When pianist/composer Dave Brubeck passed away on Wednesday, December 5, just one day short of his 92nd birthday, jazz lost one of its most acclaimed innovators, but the wider world lost even more. Brubeck, who spent much of his long career freely shifting between — and sometimes blending — jazz and classical music, was the kind of artist Duke Ellington was talking about when he coined the phrase, “beyond category.” Even when ostensibly working under the jazz umbrella, Brubeck incorporated melodic and rhythmic ideas from other genres and other cultures, assimilating exotic musical notions from far-off continents into his own sound on one hand, and on the other recording jazz versions of songs from Disney films long before it was cool to do so. And like a handful of his peers (Miles, Mingus, etc.), Brubeck launched a legacy that influenced artists far outside the realm of jazz.
Dave Brubeck was born in Concord, CA on December 6, 1920. He started working as a jazz pianist while attending school in Stockton, CA. While serving abroad in the military during WWII, he led a racially integrated army band (unusual for the time). After the war, he studied with renowned classical composer Darius Milhaud, who was known for bringing a jazz influence to his work. Milhaud encouraged Brubeck’s interest in jazz, and the young pianist started the Dave Brubeck Octet in 1947. By the ‘50s, the octet had become a quartet, ultimately comprising the smoky sax of Paul Desmond, the time-transcending drumming of Joe Morello, and the visceral bass lines of Eugene Wright.
Watch the Dave Brubeck Quartet perform “Take Five” in 1961:
This fearless foursome etched its name into musical history in 1959 with the epochal album Time Out. The songs “Take Five” (named for its unconventional 5/4 time signature) and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” (in even more unusual 9/8 time) not only expanded the concept of how rhythms worked in jazz, they boasted unforgettable melodic motifs, and the former actually became a crossover pop hit (a feat not much more common for a jazz tune in 1959 than it is now). The natty, bespectacled Brubeck and his band were sort of the Elvis Costello or Vampire Weekend of their world, sporting a cerebral, geek-chic image while captivating a broad spectrum of listeners with a surprising-but-accessible new sound. Jazz Goes to College wasn’t just an album title for the group, it was an aesthetic, one whose influence has filtered down through the decades in several directions.
It’s no wonder, for instance, that Steely Dan mastermind Donald Fagen saluted Brubeck in the lyrics of “The New Frontier” from his 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly. Vic Garbarini of Musician Magazine remembers, “Steely Dan told me a lot of their education started when they first heard him.” Steely Dan was far from the first rock act to come under the spell of Brubeck, and they probably weren’t the first either. It’s long been suggested that the Beatles, either consciously or subconsciously, appropriated much of the melody for 1963’s “All My Loving” from another Time Out tune, the strikingly similar “Kathy’s Waltz.” In subsequent decades, “Take Five” became a sample staple, with everyone from 3rd Bass to Pop Will Eat Itself interpolating the track into their songs. Brubeck’s fellow Stockton dwellers, Pavement, even recorded an overt homage to the tune: the jazzy instrumental “5-4=Unity” from their milestone 1994 album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Besides providing the name for a 1980s U.K. New Romantic band, “Blue Rondo a la Turk” boasted knuckle-busting riffs that appealed not only to legions of jazzers but to rock virtuosos – in his first band, the Nice, Keith Emerson based his “Rondo” on the tune, bringing it with him into Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s world as well. Later, famed guitar shredmaster Paul Gilbert (Racer X, Mr. Big) would cut a fret-burning version of Brubeck’s serpentine song for one of his solo projects.
Listen to Pavement’s “5/4=Unity”:
Of course, Time Out was merely the beginning of a lifetime of explorations for Brubeck, both with his classic quartet and a wide array of other ensembles, at one point including his sons Darius, Chris, and Dan under the moniker Two Generations of Brubeck. Over the course of his nearly 60-year recording and composing career, in among the bounty of forward-looking jazz works, Brubeck’s output has encompassed everything from dance pieces for The American Ballet Theatre to cantatas and oratorios premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and a “mini-opera” based on the John Steinbeck novel Cannery Row.
In his long life, Brubeck earned just about every honor imaginable — a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, honorary degrees from universities all over the globe, you name it. Although he came up in the cool-jazz period and first found fame as an icon of the Mad Men era, David Warren Brubeck tapped into something that has spoken to the searching spirit in every generation that’s come along since. As his fan Fagen put it in his aforementioned tune, “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes, I like him too/He’s an artist, a pioneer/We’ve got to have some music on the new frontier.”