The jazz pianist Dave Brubeck died on Wednesday in Norwalk, Connecticut, one day short of his ninety-second birthday. He was most famous for “Take Five,” which the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded in 1959, for their album “Time Out.” There’s a story behind the song. In the nineteen-fifties, the U.S. State Department cultivated a group of “jazz ambassadors,” whom they would send on tour around the world to demonstrate the overwhelming coolness of American culture. In 1958, they sent the Dave Brubeck Quartet to East Germany, Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Iraq. Fred Kaplan, in his book “1959,” describes the origin of “Time Out” this way:
Walking around Istanbul one morning, Brubeck heard a group of street musicians playing an exotic rhythm, fast and syncopated. It was in 9/8 time—nine eighth notes per measure—a very unusual meter for Western music…. Later that day, Brubeck had an interview scheduled at a local radio station. Like many broadcasters at the time, the station had its own symphony orchestra. When Brubeck arrived, the musicians were taking a break from a rehearsal. He told some of them about the rhythm that he’d heard on the streets and asked if anyone knew what it was. He hummed the tune, and several of the musicians started playing it, adding flourishes and counterpoint, even improvising on it. It was a traditional Turkish folk song, widely known—in Turkey.
As the tour continued, Brubeck kept listening for interesting rhythms, and he kept asking his quartet to experiment with them. Later, back in the States, the group recorded “Time Out”—an album of songs with unusual time signatures. “Take Five,” which is written in 5/4 time, was the breakout hit single. On the single’s b-side was “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” a song written in 9/8 time, like the music Brubeck had heard in Istanbul.
In June of 1961, Robert Rice profiled Dave Brubeck for The New Yorker, in an article called “The Cleanup Man.” Brubeck, Rice wrote, was a decidedly uncool cool jazz musician. He grew up on a ranch, and spent most of his youth wanting to be a cowboy (that accounts, Rice thinks, for the way he moves at the piano, “riding the piano stool hell for leather, as if it were a cow pony”). Brubeck liked to save money, didn’t smoke, and limited himself to one martini before dinner. (Paul Desmond, the quartet’s sax player, explained Brubeck’s experiments in hedonism this way: “Every five years or so, Dave makes a major breakthrough, like discovering room service.”) Brubeck once proudly declared, of his quartet, “We’re the worst-dressed group in America!” In his playing, he displays patience and fortitude. Brubeck calls himself “the cleanup man” because, when the other members of the quartet get tired of a solo and abandon it part-way through, he picks up the slack, out of a sense of duty. “The only part of the jazz world Brubeck has an affinity with,” Rich concludes, “is jazz.”
Brubeck almost didn’t become a jazz musician. At the College of the Pacific, in California, he started training to become a veterinarian, determined to move back home and work on his family’s ranch. But he was constantly distracted by music; in the evenings, he’d play in local jazz clubs. (He was, Rice says, “one of the sleepiest and most solvent undergraduates on campus.”) He eventually gave in and began taking courses in music. His mentor in the music department, a man named J. Russell Bodley, drafted the cowboy into the avant-garde. Bodley made Brubeck read Dostoevsky, Proust, and Mann, and presided over a discussion group “devoted to subjects like the Oedipus complex, Cubism, Marxism, logical positivism, and tone rows.” Brodley also introduced Brubeck to his future wife, Iola Marie Whitlock, “a girl,” Rice writes, “with a sensitive ear, a substantial literary gift, and a distaste for getting any grade lower than an A.”
