Dave Brubeck: 1920-2012

The music legend broke through jazz's conventions and created a sound uniquely his own.
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A jazz giant who combined classical music with jazz passed away December 5, 2012, a day short Dave Brubeckof his 92nd birthday. Dave Brubeck, the pianist/composer who helped jazz retain its “cool” status in 1960, will forever be remembered for a song he did not write: “Take Five,” its 5/4 time a first for the music genre. Penned by his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, the single propelled Brubeck to legendary status and became one of the most recognized jazz tunes of all time. If he had followed his original career plans, however, we would have never heard his music--instead, he would have been tending to animals.

Born in Concord, California in 1920, Brubeck grew up in a musical family--he began piano lessons at age four, and two of his older brothers became professional musicians. But at age 12, Brubeck and his family moved to a cattle ranch in the foothills of the Sierras; at this time, the music lessons ended and his country life began. He assisted his father in running the ranch, although he occasionally played piano with local bands on weekends. By college, Brubeck intended on majoring in veterinary medicine and working his way through school by performing in nightclubs. Soon it became clear that music was his real love, and thus changed his major. After graduating in 1942, he enlisted in the Army and led a racially-integrated band during his service. Returning to California in 1946, Brubeck enrolled at Mills College to study composition under French writer Darius Milhaud. Under Milhaud’s tutelage, Brubeck began incorporating jazz elements into classical music. With this integration in mind, Brubeck formed the Dave Brubeck Octet the following year. He quickly received acclaim as a trio, when former Octet members Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty joined him for their first recordings.

Now on a creative roll, Brubeck increased his group to four with the addition of another former Octet member, saxophonist Desmond, in 1951. This move was a crucial turning point for Brubeck, as his creative partnership with Desmond lasted over 17 years. After their first international tour, the Quartet recorded the now-classic Time Out album in 1959. The album broke many rules of jazz, experimenting with time and, as his site explains, “improvised counterpoint, polyrhythm and polytonality remain hallmarks of innovation.” Another remarkable accomplishment is that, in a time when rock and roll began dominating the charts, Brubeck brought jazz back to the forefront. Due to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s numerous college tours, young fans rediscovered the gene through such songs as the aforementioned “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” With this album and his previous appearance on the cover of Time, Brubeck officially became an arbiter of cool.

Throughout his career, Brubeck continually merged jazz and classical music, even composing pieces such as “Elementals” (1962), written for both a jazz combo and orchestra to perform. The same year as Time Out, the Quartet appeared with the New York Philharmonic to play “Dialogues for Jazz and Combo Orchestra,” composed by none other than Brubeck’s brother Howard. While Brubeck never abandoned jazz, writing such standards as “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke,” he also enjoyed composing ballet scores and even a musical, The Real Ambassadors, starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae.

After the original Quartet disbanded in 1967, Brubeck formed a new trio which also featured sax legend Gerry Mulligan. As a side project, he recorded and toured with three of his sons, Mulligan, and Desmond, until the 1980s. Entering his golden years, he earned numerous awards and continued touring with various versions of the Quartet, many including his musical sons.  “Take Five” stands in the Grammy Hall of Fame, still enjoys radio airplay, and still coverts new fans to jazz on a constant basis.

As one of the last jazz greats, Brubeck has become known as someone who extended jazz’s boundaries and expanded its audience. Back in 1959, Brubeck’s record label hesitated to release Time Out, as they thought it was overly “arty” and tampered too much with jazz conventions. But the album’s massive success proved that there was room for musical sophistication that challenged traditional definitions of the musical form. Even more importantly, Brubeck’s piano and Desmond’s saxophone still soar as their separate parts seamlessly intertwine throughout the unusual rhythm. Even today, absolutely nothing else sounds like, or comes close to, “Take Five.”