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Dave Brubeck - The 1950's

Nov 8, 2019

Dave Brubeck
Credit New York Times

Sunday Night Jazz Showcase

Program #269 (November 10 at 8:00 p.m.)

In the 1950s and '60s, few American jazz artists were as influential, and fewer still were as popular, as Dave Brubeck.

At a time when the cooler sounds of West Coast jazz began to dominate the public face of the music, Brubeck proved there was an audience for the style far beyond the confines of the in-crowd, and with his emphasis on unusual time signatures and adventurous tonalities, Brubeck showed that ambitious and challenging music could still be accessible. And as rock & roll began to dominate the landscape of popular music at the dawn of the '60s, Brubeck enjoyed some of his greatest commercial and critical success, expanding the audience for jazz and making it hip with young adults and college students.

David Warren Brubeck was born in Concord, California on December 6, 1920. Brubeck grew up surrounded by music -- his mother was a classically trained pianist and his two older brothers would become professional musicians -- and he began receiving piano lessons when he was four years old. Brubeck showed an initial reluctance to learn to read music, but his natural facility for the keyboard and his ability to pick up melodies by ear allowed him to keep this a secret for several years.

His father worked as a cattle rancher, and in 1932, his family moved from Concord to a 45,000-acre spread near the foothills of the Sierras. As a teenager, Brubeck was passionate about music and performed with a local dance band in his spare time, but he planned to follow a more practical career path and study veterinary medicine. However, after enrolling in the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, Brubeck played piano in local night spots to help pay his way, and his enthusiasm for performing was such that one of his professors suggested he would be better off studying music. Brubeck followed this advice and graduated in 1942, though several of his instructors were shocked to learn that he still couldn't read music.

Brubeck left college as World War II was in full swing, and he was soon drafted into the Army; he served under Gen. George S. Patton, and would have fought in the Battle of the Bulge had he not been asked to play piano in a Red Cross show for the troops. Brubeck was requested to put together a jazz band with his fellow soldiers, and he formed a combo called "the Wolfpack," a multi-racial ensemble at a time when the military was still largely segregated.

Brubeck was honorably discharged in 1946, and enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he studied under the French composer Darius Milhaud. Unlike many composers in art music, Milhaud had a keen appreciation for jazz, and Brubeck began incorporating many of Milhaud's ideas about unusual time signatures and polytonality into his jazz pieces. In 1947, Brubeck formed a band with several other Mills College students, the Dave Brubeck Octet. However, the Octet's music was a bit too adventurous for the average jazz fan at the time, and Brubeck moved on to a more streamlined trio with Cal Tjader on vibes and percussion and Ron Crotty on bass.

Brubeck made his first commercial recordings with this trio for California's Fantasy Records, and while he developed a following in the San Francisco Bay Area, a back injury Brubeck received during a swimming accident prevented him from performing for several months and led him to restructure his group.

In 1951, the Dave Brubeck Quartet made their debut, with the pianist joined by Paul Desmond on alto sax; Desmond's easygoing but adventurous approach was an ideal match for Brubeck. While the Quartet's rhythm section would shift repeatedly over the next several years, in 1956 Joe Morello became their permanent drummer, and in 1958, Eugene Wright took over as bassist. By this time, Brubeck's fame had spread far beyond Northern California; Brubeck's recordings for Fantasy had racked up strong reviews and impressive sales, and along with regular performances at jazz clubs, the Quartet began playing frequent concerts at college campuses across the country, exposing their music to a new and enthusiastic audience that embraced their innovative approach.

Brubeck and the Quartet had become popular enough to be the subject of a November 8, 1954 cover story in Time Magazine, only the second time that accolade had been bestowed on a jazz musician (Louis Armstrong made the cover in 1949). In 1955, Brubeck signed with Columbia Records, then America's most prestigious record company, and his first album for the label, Brubeck Time, appeared several months later.

A steady stream of live and studio recordings followed as the Dave Brubeck Quartet became the most successful jazz act in the United States, and in 1959, they released one of their most ambitious albums yet, Time Out, a collection of numbers written in unconventional time signatures, such as 5/4 and 9/8. While Columbia were initially reluctant to release an album they felt was too arty for the mainstream, their fears proved groundless -- Time Out became the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and in 1961, it bounded back into the charts when "Take Five" unexpectedly took off as a single, rising to 25 on the pop charts and five on the adult contemporary survey.

(provided by Allmusic)