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Dave Brubeck Appreciated

Through the Fifties and Sixties, Brubeck popularized jazz in a big way among fringe audiences — college students, teeny boppers, pop music listeners and others

Sunil Sampat Dec 09, 2015
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Dave Brubeck was, if anything, a Pied Piper of jazz! Music fans of all types — jazz buffs and others — all followed wherever Brubeck took them. Was it his charisma, was it great music, was it his musicians or was there another ingredient?

Although by no stretch of anybody’s imagination was Brubeck very highly ranked amongst jazz pianists — I doubt that he would feature in the top ten pianists’ list of jazz critics — but there is no doubt that as a jazz musician, arranger and bandleader his name is right up there with the all-time greats.

BDX054 DAVE BRUBECK - US jazz musician and band leader

US jazz musician and band leader Dave Brubeck. Photo: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photos

Simply stated, Brubeck has been responsible in popularizing jazz in a big way. Especially in the Fifties and Sixties, he was influential with a wide range of music listening audience and popularized jazz with fringe audiences — with college students, teeny boppers, pop music listeners and a variety of non-jazz music fans.

What was the reason for Dave Brubeck’s meteoric rise in the jazz world and for his great success in wooing music listeners to his brand of jazz? I have a theory about this success story. One was that jazz was going through a tremendous phase of re-defining its course. Post World War II, the bebop movement, with its frenetic pace and accent of individual virtuosity was taking jazz into a totally new direction. The successor to bebop was hard bop, following closely in its footsteps and was not very different for non-jazz audiences. It was a confusing time for young audiences. As a counterpoint to this movement were three bands that appealed to audiences seeking a laid-back sound. Miles Davis with Gil Evans created the album Birth of the Cool in 1954, which had listeners take notice. The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) emerged from hitherto bebop musicians with a cool, introspective sound. The piano and vibraphone dominated this sound. Then there was the Dave Brubeck Quartet who had exactly the right sound and was just the prescription for melodic yet swinging jazz.

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The other factor leading to the phenomenal success of Brubeck’s group was the splendid sound of Paul Desmond on the alto saxophone. I would venture to say that without Desmond, the Dave Brubeck band was a greatly diminished force. Desmond was not only a beautiful, melodic horn player, he also composed several of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s great hits, including the iconic “Take Five.”

Brubeck was the absolute master of knowing exactly what the listeners would appreciate; he had his finger on the pulse of the American music fans and gave them what they loved. In retrospect, his album Time Out [1959] featuring “Take Five” is among the best-selling jazz albums ever and, of course, “Take Five” is arguably the most recognized jazz track ever. [I recently saw a video of sixteen Pakistani playing the compositions on 16 sitars!]

My personal favorite Dave Brubeck Quartet albums are Jazz Red Hot & Cool [1955] and Music From West Side Story [1986], not to mention Time Out.

In the mid and later Fifties, Brubeck undertook a concert tour of small and large colleges and universities in the US. This was a unique concept and a resounding success. His albums, Jazz Goes to College [1954], and Jazz at Oberlin [1953], have emerged from these college sessions and are still popular. Young American students on these campuses really took this sound and perhaps became lifelong jazz adherents because of Brubeck.

While Brubeck’s discography is available for all to see, there are interesting stories associated with the creation of some of his albums, again testament to Brubeck’s astute business/musical acumen. Following the overwhelming success of Time Out, they produced Time Further Out [1961] and Countdown Time in Outer Space [1962], all using different time signals, where the drums and bass would play to different time patterns. This had led to widespread discussions among listeners about whether the tune was played at 7/4 or 11/4 or something else, and I am sure they have been conscious of jazz beats ever since!

AHKM9J DAVE BRUBECK US jazz musician on piano with from left Paul Desmond, unknown, Gene Wright

From left: Paul Desmond [saxophone], Joe Morello [drums], Dave Brubeck [piano] and Gene Wright [bass]. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

The Dave Brubeck Quartet visited several countries, including India in 1958-59. Indian jazz followers still talk about that tour in jazz circles. There is a theory [among Indian jazz students] doing the rounds that Paul Desmond composed “Take Five” after interacting with Indian musicians and being inspired by their polyrhythm patterns and that the legendary composition is an Indian inspired product. Desmond, on the other hand has said that when he was working in a printing press in Pittsburgh, the uneven rhythm of the machines helped him work out the time signals for his great composition.

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In 2013, I had written to Brubeck inviting him to play for the JUS’ JAZZ festival in Mumbai and Delhi for my group Jazz Addicts. I was surprised by an immediate, detailed response in which he said that since he had turned 90, he had decided to stop overseas travel but that his sons, musicians who carry on the father’s tradition, would be available. Even at 90, Dave Brubeck would have been a huge draw!

I was fortunate to hear his famed quartet live on two occasions. At Forest Hills in New York in an open-air concert where he shared the evening with the great Ella Fitzgerald and later in Montreal at the World’s Fair. On this occasion, he was billed with the Thelonius Monk Quartet and the legendary blues singer, Muddy Waters. Brubeck caused the most frenzy of all when he came on stage! That’s the Pied Piper in him!

Brubeck was, along with Louis Armstrong, a true jazz ambassador and these two have ensured that the world will never tire of hearing “It’s a Wonderful World” and “Take Five.”

Thank you Mr. Dave Brubeck!

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