The planet lost a world-class musician, composer and jazz advocate on Tuesday when Dave Brubeck died Wednesday, Dec. 5, one day before his 92nd birthday. Brubeck is best known for "Take Five," recorded with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Its opening notes are unmistakable and for many it was their first exposure to jazz.
Until the end, Brubeck stood like a monument to an entire era of jazz. Many musicians who explored new styles of the genre during the 1950s have long passed including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Duke Ellington. Brubeck, however, endured the journey as a sage-like jazzman, performing into his 90s.
I find Brubeck's story appealing because he did not learn how to read music at an early age and he nearly was expelled from the music conservatory at College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. where he originally studied zoology following in his father’s cattle ranching footsteps. In an interview with NPR, Brubeck said when his musical illiteracy was found out by one of his professors it took about five minutes before the dean was notified and he would have been expelled had it not been for other professors who intervened and praised the young man's skills.
After college, Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army, playing for the troops in a base band called the Wolfpack, where he met his future collaborator, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.
For anyone who has an interest in jazz, the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary (see it on Hulu) is nearly 20 hours and was the framework for the jazz class I took at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.
In the documentary, Brubeck said he was sitting in the "mud hole" when an announcer asked if there was a piano player in the crowd. With the Wolfpack, Brubeck could hone his chops while serving his country. And it kept him out of enough trouble that he didn't get shot. After World War II, Brubeck used the G.I. Bill to further his musical education at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
Brubeck's playing in an integrated Army band encouraged him to advocate for African American musicians at a time when the notion was unpopular in segregated America. He routinely would demand the ability to play in mixed race bands and, according to his New York Times obituary, refused to tour in 1958 under the stipulation that he play only with white musicians in South Africa.
The cool alto saxophone of Paul Desmond complemented Brubeck's meandering piano and the two collaborated together with the Dave Brubeck Quartet through the 1960s.
For the generation of kids who were coming of age in the postwar era of the 1950s, Brubeck represented a new kind of music. By breaking up his rhythms, Brubeck revolutionized jazz and influenced later waves of popular music and rock 'n' roll.
Brubeck thrived on the energy of college students during his era and even recorded an album called, "Jazz Goes to College," released in 1954 and later "Jazz Goes to Junior College," in 1957.
Besides "Take Five," the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded other hits like “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” “Blue Rondo” and "The Duke."
Brubeck's experimentation with time signatures led him to record "Time Out" in 1959 with his quartet. It featured "Take Five," and went on to sell a million copies.
Besides major accomplishments for any musician such as gracing the cover of "Time" and breaking the Top 40 with "Take Five," Dave Brubeck made a definitive impact on jazz.
While contemporaries like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell explored Bop and Bebop styles of jazz, Brubeck was identified with the West Coast style of cool jazz before and after it caught the attention of Miles Davis. It was unlike the “head music” associated with jazz during that time because Brubeck made his music accessible to all listeners. While doing so, he created timeless pieces that maintain their brilliance more than 50 years later.
Brubeck also was able to experiment with his musical progression and his audience still followed him. Later in life, Brubeck composed symphonies and was lauded by his fans and garnered new respect in the world of classical music.
In honor of Brubeck, I suggest music fans everywhere "Take Five" and listen to his classic recording and appreciate the life of a musician who carved his own groove in the world of music.
What’s your favorite Dave Brubeck tune? Comment on Twitter @DBCurrent #TheHighNote
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