Dave Brubeck

1920 2012

Dave Brubeck


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The American pianist and composer Dave Brubeck is one of only a handful of jazz musicians to truly become a household name. Over the course of a career spanning more than six decades he distinguished himself as one of the pioneers of the cool jazz movement as well as being almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing odd time signatures in jazz. His works from his late period include two ballets, a mass, an oratorio, four cantatas and several works for jazz combo and symphony orchestra, during which time he collaborated with many of the world’s finest musicians in both classical and jazz. 

Brubeck was born in Concord, California into a musical family. His mother began teaching him piano at the age of four and he also had his two older brothers, both professional musicians, as role models. His road towards becoming a musician included many interruptions and false starts, including his father’s decision to uproot the family and move them to a cattle ranch when Brubeck was 12, a brief stint studying veterinary medicine at College of the Pacific, where he met his wife-to-be Iola Whitlock, and his decision to enlist in the U.S. Army after graduating. These turned out to be only minor setbacks, as Brubeck was able to hone his skills on piano through playing in bars and nightclubs, and lead one of the first racially integrated jazz bands in the U.S. Army while serving in Europe under General Patton.

Brubeck returned to California in 1946 and decided to further his music education at Mills College, where he studied with French composer Darius Milhaud and began to incorporate his signature elements of polyrhythm and polytonality, as well as a notable classical influence. While studying at Mills College Brubeck and several other students of Milhaud formed the Dave Brubeck Octet. The group received little recognition at the time but Brubeck was notable for marking his first collaboration with saxophonist Paul Desmond. Together they would go on to play for over a decade in the Dave Brubeck Quartet and release some of the most influential recordings in the history of jazz.

Soon after forming in 1951, the Dave Brubeck Quartet began touring colleges and universities in the States, a practice which helped to cement a loyal following among young people and has since been imitated by countless others. Several notable albums emerged from this period includingDave Brubeck Quartet, Jazz at the Black Hawk, and Jazz at Oberlin. In 1954, Brubeck’s rise to fame was marked by his appearance on the cover ofTime magazine, making him only the second jazz musician, after Louis Armstrong, to receive such an honor.

In 1959 the Dave Brubeck Quartet released the album Time Out. This moment in many ways marked the pinnacle of his career. The album rose to number two on the Billboard pop charts and became the first jazz album ever to sell over a million copies. In addition to the commercial success it brought about,Time Out was also hugely influential in jazz. Every track on the album is in an odd time signature or changes through multiple time signatures, which gave jazz musicians precedent to make their own experiments in the years and decades to come.

Brubeck achieved great acclaim during his career not just for his immense musical contributions but also for his advocacy on behalf of racial equality and democracy around the world. At the time the United States was still heavily segregated, especially in the South. Brubeck already had a history of forming racially integrated bands from when he served in the army and this continued in his quartet, which for many years included African-American bassist Gene Wright. As a result of this and his outspoken criticisms of segregation laws, Brubeck and the Quartet received many death threats and eventually required police escorts to play in the South. In 1960 Brubeck decided to cancel 23 out of a 25-show tour of Southern universities, rather than substituting Wright with a white bass player.  

His advocacy was not limited to domestic affairs; in 1958 the Dave Brubeck Quartet went on the first of many U.S. State Department sponsored tours. Their performances in countries including Poland, India, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan not only provided the quartet with ample musical materials and influences, they also served as a platform for spreading concepts of equality and democracy in many countries including those behind the Iron Curtain, often at great personal risk. Years later Dave Brubeck also refused the opportunity to play in South Africa, and earn $17,000, due to his opposition to the apartheid regime.    

Brubeck was deeply religious and devoted much of his later life to composing large and small-scale religious works, making him one of the first jazz musicians to do this, along with Duke Ellington. He also delved even further into classical art forms and instrumentations. His works from this period include two ballets, a mass, an oratorio, four cantatas and several works for jazz combo and symphony orchestra. During this time he collaborated with many of the world’s finest musicians in both classical and jazz, including Leonard Bernstein, Louis Armstrong, the American Ballet Theater, and most major orchestras in the United States including the New York Philharmonic and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  

Later in his life Brubeck moved to Norwalk, Connecticut where he remained active as a performer up until his death at the age of 91. He is remembered not only for his enduring popularity and massive contributions to the rhythmic and harmonic evolution of jazz but also for his tireless advocacy on behalf of racial equality and democracy.

Header photo: courtesy of the Milken Archive (Dave Brubeck at The Gates of Justice recording session, Goucher College. Baltimore, Maryland) Small images: public domain