Brubeck, David Warren ("Dave")

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BRUBECK, David Warren ("Dave")

(b. 6 December 1920 in Concord, California), pianist and composer who helped popularize "cool" jazz among white audiences in the 1950s and 1960s.

Brubeck was the youngest of three sons born to Howard "Pete" Brubeck, a cattle wrangler and championship roper, and Elizabeth Ivey, a pianist and piano teacher. Brubeck played the piano from the age of four. By the time he was twelve, the family moved from the San Francisco suburb of Concord to a remote ranch managed by his father outside Ione, California.

Brubeck majored in veterinary medicine his first year at College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, but soon switched to music. He practiced, and experimented with, the time signatures of swing music on an old upright piano in a basement flat he and his buddies called the "Bomb Shelter." Brubeck met Iola Marie Whitlock, a drama major, and on 21 September 1942—several weeks after Brubeck graduated and enlisted in the army—he and Iola married. The couple eventually had six children.

For two years in the army, Brubeck served band duty at Riverside's Camp Haan. In 1944 he formed the Wolf Pack, an integrated army band, while serving in the Third Army under General George Patton in Germany. After his discharge in 1946 he studied counterpoint and polytonality under Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Several years of struggle followed, until 1949, when San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons began broadcasting recordings by Brubeck's group, then called the Dave Brubeck Trio. Also in 1949, fans polled in Down Beat and Metronome voted the Dave Brubeck Trio the best new instrumental group of the year. After adding alto saxophonist Paul Desmond to the mix, the new Dave Brubeck Quartet's first album on Columbia, Jazz Goes to College, became one of the ten top-selling albums of 1954, and later that year Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

The U.S. State Department sent the quartet to eighteen countries in Europe and the Middle East in 1958, a tour that gave Brubeck the idea of recording an album with unusual time signatures. Over the strong objections of Columbia's marketing department, Time Out, featuring Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a La Turk" in 9/8 time and Desmond's "Take Five" in 5/4 tempo, was produced in 1959. It would go on to sell one million copies.

At the start of the 1960s Brubeck was America's biggest-selling jazz musician. He persuaded Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson to release a single of "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo" for radio and jukebox play. Conscious of how easily a listener might lose his way in a quintuple meter, Brubeck played a constant vamp figure, improvising accompaniment throughout "Take Five." Desmond then tamed the 5/4 time signature with a sweet sound listeners likened to the taste of a dry martini. Critics maintained that jazz could not be performed with such esoteric meters, but fans disagreed, pushing the single in 1961 to the top of the charts and making it the first jazz single to become a gold record.

"Creating a hit with 'Take Five,'" Brubeck admitted, "was the furthest thing from any of our minds. It was never supposed to be a hit. It was supposed to be a Joe Morello … drum solo, but the catchy melody and the insistent rhythm, I guess, is what got them." The 1960s seemed ready for innovation in jazz, he thought, and for a relaxation of previous distinctions between purely popular music and jazz improvisation. "In other countries folk music was not limited to 4/4," he said, "and I sensed that was now true in America too."

The Dave Brubeck Quartet remained the most popular jazz group of the sixties, topping the Down Beat readers' polls in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965, as well as Billboard's disc jockey poll in 1962 and its reader's polls in 1965 and 1966. Throughout the period the quartet continued recording, and played up to 250 shows a year. Brubeck communicated with college-age audiences, the jazz historian Stanley Crouch suggested, "because of his individual, improvisational style. When you hear him playing the piano, you know that's Dave Brubeck." Ted Gioia, an authority on West Coast jazz, maintained that 1960s youth culture was ready to embrace a style they saw as "quintessentially American, upbeat, all-embracing and forward-looking."

The quartet's enthusiastically received concert at Carnegie Hall in February 1963 demonstrated the fact that people of all ages were turning on to Brubeck's music. Jazz Impressions of New York (1964) sold well and widely and was followed by the quartet's appearance in the Lincoln Center's "Great Performers" series of April 1966. In December 1967, after an exultant European tour, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was officially disbanded because its leader had wearied of the grueling schedule and wanted to spend more time with Iola and their six children. The pause also gave him time to explore his spiritual sensitivities. The Light in the Wilderness was a sixty-three-minute oratorio, based on the teachings and temptations of Christ, for which Iola provided the libretto. In March 1969 the Cincinnati Symphony premiered the piece, which the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television network broadcast on Easter morning.

The Gates of Justice, a jazz cantata that musically linked the Old Testament with the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., also debuted in 1969. A Fugal Fanfare, commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony on its seventy-fifth anniversary, was first performed 27 January 1970. Brubeck dedicated Truth Is Fallen, scored for orchestra, chorus, and rock band, to the students killed at Kent State and Jackson State universities in 1970. In the 1970s and 1980s Brubeck was back on the road, performing and recording his classical and jazz pieces with a new group. Four of his children often joined the tour: Darius on electronic keyboard, Chris on electric bass and trombone, Danny on drums, and Matthew on cello.

Brubeck produced more than 500 jazz and classical pieces, entertained seven U.S. presidents, and played for Pope John Paul II. Brubeck's status as a national treasure was confirmed in 1994 when he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. By then he had helped build a worldwide following for jazz. Brubeck found his sixty-year climb to the jazz heights an exercise in surprising self-discovery. "In jazz you perform as you compose," he told an interviewer; this made the music "a place to go beyond myself." In moments of inspiration, "I'm the happiest guy in the world," he said, because "when it's all working there's nothing better in this world."

Many of Brubeck's manuscripts and photographs, along with his correspondence, both business and personal, are held in the Dave Brubeck Institute for Jazz Studies at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California. A biography is Fred M. Hall, It's About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story (1996), which includes a discography through the summer of 1997. Brubeck's contribution to easing cold war tensions is analyzed in Ilse Storb and Klaus-Gotthard Fischer, Dave Brubeck: Improvisations and Compositions, The Idea of Cultural Exchange (1994). Brubeck discusses his life and art with Leonard Lyons in The Great Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music (1983), and with Hedrick Smith in Redis-covering Dave Brubeck, produced by South Carolina Educational Television in 2001 and aired on the Public Broadcasting System.

Bruce J. Evensen