoughlosing his sight was a great handicap to him.

In 1959 the quartet recorded Desmond’s composition “Take Five”, a piece in 5/4 time. This unlikely creation became the first jazz recording to sell a million copies.

After Desmond left in 1967, Brubeck disbanded the quartet to concentrate on his first love, composing. His output included two ballets, a musical, an oratorio, four cantatas, a mass, and works for jazz groups and symphony orchestra. The baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan played off and on with the reformed quartet, but Desmond proved irreplaceable and the group was not a success.

Brubeck recorded a huge catalogue of albums for the CBS label before leaving to freelance with other companies at the end of the 1960s. There were reunions with Desmond before his death in 1977, and Desmond was able to play with the group when it used one or more of Brubeck’s sons – Darius (synthesiser and electric keyboard), Chris (electric bass and trombone), and Dan (drums and percussion). This group showed up more than ever the weaknesses in Brubeck’s formulae, and it was even more obvious that his greatest days were those shared with Desmond. At the end of the 1970s the tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi joined, but he was not a success.

Matters improved after the clarinettist Bill Smith replaced him. Smith, a long-time friend of Brubeck’s since the two studied together under Milhaud, had a better conception of the group sound and, although his playing tended towards the clinical, it fitted well with Brubeck. The British drummer Randy Jones joined and stayed until the end. In 1987 the group toured the Soviet Union and returned there in 1988, playing at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.

Brubeck pêre et fils continued to tour and play at festivals until he suffered a heart attack in 1989. His recovery was remarkable and that June he played at Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Jazz Festival. He began to use alto saxophonist Bobby Militello in preference to Bill Smith, and Militello, along with Michael Moore, one of the most accomplished jazz bassists, stayed with Brubeck until the end.

Brubeck’s quartet music was never again a match for the heady days of Desmond, Wright and Morello. It was ridiculous to expect any musicians, blood relatives or not, to achieve those heights.

 Brubeck continued to write and perform on the grand scale away from the quartet into his 70s, and on his 80th birthday he played several birthday concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, generating an adulation and following in London that was of pop-group proportions. He recorded prolifically for Atlantic in the first half of the ’70s and then with Concord and Aurex before joining the Telarc label in 1993. He stayed with Telarc until his last recordings.

Brubeck became a Catholic in 1980. “I didn’t convert to Catholicism,” he said, “because I wasn’t anything to convert from. I just joined the Catholic Church.” Among the multitude of awards he won, he received in 2006 the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious award given to American Catholics.

Brubeck and his wife Iola founded the Brubeck Institute at their alma mater, the University of the Pacific, in 2000. It provides fellowships and educational opportunities in jazz for students. In 2010, to coincide with the pianist’s 90th birthday, Clint Eastwood oversaw the production of the documentary Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way. To celebrate his 91st CBS issued a 19-CD set of the quartet’s works between 1955 and 1966. He died the day before his 92nd birthday.

David Warren Brubeck, pianist, composer and bandleader: born Concord, California 6 December 1920; married Iola (five sons, one daughter); died Norwalk, Connecticut 5 December 2012.

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