Jazz Composer and Musician Dave Brubeck Has Left the Building

Dave BrubeckPioneering jazz pianist Dave Brubeck died last Wednesday, one day before his 92nd birthday.

I’ve been in the process of moving since last week, and while I took note of Brubeck’s passing at the time I hadn’t had an opportunity, or an Internet connection, where I could sit down and ruminate on the loss.

I listen to music a lot. I can’t say I am a jazz expert by any estimation. My interests run more to blues-infused rock-n-roll and alternative acts. But I appreciate all forms of music. And one thing that leaves a lasting impression on me is when an artist can transcend a genre outside my musical taste and bring me a new experience, because that opens doors for me to a new language of musical expression not previously understood.

Where my taste and jazz cross paths is at the intersection of “improvisation.”

[THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET – TAKE THE ‘A’ TRAIN (1966)]

The path less traveled. The path unseen.

A band of musicians may walk down one route hand-in-hand, but in jazz that road diverges into differing pathways, with each musician taking a separate lead.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Brubeck, along with saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello, formed the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet, and together they were a bridge for me into jazz.

Rock artists like the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers – these folks all go on psychedelic tangents of improvisation, taking songs and experimenting with 20 minute interludes into uncharted territory that transport a listener on an odyssey, hold the journey together, and offer to return the listener safely from whence they began.

It’s from this branch of the jam band tree that I was able to follow Brubeck to the kingdom of jazz, and from there he gave me Miles, Monk, Dizzy, Bird, and Satchmo.

I discovered Brubeck in an unsuspected location – my parent’s record collection.

Amongst all these classical records, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and other jazz greats, was where I found “Time Out.”

Originally released in 1959, “Time Out” became the first jazz album to sell a million copies. In 2009, it was repackaged and released in a Legacy Edition to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

Most discs don’t last a couple weeks on the charts, much less warrant the 50-year treatment.

What makes “Time Out” special is it brought together jazz hipsters and those who had never heard a jazz recording before.

The song “Take Five” has evolved into a classic standard. The word sublime comes to mind upon listening to this centerpiece recording. It still sounds fresh today.

[THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET – TAKE FIVE (1966)]

It’s California cool, airy and bright. I get visions of Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Schroeder dancing around like maniacs with their sunglasses on when I hear it.

How does this square looking white guy, with his thick black glasses, pompadour hair, and prim short-sleeved madras shirts end up hanging with Miles Davis and Gil Evans?

Often there is a pretentiousness that can come from jazz purists, but Brubeck wasn’t about that. As a pianist, composer and bandleader, he was accessible; ingenious without being daunting.

It was never an endurance competition to survive one of his compositions. Nor was an academic required to be on-hand to authenticate why a rendition wasn’t actually painful, but instead significant and reverential.

With Brubeck, if you liked what you heard he welcomed all fans in to enjoy the scene.

As one of my journalism professors once said, “simple is hard.” Three easy words that speak volumes, and certainly hold true in the music world.

The more I think about it and listen again to “Time Out,” I recognize Brubeck embodies this combination of experimentation and accessibility.

The avant-garde part of his repertoire is how he changes all the time signatures. He uses counterpoint melodies with these off-beat meters, such as 5/4 on “Time Out” or 7/4 and 9/8.

And he makes it work. Brubeck makes it simple.

[THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET – 40 DAYS (1966)]

Through all the success, he eschewed labels of being an intellectual, instead preferring to act like he stumbled upon his musical prowess by accident.

On another of his signature recordings, “The Duke,” Brubeck runs through all 12 keys in the first eight bars, but cagily contends he never realized this until a music professor told him about it.

Dave Brubeck 2In 1954, as Brubeck’s fame rose, he became only the second jazz musician, the other being Louis Armstrong, to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

He not only pushed the boundaries in the musical world, Brubeck also pushed back against racism. His quartet was a popular draw on the college circuit in the 1950s and 1960s, but segregation still openly existed.

Some institutions took issue with his African-American bassist, Eugene Wright, and requested he play without him. Brubeck defied these leaders.

In 1958 Brubeck similarly refused to tour South Africa after he was asked to sign a contract requiring all his band members be white.

Whether through music or his humanity, Dave Brubeck believed in a simple concept – inclusion.

Thank you for opening a door for me Dave. Have a safe passage, and may your ride to the stars be an enjoyable one.

Peace.

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