Brubeck was drafted almost immediately after college, and, after some time in the U.S., was sent to a “replacement center,” from which new troops could be deployed, in Metz, in eastern France. He never saw combat, though: the general who ran the center turned out to love jazz. “Brubeck’s orders were somehow lost,” Rice explains,
Brubeck found himself ,the leader of a three- to twenty-eight-piece band, which the general sent into the nearby combat areas, in a two-and-a-half-ton truck, to play for the front-line troops. The band had no official existence whatever…. Since all its members, like Brubeck, were theoretically doing something else in a different place, it became the subject of an endlessly entertaining cat-and-mouse game between the camp authorities at Metz and the higher echelons. Every week or so, for example, Brubeck’s unit, at the front, would querulously ask the replacement center where Brubeck was, or demand sternly that Brubeck be produced at once. The replacement center would always reply, with a fine show of candid puzzlement, that nobody there had ever heard of anyone named Brubeck.
The ruse went on for so long that, eventually, the War Department called up Iola, in California, and asked her if she knew where her husband was. “She replied coldly,” Rice reports, “that if the Army didn’t know, she certainly didn’t, and added that the Army had better find him immediately.” Brubeck remained a bandleader for the rest of the war.
Rice’s Profile is at its most eloquent when it describes the collaboration among Brubeck, Desmond, and the rest of the quartet. The men, Rice explains, communicate constantly while they play, by “hammering hard on a certain chord or rhythm for a bar or two,” or “parodying each other’s phrases.” One of their favorite techniques involves lyrics and song titles. At one point, Desmond works a few bars from “Try a Little Tenderness” into one of his saxophone solos. Brubeck disagrees with the implied message—that his playing, at this particular moment, ought to be more “tender”—and replies, “strong in the consciousness of his own rectitude,” with a few bars of “You’re Driving Me Crazy!—What Did I Do?” Rice tells this story about one of the quartet’s adventures:
At perhaps two o’clock one recent morning, while [Desmond] was driving Brubeck—at a speed considerably above the legal limit—through Pennsylvania after a concert, he overtook a black sedan, which was proceeding at a rather leisurely pace. Presently, he became aware that the sedan was right behind him. He assumed that it was being piloted by a prankster, and he accelerated in order to get away from him. The sedan accelerated, too. Desmond slowed down. With a gentle whirring of a siren, the sedan pulled up beside him, and one of its occupants motioned to him to stop. Two men climbed out, wearing the broad-brimmed hats of Pennsylvania state troopers, and ordered Desmond to produce his documents, and to get out of the car and show them that he could walk a straight line. They then ordered him to get back in and follow them to “the Squire’s.” Presently, the two cars pulled into the driveway of a frame house, and one of the troopers called to an upstairs window that he had a speeder in custody. The group was admitted to a downstairs office, where the Squire sat down at a desk, inserted a long form in a typewriter, and for fifteen minutes filled it in with information that the troopers gave him. Then Desmond pleaded guilty as charged, and was fined fifteen dollars and sent on his way. The quartet had a concert the following afternoon, and in his first solo in the first number … Desmond strung together, with precision and grace, excerpts from “Pennsylvania Polka,” “Me and My Shadow,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” “Where Did You Get That Hat?,” “Would You Like to Take a Walk?,” “Down by the Station Early in the Morning,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” and “I Could Write a Book,” followed by the phrase from “Sixteen Tons” that goes with “I owe my soul to the company store.” Brubeck listened to the recital with a grin and, at the end of it, played a few plauditory chords before going about his own business.
Soon after they first played together, Rice says, Brubeck realized that Desmond “was his destiny,” and Desmond realized the same about Brubeck. And Desmond, of course, is only one of the many people with whom Brubeck collaborated. Later in his life, he made music with his sons, Dan (drums), Matthew (cello), and Chris (trombone and bass). He was, Rice writes, an emotional man. When he got his first taste of success, Brubeck bought a plot of land near Oakland, and eventually he and his family built a house there; “the living room has been built around a boulder he and his wife used to sit on when they visited the property and the house was just a theory.” If you’re a casual listener, you might not pick up on some of the cleverer aspects of Brubeck’s music—the interpolations of popular songs, the hints of Schoenberg, Bach, and Debussy, the counterpoint and canon. But you won’t miss the wit and warmth.