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 General 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”.
In that song the time signature is in 9/8 — 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 start 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 first hand. “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 number 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 concertro — 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 to 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.”