To hear Dave Brubeck explain it, Columbia Records wasn’t too keen on releasing Time Out, his 1959 album. After several albums for the label, the pianist prepared a set of original music that dabbled in such un-jazzy time signatures as 9/8 and 5/4. He also wanted an abstract painting on the cover. The marketing people panicked; no one could dance to it, and it might damage his reputation. It was only when Brubeck sent the recordings to Columbia president Goddard Lieberson, a composer himself, that he found support for the project. Eventually “Take Five,” the album’s centerpiece track, was released as a single, earning Brubeck a Top 40 hit, with a riff that reverberated beyond the jazz world. “Never listen to the sales team,” Brubeck, who passed in 2012, told Philip Clark, author of Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time.
It’s a great story of triumph over the squares in the marketing department, but Clark shows that things didn’t exactly play out that way. Brubeck’s technique never really wavered during his six-decade career, but his memory for details was shaky. With his wife Iola there to clarify things, and a massive archive of materials to access, Clark is able to tell the whole story.
Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time avoids the chronological route. (Not until page 302, three-quarters of the way in, is there mention of his 1920 birth in Concord, Calif.) It begins in 2003, when Clark shadowed the pianist on a 10-day tour of England. During their many hours together on the tour bus, Brubeck spoke freely about numerous aspects of his life. By starting in his autumnal years, the book almost cinematically conjures flashbacks to the past, which get fleshed out by other interviews, letters, or emails along the way: the 1953 tour that paired Brubeck’s quartet with Charlie Parker’s group; the formation of the “classic” quartet with saxophonist Paul Desmond; the sessions for Time Out that yielded “Take Five,” under some duress; and the often hostile reception that many critics gave Brubeck’s blend of classical music and jazz throughout his life.
The non-linear approach keeps the story compelling, and Clark’s transitions are smooth. He only briefly talks to bassist Eugene Wright, the last surviving member of the Brubeck Quartet, but his sharp writing conveys a great deal about Wright’s musical role and how the only non-white in the band entrenched Brubeck’s belief in equality, even if it meant losing significant tour money.
Comprehensively covering a career as vast as Brubeck’s proves to be a challenge. Some of his orchestral works get quick mentions, while his projects with his sons are reduced to some short, though detailed, quotes. But Clark also devotes much time to Brubeck’s pre-Time Out music, in particular the cooperative octet that came together at the College of the Pacific and issued one posthumous album. Clark’s musical descriptions avoid getting too technical, instead offering testaments to Brubeck’s skills. They might also inspire readers to revisit those older titles.