“I thought jazz was much too tame.” -Dave Brubeck, 1961
Brubeck challenged jazz to take rhythmic risks and harmonic adventures. He reinvented the genre based on his signature style featuring polyrhythms, odd time signatures, and polytonality. It’s difficult to say whether Brubeck was predicting an inevitable evolution or whether the future of jazz evolved because of his innovations, but one thing Dave Brubeck could not possibly have predicted is the extent he would be long intertwined with jazz’s future.
Brubeck originally wanted to follow in his father’s career and become a cattle rancher. So in 1938, Brubeck enrolled in the College of the Pacific to study veterinary medicine. But providence, the teachings of his mother (a piano teacher), and geography stepped in when his zoology professor saw his mind was elsewhere and told him to “go across the lawn” to the conservatory the next year. Brubeck changed his major to music and immediately excelled, reaching the top of his class. He mastered composition, improvisation, performance of brass and reed instruments and until his senior year, successfully hid a secret from the entire music department - he couldn’t read a page of music. When the Dean found out, he threatened to prevent Brubeck from graduating. But after his teachers’ praise and defense of Brubeck’s musical abilities, the Dean allowed Brubeck to graduate with the stipulation that Brubeck promise never to teach music so not to “embarrass the school.”
It was this man, to whom sheet music was meaningless, and who was nearly barred from graduating music school, that introduced previously unheard time signatures, rhythms, and chords to jazz music. What Brubeck and the Dave Brubeck Quartet (featuring artists such as the famous Joe Morello on drums, Paul Desmond on alto sax, and Eugene Wright on bass) did was so innovative that many critics didn’t understand it. When using polyrhythmic techniques at a 1963 performance in Carnegie Hall, the quartet played a song where each member kept a different, individual tempo going for the whole song. The next day, a reviewer wrote, “The Brubeck Quartet can’t even keep time together.” What the critic couldn’t understand at the time was that the music was found in not trying to. Their polyrhythmic techniques involved playing multiple rhythms in a single piece of music. Joe Morello alone could play four different rhythms at once between his right and left feet and hands.
At the time he sat down with Ralph Gleason of Down Beat, Dave Brubeck explained that the Brubeck Quartet was the only jazz band he knew of that could play an entire concert without playing in 3/4/ or 4/4 time, the standard jazz signatures at the time. Drawing from their travels and cultural experiences abroad (including a 3-month State Department-funded tour of countries in the Middle East and behind the Iron Curtain in 1958), Brubeck borrowed from Turkish and African traditions and introduced songs in 9/8 (such as “Blue Rondo a la Turk”), 5/4 (such as the hit “Take Five”), and even 7/4 (as heard in “Unsquare Dance”). Always encouraging the band to invent their own time signatures, Brubeck wrote a piece in 10/4 and Desmond wrote another in 11/4 time for their album Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962). Countdown, like the quartet’s earlier albums Time Out (1959) and Time Further Out (1961) reflect the band’s constant push to expand their understanding of musical time as the possibilities seem to get all-the-way-out-to-space larger. Brubeck told Gleason, “Now, the idea was that jazz used to challenge the public and make them think in terms more advanced rhythmically than they were used to thinking in.” Beyond rhythm, Dave Brubeck challenged the public’s ear with polytonality, or playing in multiple keys in a single piece of music. Brubeck himself can play in two key signatures between his right and left hands, and pushed for interplay between multiple key signatures across instruments. And unlike the critic at Carnegie Hall, the public appeared ready for all Brubeck’s musical challenges when Time Out became the first jazz record to go gold with over a million copies sold.
Brubeck was, in many ways, a visionary. He saw that jazz needed to take on adventure and that people too needed to take risks. In his time during WWII, Brubeck attempted to racially integrate the Third Army jazz orchestra amidst a segregated military. Brubeck anticipated change and protected what needed to stay. And lucky for us, Brubeck maintains that he is here to stay. At 91 years old, Dave Brubeck’s future of jazz is the world’s present. He continues to tour throughout the United States and create new musical compositions. Today, Brubeck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honorary doctorates from six U.S. universities, and two others from Nottingham University in England and the University of Duisburg in Germany. Brubeck’s alma matter, the University of the Pacific, has established The Brubeck Institute where contemporary music can continue to grow through experimentation and improvisation - a huge leap from the time Brubeck studied when he wasn’t allowed to play jazz in the University practice rooms. Brubeck has garnered a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for 50 years worth of contributions as a composer and pianist, along with a National Medal of the Arts presented at the White House from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame. As a celebration of Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday, Turner Classic Movies released a documentary telling the story of Brubeck’s life and music. Created by Bruce Ricker and executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, the documentary, Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way, shows the pervasive impact Brubeck had on the entertainment industry with interviews with Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, George Lucas, and Bill Cosby. And as of 2001, the Brubeck Festival takes place annually in Stockton, California to celebrate Brubeck’s music and philosophical ideas through concerts, performances, and lectures. Dave Brubeck and the Dave Brubeck Quartet touch at the heart of good music, music that challenges itself, its listeners, entire genres, and even time itself.
Seymour, Gene. "Dave Brubeck at 90: 'I'm Very Fortunate'." Los Angeles Times 5 Dec. 2010.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.