Dave Brubeck had been an elder statesman of jazz for decades when he died December 5, 2012, just a day shy of his 92nd birthday. He was widely respected as a jazz pianist, composer, innovator and bandleader. Brubeck was also known for his work in genres beyond jazz, most notably sacred orchestral music.
The respect Dave Brubeck inspired was well deserved. But it was not easily attained or quick in coming. On the 1960 album Look Forward in Anger, Mort Sahl mocks Brubeck, saying his music belongs in Disneyland. Miles Davis was quoted as saying Brubeck didn’t swing. Jazz critics seemed of one mind that Brubeck’s piano style was routinely heavy-handed. Many openly wondered why the quartet’s great alto saxophonist Paul Desmond didn’t join a better group. Oh yes, and Brubeck was white.
These pointed criticisms had to be painful, but if they were, Dave Brubeck never let on. Certainly there were tangible accolades he could point to: being on the cover of Time in 1954, for one. And this, a full five years before his quartet would release one of the most famous and largest-selling jazz albums in history, Time Out. The widespread popularity of Brubeck’s music was undeniable when he placed a single from the album, “Take Five,” on the Billboard Pop chart.
Record sales, jazz magazine awards, successful tours (domestic and abroad)-these were all public acknowledgements of Brubeck’s talent. But even as late as 1980, when National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg interviewed Brubeck on the occasion of Bill Evans’ death, Stamberg appeared dismissive of Brubeck’s own place in the jazz pantheon. Question after question revolved around the assumption that Brubeck was a far lesser light than Evans, unfit even to be his page-turner.
Brubeck remained cool. Whether the disparaging word came from an interviewer, a critic, or a colleague, Brubeck remained cool.
Dave Brubeck was proud of his accomplishments, to be sure. He was happy to take credit for his innovations, most notably with unusual time signatures in jazz compositions. But there was much more. When I indicated to him that his sacred jazz writings preceded those of Duke Ellington, he enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to stress this often misconstrued point about his innovative religious music.
He was also quick to credit his wife Iola for her contributions. After our interview had concluded, he phoned me back to stress that Iola was responsible for the libretto to The Real Ambassadors and then detailed other valuable contributions she had made to his music and career.
Brubeck was pleasant and communicative when he didn’t need to be. My son’s piano teacher had given him “Sun Up” to prepare as a contest piece. This is the opening section of Brubeck’s Reminiscences of the Cattle Country, a solo work written in 1946. I suggested to my son that he write and tell Mr. Brubeck about it. To our surprise, Dave Brubeck sent a personal, handwritten note to my son thanking him for playing “Sun Up” and requesting a tape recording of his performance!
The naysayers would eventually be silenced. Sahl lost his audience, and critics busied themselves with hating newer jazz artists. Even Miles modified his stance, telling Brubeck, “You swing. It’s your band that doesn’t swing.” Ah well; it’s Miles.
Brubeck would receive recognition until the very end. His quartet continued winning Downbeat magazine readers’ polls, and in 2009 Brubeck was honored by the Kennedy Center. But in spite of various life achievement awards, Dave Brubeck never seemed content to stop his explorations into the vast universe of music. In my 2009 conversation with him about his sacred music, it was clear that death was not on his agenda. When I asked if he were familiar with Wynton Marsalis’ religious work In This House, On This Morning, Brubeck quickly replied, “Not yet.” There was no doubt that he would search out the work. He would make time to do so because he was still extremely interested in learning, and also perhaps in checking out the competition.
To say that the death of Dave Brubeck represents the end of an era is really a misnomer. Brubeck was so original that he really belongs to no single era. And as such, his music fits comfortably within all eras. The sound of Brubeck’s recordings remain fresh and the performances inspired. Don’t spend time mourning or missing Dave Brubeck-listen to his music!
Selected Recommended Discography
Time Out-The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia Records, 1959)
An absolute must. It is the Brubeck album.
From this point, I encourage the listener to go both backward and forward.
Jazz at Oberlin-The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Fantasy, 1953)
A great live set, and one of Paul Desmond’s favorites.
Jazz Goes to College and Jazz Goes to Junior College-The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia, 1954 and 1957)
Two separate LP releases combined. Like Oberlin, it is great to hear the working quartet on live dates prior to the mega-stardom that “Take Five” brought.
Compadres (Columbia, 1968)
A live recording from Mexico featuring baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.
All the Things We Are (Atlantic, 1973)
A remarkable studio set that shows Brubeck at another peak.
Time Signatures: A Career Retrospective [1946-1991] (Columbia, 1992)
A 4-CD set that does a great job of presenting Brubeck’s music. This collection features selections from five different labels for which the pianist recorded.]
In May 2009 I had the opportunity to speak with Dave Brubeck. The transcript of the interview will be forthcoming in this column.