Dave Brubeck, Legendary Jazz Pianist, Dies at 91

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 5 2012 1:15 PM

Dave Brubeck, 1920 - 2012

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Dave Brubeck in 2005

Photo by TIMM SCHAMBERGER/AFP/Getty Images

Dave Brubeck, the legendary jazz pianist, died at a hospital in Connecticut this morning, of heart failure. He would have turned 92 tomorrow.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Brubeck is best known for the album his quartet recorded in 1959, Time Out, which is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all-time—it reached no. 2 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Its most famous song, “Take Five,” was actually written by the group’s alto sax player, Paul Desmond; all other compositions were by Brubeck.

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“Take Five” was written in 5/4 time; the album has a variety of time signatures, partly inspired by Brubeck’s travels in Europe and Asia, which were sponsored by the U.S. State Department. This is most obvious with “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” which starts out in 9/8 time, and is based on music that Brubeck heard in Turkey.

Brubeck was just the second jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time, after Louis Armstrong—though he was apparently embarrassed about this, knowing that worthier black jazz artists had not been so honored. (While in the military, Brubeck formed one of the first racially integrated U.S. Army bands.) Slate’s Fred Kaplan mentions that embarassment in his book 1959: The Year That Changed Everything, which tells the story of how Time Out came to be. Below is an excerpt from that book, courtesy of the author.

*

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 in Western music, and the players phrased the notes in a still more jarring way: not 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, as might be expected, but 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3.

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—at least in Turkey.

Odd meters weren’t entirely new to Brubeck. He’s studied music at Mills College with Darius Milhaud, a classical composer whose works stressed multiple rhythms and dissonant tonalities. When Brubeck was still uncertain whether he should pursue a career in classical music or in jazz, he came to Milhaud for advice. Milhaud told him, “Travel the world, and keep your ears open.” And here he was, doing precisely that.

All during the 1958 tour, Brubeck heard odd meters and raga rhythms from local musicians, and when his quartet played with them, they were all astonished that his drummer, Joe Morello, could match these rhythms precisely.

When Brubeck got back to the United States, he was inspired to make an album that would break out of the standard 4/4 time that marked almost all jazz tunes, no matter how adventurous they might otherwise be. And he especially wanted to write something based on that 9/8 folk tune he’d heard in Istanbul.

brubecktime

Brubeck was one of the most famous jazz musicians in the country. In the early fifties, he hit on the idea of booking concerts on college campuses. He played a cool style of jazz—swinging but sophisticated, even cerebral. His alto saxophone player, Paul Desmond, had a similarly cool sound, which he himself likened to a “dry martini.” The college concerts were widely popular and led to a contract with Columbia Records. In November 1954, Brubeck made the cover of Time magazine. (The fact embarrassed him; he later said that one of the worst days of his life was when Duke Ellington showed him the cover. Brubeck knew that Ellington was more deserving of the recognition, except that he was black while Brubeck was white).

In short, as much as any jazz musician alive, Brubeck could do pretty much whatever he wanted. Yet even so, Columbia’s executives were loath to underwrite an album that consisted entirely of original music composed in weird meters. They finally agreed, but only if Brubeck first recorded an album of traditional songs from the South, including “Ol’ Man River,” “Swanee River,” “Camptown Races,” “Georgia On my Mind,” and—the album’s title tune—“Gone With the Wind.” The concept was conventional to the point of jejune, but everyone figured that the album would sell big. He started recording it in Columbia’s Hollywood studio on April 22, 1959—the same day that Miles Davis was in New York’s Thirtieth Street Studio, wrapping up Kind of Blue.

Two months later, having fulfilled his side of the bargain, Brubeck and the quartet flew to New York and—over three sessions, on June 25, July 1, and August 18—made the album that he’d wanted to make. It was called Time Out, and it would become, after Kind of Blue, one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever. After they realized that they had a hit on their hands, Columbia Records executives also released a 45-rpm single—consisting of two songs from the album—and it sold a million more copies. On one side of the single was “Take Five,” a Paul Desmond composition in 5/4 time (five quarter notes per measure instead of the usual four). On the other side was “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” based on the staccato 9/8 rhythm of the Istanbul street song.

The record’s huge success signaled that American audiences, on the eve of the sixties, were ready, even yearning, for at least a taste of the exotic.

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