Dave Brubeck (born 1920), who is considered the most widely acclaimed jazz musician of his time period, has been described as everything from mystical to methodical.
According to Robert Rice of the New Yorker, the combo led by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck during the 1950s and 1960s was "the world's best-paid, most widely travelled, most highly publicized, and most popular small group." While Brubeck can be considered the world's most widely acclaimed musician of his period, he is also quite possibly its most criticized, having been described as everything from mystical to methodical. Stanley H. White wrote in Jazz Journal in 1958 that Brubeck's "ability to improvise fluently on almost any given theme, and his ability to swing with both drive and imagination make him a jazz musician of singular merit"; two years later Joe Goldberg declared in Jazz Review "that jazz is not [Brubeck's] natural form of expression, but he is determined to play jazz, as if a man who knew five hundred words of French were to attempt a novel in that language."
Perhaps Rice's statement on the importance of Brubeck's music, that "it is impossible to make a comment—pro, con, or merely factual—that would not be disputed by a majority of the people who habitually play, listen to, or write about jazz," sums up the critical commentary that surrounds Brubeck's body of work. What can be asserted is that Brubeck, beyond the praise and fault-finding, beyond even the unexamined end result of his music, has always been an intelligent musician thoughtful of the process, an artist constantly seeking a new and justifiable means of creative expression.
"Perhaps the most significant contribution made by the Brubeck Quartet has been the integration of jazz and classical elements," Al Zeiger noted in Metronome. But Brubeck's precarious marriage of these two divergent styles has frequently offended stylists and aficionados of the pure jazz form. "He cannot always maintain the balance between jazz and classical music without forsaking an element vital to either one form," White appraised in Jazz Journal. More often than not, Brubeck's improvisations slip from jazz into classical colors, bringing up "a little canon a la Bach or some dissonant counterpoint a la Bartok or even a thrashing crisis a la Beethoven," a reporter for Time pointed out.
Brubeck's tendency toward peppering his jazz speech with classical tones is rooted in his childhood. His mother, a classically trained piano teacher, was a believer in prenatal influence. "She practiced all through her pregnancies," Brubeck related, according to Len Lyons in The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music. "When we were born, we were all put near the piano to listen to her practicing. I heard Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, and Bach from infancy." While his brothers took to classical training, Brubeck rebelled against his mother's teachings, preferring instead to make up his own songs. "There can be little doubt that his original interest in jazz arose as a protest against the idea of playing notes that were written on paper instead of the notes that were in his head," Rice wrote in the New Yorker. It is noteworthy that Brubeck did not learn to read music until later in life. Because of his acute musical ear, he was able to fool his mother by reproducing any piece after listening to it once or twice.
Despite Brubeck's early protestations, classical music informed his subsequent musical approach. He attested to this in an article he wrote for Down Beat at the beginning of his career: "Because the jazz musician creates music, interprets music as he hears it, it is natural that his improvised compositions should reflect every kind of music to which he has been exposed." Further exposure to the classical realm came through studies with the French composer Darius Milhaud.
After graduating with a degree in music and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Brubeck studied composition under Milhaud at Mills College for three years. From this classical instructor, Brubeck learned one important point about composing, as he explained to Michael Bourne in Down Beat: "One lesson was never give up jazz. And he told me I would be a composer on my own terms…. He said, 'If you don't reflect your own country and use the jazz idiom, you'll never be a part of this culture.' And, of course, Copland used it, Bernstein used it. Most of the important American composers have used jazz." But it seems that jazz was just a tool used to build his compositions, for in addition, Brubeck learned from Milhaud the usage of modern European polytonal harmonies on which he was to base his style.
After his apprenticeship under Milhaud, Brubeck sought a group sound for his compositions in 1949, first with an octet, then pared down to a trio. He also helped form Fantasy Records, the label on which he first recorded. But his definition of jazz—"an improvised musical expression based on European harmony and African rhythms," as he described it in Down Beat—was not fulfilled until Brubeck added alto saxophonist Paul Desmond to the group in 1951. "Desmond's yearning lyricism proved the perfect foil for Brubeck's percussive approach," Amy Duncan pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor. Another indication of Brubeck's keen judgement was his decision at the time to forego the night club circuit in favor of college campuses. The 1954 recording of one such tour, Jazz Goes to College, was the quartet's breakthrough, selling over a million copies and earning Brubeck the cover of Time's November 8, 1954, issue.
