The quartet which he led between 1951 and 1967 achieved a level of popularity rarely seen in jazz, before or since. Its recording of Take Five (1959) remains one of the few jazz records instantly recognised by members of the general public. Brubeck, with his studious manner and earnest progressivism, aroused sharply conflicting views among musicians and critics. Charlie Parker admired him, whereas Miles Davis found his playing deficient in swing. Jazz aficionados, suspicious of his great popularity, often complained that his music was lightweight and excessively cool, or even that he did not play real jazz at all.
These accusations continued to rankle throughout his later career and he was always quick to take issue with them. “Listen to our version of Look For The Silver Lining from 1952,” he demanded in an interview to mark his 91st birthday. “Tell me, what’s cool about that?” In fact, Brubeck’s music defined its own terms and found an echo with a world-wide audience.
David Warren Brubeck was born at Concord, California, on December 6 1920, the youngest of three sons of a cattle ranch manager. All three brothers grew up to become musicians, and their mother, a trained pianist, gave them their first music lessons. “She didn’t force me to play serious music,” Brubeck recalled, “but she gave me a lot of theory, ear training and harmony.” The family did not possess a radio when he was a child, and he heard virtually no jazz until he entered high school. His summer vacations were spent on cattle drives with his father.
His first ambition was to be a veterinarian, and he enrolled at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, to study for that profession. The attractions of the college music department, however, proved irresistible: “At the end of a year the zoology teacher said, 'Brubeck, Why don’t you just go over there? That’s where you belong.’”
He played in local bands while at the college and was able to visit San Francisco and hear such jazz stars as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman in person, as well as sit in with bands in small clubs. It was at college, too, that he met his future wife, Iola.
After graduating in 1942, Brubeck joined the Army. Not knowing where he might be sent, he and Iola married soon afterwards. He was stationed at Camp Hamm, near Los Angeles. There he joined the unit band, which was made up largely of musicians from the Hollywood Studios. His unorthodox and experimental playing caused bafflement among them: “I wasn’t really accepted, only by the furthest-out jazzmen in the band.”
Learning that Arnold Schoenberg was living in exile in Los Angeles, Brubeck applied to study with him and brought along some music he had written: “[Schoenberg] wanted to know the reason for every note. I said, 'Because it sounds good,’ and he said that wasn’t an adequate reason, and we got into a huge argument.” The relationship ended after two lessons.
Eventually, in 1944, Brubeck was posted to Europe as part of Patten’s army, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. He was put in charge of a scratch band, entertaining Allied troops. This was, he later claimed, perhaps the only racially mixed unit in the segregated US Army. On one occasion his band’s truck found itself behind enemy lines. Beating a hasty retreat, they came close to being shot by their own side when Brubeck forgot the password at a checkpoint.
Discharged in 1946, Brubeck enrolled at Mills College, under the GI Bill of Rights, to study composition with Darius Milhaud: “I was going to give up jazz because of all the hassle I’d had, even in the Army, getting musicians to play my stuff.” It was Milhaud who persuaded him to persist with jazz, saying that every true composer expressed the culture from which he came, and that jazz was the folk idiom of America. There were several jazz musicians among Milhaud’s students and they formed a band to play their own compositions. This became Brubeck’s first jazz group, the Dave Brubeck Octet, which recorded for the Fantasy label in 1949 and began to attract a following on the West Coast.
In 1951 he had just completed a further series of recordings, leading a trio, when he suffered a near-fatal swimming accident. Diving into the sea, he hit a hidden sandbar and crushed several vertebrae: “I was in such bad shape that the guy in the ambulance radioed ahead to the hospital and said, 'I think we have a DOA here’.”
While recovering in hospital, Brubeck reconsidered his plans for a trio and concluded that he would need another solo instrument to complement his piano. He remembered an alto saxophonist, named Paul Desmond, whose playing had impressed him, and wrote inviting him to join and turn the trio into the first Dave Brubeck Quartet.
When the Quartet was launched in 1952, Brubeck adopted the policy of recording all its performances, using tape recorders manufactured by a new firm, Ampex, based at Redwood City, near his home. As a result, the Quartet’s first albums, Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz at College of the Pacific (1953), were live recordings. Through them, Brubeck’s name became established in jazz.
As the titles suggest, he had identified a significant new audience among college students. Jazz groups had always played at colleges, but hitherto mainly for dancing. The Dave Brubeck Quartet gave concerts. Throughout the 1950s jazz grew in popularity with students and young professionals, and the Quartet’s whole style of presentation was designed to appeal to them. Its members looked the part, especially Brubeck, with his professorial horn-rimmed glasses, while over the proceedings there hovered the unspoken suggestion that here was a new, superior, more intellectual form of jazz.
In 1954 Brubeck’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, accompanying an article on his remarkable rise to prominence, and he moved from Fantasy to the giant Columbia Records. The first two Columbia albums, Jazz Goes to College and Brubeck Time scored sales of pop proportions.
This was the period in which the US State Department began using jazz as part of its programme of cultural diplomacy, sending well-known bands to tour “non-aligned” countries. Such was the gamey reputation of jazz musicians at the time that there were misgivings about this in certain quarters. The studious Brubeck, however, was considered the perfect musical ambassador.
Starting in 1958, with a long tour in the Middle East, the Quartet travelled the world regularly for several years on government-sponsored tours. The music he encountered on his travels in turn influenced Brubeck and frequently coloured his music. The album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958) is a notable example of this.
The Quartet’s most successful album of all was Time Out (1959), a collection of pieces in unusual time signatures, from which came two singles which eventually made it into the pop charts, Take Five (composed by Paul Desmond) and Blue Rondo à la Turk (based on a theme by Mozart). This was followed in 1961 by Time Further Out, which included the catchy It’s A Raggy Waltz.
Brubeck’s talent for melody was evident throughout his career. Miles Davis, despite his views on Brubeck’s piano style, recorded two of his tunes, The Duke and In Your Own Sweet Way, both exceptionally pretty melodies.
In 1962 Dave and Iola Brubeck composed a musical play on the theme of international understanding, entitled The Real Ambassadors. Strenuous efforts were made to secure a Broadway or West End production, but to no avail. However, concert excerpts were presented at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, with Louis Armstrong singing the leading role, and a live recording was released.
The college audience eventually deserted jazz in favour of “progressive” rock. Brubeck disbanded the Quartet in 1967, intending to devote himself mainly to composition. His orchestral work A Light in the Wilderness was written at this time. It was followed by The Gates of Justice, a cantata combining passages from the Old Testament with extracts from the work of Martin Luther King; numerous choral and orchestral works; ballet suites; the “mini-opera” Cannery Row, based on Steinbeck’s novel; and a Mass, To Hope. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1980.
Brubeck did not, after all, give up playing jazz, and led a series of bands in later years. The first of these featured the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, whose fame almost matched his own. Between 1987 and 2005 he led a very successful quartet including the virtuoso saxophonist and flautist Bobby Militello and, for a while, the British bassist Alec Dankworth. At other times his groups have included some or all of his sons – Darius, Chris, Danny and Matthew Brubeck.
His own playing mellowed considerably in later years. This is particularly marked in piano solo recordings, the best of which have a gently reminiscent tone: Just You, Just Me (1994) and One Alone (2000) affectionately recall the West of his youth, with snatches of hymns and old American songs subtly woven into the fabric. Private Brubeck Remembers (2004) features tunes of the war years.
Dave Brubeck received many honours, medals and honorary degrees. He performed at the White House on numerous occasions and, with his wife, endowed the Brubeck Institute at the College (now University) of the Pacific. He had five sons and a daughter.