Dave Brubeck found success by following his own lights, playing with all his heart.
Dave Brubeck was an exuberant American original whose expansive musical world encompassed cowboy songs, Stravinsky, Bach, Turkish scales and two-fisted Harlem stride piano. All of that found its way into his jolting jazz solos, often in three different keys.
Brubeck, who died Dec. 5, a day before his 92nd birthday, told a funny story about his music during a priceless audio interview with Walter Cronkite included with "Private Brubeck Remembers," a beautiful 2004 solo piano recording of World War II-era tunes that held meaning for the piano-playing rifleman in Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army. Before he went off to war, Brubeck played a concert at his alma mater, the College of the Pacific in Stockton, where his father, a cattleman and championship rodeo roper, was asked by reporters what he thought of his son's music.
"That was the damnedest bunch of noise I've ever heard in my life!" replied Pete Brubeck. He could never understand why his son preferred smoky nightclubs to the clean air of the 45,000-acre ranch he ran for H.C. Howard, the guy who owned Seabiscuit.
"That's an honest critic," Brubeck says with a laugh.
Brubeck's mother, Elizabeth, wanted to see him on the classical stage. But young Dave, who after the war studied composition and counterpoint at Mills College with the jazz-loving French modernist Darius Milhaud, refused to practice the classics, much to her dismay.
She changed her tune after hearing a record by one of Brubeck's heroes, Art Tatum, the Rubinstein of jazz piano, on the car radio. Dazzled, she turned to her son and said: "Now I understand why you want to play jazz."
A lot of critics knocked Brubeck after the boldly idiosyncratic pianist and composer rose to fame in 1950s San Francisco, including, at times, The Chronicle's revered Ralph J. Gleason, who played Boswell to one of Brubeck's idols and influences, Duke Ellington. They said Brubeck's harmonically dense, often percussive playing didn't swing. And sometimes it didn't, at least not in the conventional sense.
But the pianist, whose ingenious melding of rocking early jazz piano styles and complex European harmony struck a chord with the fledgling iconoclast Cecil Taylor and open-eared audiences, could create enormous excitement with his passionately hammered off-the-beat chords and stomping choruses.
You feel that listening to classic Brubeck records like "Jazz at Oberlin," the live 1953 recording that captures the inspired improvised counterpoint between the pianist and Paul Desmond, the wry San Francisco sybarite whose lovely dry-martini tone and lyricism were essential ingredients in the Brubeck sound. They play all standards, like "How High the Moon" and "Stardust" in unbounded performances that jump and flow from Bach to Bird to James P. Johnson, shifting and overlaying time signatures and tonalities in the heat of the moment.
Desmond, who wrote "Take Five," the irresistible melody in 5/4 time that became the biggest-selling jazz single of all time, first met Brubeck at the Presidio in 1944, when the pianist auditioned for the Army band he had hoped in vain would keep him from shipping out to Germany. He jammed with Desmond and other band members.
"I was using a lot of wild things in polytonality, playing in two keys at once," Brubeck told NPR in 1999. "Paul said, 'He's stark raving mad.' But it was more - or less - of a joke. He knew I could really play."
Desmond, a marvelous storyteller who used to hang out here with wits like Herb Caen and Mort Sahl, told the same basic story to Downbeat, describing his first encounter with the "ferocious-looking, wild-haired" cat, with his "pile-driver approach to the piano, and the expression of a surly Sioux."
With drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright, Brubeck and Desmond recorded the 1959 masterpiece "Time Out." Among other pleasing numbers, it features "Take Five" and another flawless gem, Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." The tune shifts from 9/8 time, a pattern he'd heard on the streets of Istanbul during a State Department tour, to 4/4 swing and back, artfully merging the form of a classical rondo with the blues.
"It wasn't supposed to be a hit," Desmond said of "Take Five." "It was supposed to be a Joe Morello drum solo."
Two years after that record made him rich and really famous, Brubeck, who refused to play segregated clubs or perform concerts or TV shows without Wright, who was black, took on segregation and racism in "The Real Ambassadors." He and his lyricist wife, Iola, wrote the suite for Louis Armstrong. They considered him the real ambassador of American culture.
The piece, which was recorded in 1961 with Armstrong; Carmen McRae; Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; and others, was performed only once, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962, with the same cast. Forty years later, the irrepressible pianist, who lived for music and his large family, reprised the piece at Monterey with younger artists. He had never forgotten the electric feeling of the original performance.
"Louis just expressed so much emotion," Brubeck told me when I interviewed him for The Chronicle. He remembered Armstrong welling up when he sang, "They say I look like God/ Could God be black, my God," and Dizzy Gillespie coming backstage with tears in his eyes.
Wherever he appeared over the ensuing decades, whether it was at Monterey or the San Francisco Jazz Festival or some Symphony pops concert, Brubeck never held back, pouring himself into the music.
"I love to play," he said at 81. "When you love something, you just don't want to stop."