In Time's accompanying profile Brubeck was described as "a wigging cat with a far-out wail" who produces "some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born." His music and approach, which the article proclaimed heralded a new jazz age, "is neither chaotic nor abandoned. It evokes neither swinging hips nor hip flasks. It goes to the head and the heart more than to the feet."
But accompanying the rising acclaim was also rising derision. The debate over the purpose and sound of jazz divided the critical camps. Metronome's Zeiger lauded Brubeck's technique: "his texture has a refinement and lightness to it which, at times, is characteristic of the grace and elegance of Mozart"; but Jazz Journal's White stressed that "the unavoidable lack of beat, the absence of the jazz spirit—these indispensable jazz attributes—bring defeat to an otherwise highly intelligent and musicianly artist." Dave Gelly, writing in his book The Giants of Jazz, summed up the reasons for critical disapproval: "Brubeck's studious manner, his copious references to Milhaud and Hindemith in press interviews, his little lectures at concerts on how very complicated and demanding the next number was going to be, his quotations from Bach, the galloping pomposity of his piano solos." The public, however, continued its almost unanimous approval of the quartet. "The fact that it is admired by the public may explain the fact that it is scorned by many of the adepts," Rice assessed in the New Yorker. "'Popular' is an extreme [negative] in certain jazz circles."
With the substitution of Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass in the late 1950s, Brubeck formed the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet, which performed unchanged for almost ten years. Len Lyons and Don Perlo, in their book Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, described the basic elements of the quartet's music: "Fuguelike interplay among the instruments; clear (sometimes simplistic) thematic statements; excursions into polytonality; and a tight group sound." This definitive Dave Brubeck Quartet sound also bore the mark of irregular time signatures. Brubeck's belief that "new and complex rhythm patterns, more akin to the African parents, is the natural direction for jazz to develop," as he wrote in Down Beat, was fully realized on his famous 1959 recording, Time Out, which featured the hits "Take Five" (in 5/4 meter) and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (in 9/8 meter). "Take Five" was so well received that it even made the popular music charts, unheard of for an instrumental jazz recording. Time Out went on to become the first instrumental jazz album certified gold.
The quartet continued to record and tour successfully until 1967, when Brubeck decided to disband the group to fully concentrate on composing sacred music and jazz-influenced symphonic works. Among his compositions is the cantata Truth Is Fallen, commissioned in 1971 and dedicated "to the slain students of Kent State University and Jackson State, and all other innocent victims caught in the cross fire between repression and rebellion," Leonard Feather noted in his book The Pleasures of Jazz.
But Brubeck couldn't stay away from the quartet format and the improvisational element of jazz. "Jazz stands for freedom," he told Duncan of the Christian Science Monitor. "It's supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances." Since the early 1970s, Brubeck has recorded and toured with his quartet composed of various musicians, including a combination of his sons, and labeled Two Generations of Brubeck. Although not quite the force he was in the 1950s and 1960s, Brubeck continued to produce vital music, as Stereo Review's Chris Albertson attested to in a review of Brubeck's 1986 offering, Reflections, stating that "the album only partly reflects the past: the present is also strongly represented, and the blend is good…. There was always a lyrical side to Brubeck, and that—as several selections here demonstrate—is an aspect of his music that time has enhanced."
For over four decades Dave Brubeck has created music, both written and unwritten. He led one of the most successful quartets in the history of jazz without pandering to either popular or critical dictates, remaining "a paragon of obstinacy, and [playing], stolidly or not, as he pleases," Rice observed in the New Yorker. He has persisted in seeking a voice for his creations with an informed intellectual purpose. "Far from being a born jazz man, Brubeck is a creative artist, an artist who uses jazz as his means of self-impression and as a source of unbounded inspiration," wrote Jazz Journal' s White, adding that "the fundamental reason for Brubeck's failure to convince the jazz masses is simply that he attempted to bring something new into jazz."
Further Reading on Dave Brubeck
Feather, Leonard, The Pleasures of Jazz, Horizon, 1976.
Gelly, Dave, The Giants of Jazz, Schirmer Books, 1986.
Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music, Morrow, 1983.
Lyons, Len and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, Morrow, 1989.
Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 1989; August 17, 1989.
Down Beat, January 27, 1950; February 10, 1950; February 6, 1957; October, 1982; March, 1991.
Jazz Journal, February 1958.
Jazz Journal International, December 1988.
Jazz Review, February 1960.
Metronome, August 1955.
New Yorker, June 3, 1961.
New York Times, July 1, 1990.
Stereo Review, February 1980; November 1986.
Time, November 8, 1954.