Dave Brubeck: Rest in Peace

Dave Brubeck (December 6, 1920 – December 5, 2012)

Dave Brubeck, a great American jazz pianist, passed away on December 5th.

Brubeck was just one day short of 92 years old when he died, having lasted long enough so that his death became subject for commentary in formats he could not have imagined in the’ fifties and ‘sixties of the last century, his productive peak: his death in 2012 became fodder for the twittersphere.

Quincy Jones, for example, tweeted that Brubeck was “one of the great jazz pianists and composers of our generation.”

Ted Gioia, a historian of jazz, tweeted likewise that Brubeck was “a brilliant musician, a great innovator and a class act.”

What about dead tree newspapers? In one of them, The Telegraph, Ivan Hewitt says that Brubeck once told him of a childhood memory that dates to the work he used to do on his father’s ranch. The young Dave would listen “to the odd rhythms of animals and machinery in motion” and in particular developed a fondness for “a little water pump with a fascinating lopsided rhythm.”

Lopsided rhythms became a signature for Brubeck and for the ensemble, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, formed in 1951. Their most fondly remembered album, surely, is Time Out, released in 1959. It became the first jazz LP ever to sell more than a million, and still one of the best-selling jazz LPs ever.

Time Out, as its title hints, experiments with rhythms that would challenge the ear of the first listeners, like the 9/8 time of Blue Rondo a la Turk.

The year before the release of Time Out had been a busy one. [So I gather they needed some “time out”.] The DBQ had done a concert at Carnegie Hall in February 1958 that was recorded live, and another concert, in following month, in Copenhagen, Denmark, also recorded live.


I confess to a special attachment to events of the year of my own birth, 1958.

Shredding Biases

At any rate, one jazz critic has written, about that Carnegie Hall recording in particular, that “all those who have a big axe to grind with Brubeck, … who claim the band was only successful because it was predominantly white, or played pop-jazz, or catered to the exotica craze, or any of that” will have their “preconceptions, tepid arguments, and false impressions” shredded by any honest listen to this material. It might also be said here that the bassist, Gene Wright, was African-American.

The quartet would again be recorded live at a concert in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, at the Concertgebouw, in December 1962.

The Great Concerts, a compilation of material from the Carnegie Hall, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam recordings, was put out decades later. It was released in 1988, re-released in 1998, and re-re-released in 2009. Such was the longevity of the DBQ’s appeal!

The quartet was certainly a distinguished collection of talent, especially in the golden era. Membership changed over time, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s the other members of the DBQ were: Paul Desmond (the saxophonist, and a gifted composer), Gene Wright (bass – Wright had headed his own band before teaming up with Brubeck), and Joe Morello (drums.) Morello has the distinction of having turned down offers from both Benny Goodman’s and Tommy Dorsey’s bands in order to attach himself and his percussive skills to Brubeck in 1955.

In 1968, that group (sometimes called the “classic quartet”) split up, and Brubeck formed another, with Gerry Mulligan as the saxophonist, Jack Six at bass, and Alan Dawson on the drums. This later DBQ put out The Last Set at Newport in 1971.

Reimagining the Classics

In the nearly two years now that I have had the privilege of writing blog entries for JustSheetMusic, I have not often repeated myself. But I am happy to note that I’ve linked you to a DBQ performance once before. In September 2011 I offered a whimsical list of “great tunes with railroad-themed lyrics,” and one of those great tunes was Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ train.”

Here’s footage of the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing that song (using a subway train as their set) back in 1943. With all due respect to Ellington and everyone involved, I continue to prefer what the DBQ did with this when they revisited it.

As they did, for example, at that concert in Amsterdam I mentioned above: here.

Another classic tune that the “classic quartet” re-interpreted with wonderful consequences was “Pennies from Heaven”. This is an old Tin Pan Alley tune, composed in 1936 by Arthur Johnston and given its memorable lyrics by Johnny Burke, to be introduced to the world by Bing Crosby no less.

Here is Bing Crosby. I love that crooning. Still, when all is said and done, Brubeck did it better. The following is from 1954.

The “classic quartet” had not yet gelled in 1954. Brubeck was working with Desmond and his sax, but they did not yet have Wright or Morelli on board. Instead, it was Bob Bates on bass there, and Joe Dodge on the drums.

The classic quartet – Brubeck, Desmond, Wright, and Morelli, did “Pennies” at their Carnegie Hall appearance: here.

An Ambassador

Late in life, Brubeck was something of an Ambassador. He travelled to the Soviet Union in its final days, in 1988, and was treated their as a conquering hero. In an interview two years later he said, “The most amazing thing was when this guy from the secret police brought about 14 of my albums to one of my concerts and asked me to sign them!” He was clued in to what a “tough customer” that particular fan was, by U.S. embassy officials.

Jazz had long been considered decadent and bourgeois by the communist establishment, in the heart of the cold war and amidst officially formulated doctrines about “Socialist Realism” For a time, Brubeck could be heard behind the iron curtain only with the assistance of Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America broadcasts.

Anyway, it is time to say our final Good bye to Dave Brubeck, the central figure in each of the various editions of the Quartet/Ensemble that bore his name: the friend to music lovers everywhere.

Vale, friend Dave.


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