Dave Brubeck: 1920-2012

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Dave Brubeck
Yesterday afternoon, my Leisure & Arts editor at the Wall Street Journal called with awful news: pianist-composer Dave Brubeck had died. He then asked if I could turn around an appreciation for Thursday's paper. No problem, I said. But after I filed the piece, the national news section wanted it, and the desk had to trim it considerably for space (go here). Since I loved Dave and his music, I thought I should share with you my longer, original appreciation—pre-haircut...

Pianist Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday at age 91 in Norwalk, Conn.—one day before his 92d birthday—was jazz's first LP superstar and one of the art form's most congenial ambassadors. Seemingly incapable of repressing a wide boyish grin that narrowed his eyes to slits, Mr. Brubeck exuded a sunny optimism on album covers that won over college students and young suburban adults, starting in the 1950s.

As a composer, Mr. Brubeck was a prolific writer of hummable jazz standards that appealed to insiders and non-jazz fans alike. These included “In Your Own Sweet Way," “Blue Rondo a la Turk," and “The Duke," which pianist Marian McPartland has said features the best jazz bass line ever written.

Though Take Five was recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959 and often is assumed to have been written by Mr. Brubeck, the song was actually credited to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond [pictured above with Dave Brubeck], a long-time member of Mr. Brubeck's group. When this writer visited with Mr. Brubeck in 2010, the pianist voiced disappointment that Mr. Desmond hadn't shared the credit with him, since the unusual 5/4 time signature was Mr. Brubeck's idea.

The magic and popularity of the Dave Brubeck Quartet rested with the contrast between Mr. Brubeck's pronounced and percussive piano style and Mr. Desmond's wistful, sailing approach on the saxophone's upper register. When they were joined in the early '50s by bassist Bob Bates and drummer Joe Dodge, the original quartet's appeal was immediate and infectious.

The quartet's upbeat appeal was leveraged on one of Mr. Brubeck's early Columbia LPs—"Jazz: Red Hot and Cool"—a live recording featuring model Suzy Parker leaning over the piano on the cover. The rapid popularity of Mr. Brubeck's 1954 albums landed him on the cover of Time magazine in November. In the article—entitled “The Man on Cloud No. 7"—Mr. Brubeck was depicted as an upbeat jazz artist who favored clean living.

Throughout the '50s, Mr. Brubeck recorded albums that not only broke new jazz ground with classical touches but also sold incredibly well. These Columbia LPs—the latter ones featuring Mr. Desmond with bassist Gene Wright and drummer Joe Morello—included “Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A.," “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia," “Gone With the Wind" and “Dave Digs Disney," a 1957 album that he proposed to producer George Avakian in a call from Disneyland after taking his children on the rides.

As a white jazz artist who resided in futuristic contemporary homes and appeared to be financially well-off, Mr. Brubeck often was the target of criticism from musicians who wondered how he managed to prosper. Mr. Brubeck addressed this issue during our 2010 conversation, insisting that he and his wife Iola started out relatively poor and were simply tireless savers and careful spenders.

Like his music, Mr. Brubeck was a study in contrasts. Born in Concord, Calif., the seemingly urbane artist grew up roping cattle on his father's ranch. Mr. Brubeck attended the College of the Pacific in the early '40s, where he met his wife.

Drafted in World War II, Mr. Brubeck almost lost his life twice—once after being plucked from the infantry to play in an Army band before the Battle of the Bulge began, and again after accidentally crossing into enemy territory and raising hair-trigger doubts at the American checkpoint when he nearly forgot the password for re-entry.

“One of the soldiers had a hand grenade in each hand with the pins pulled," he told this writer. “He did this to show me that if he were shot by us, he would take everyone nearby with him."

After the war, Mr. Brubeck enrolled at Mills College on the G.I. Bill, studying with modern classical composer Darius Milhaud, who insisted he stick with jazz. After graduation, Mr. Brubeck formed a jazz-classical octet and then a quartet, with Mrs. Brubeck shrewdly lining up concerts at a series of colleges, endearing him and his music to young students.

After a near-fatal swimming accident in Hawaii, Mr. Brubeck teamed with Mr. Desmond in 1951 after his convelescence. The group signed with Columbia in 1954 just as the label was expanding its jazz LP catalog. As the 1950s progressed, Mr. Brubeck and his quartet recorded steadily and appeared regularly at jazz festivals and on television, traveling abroad in the late '50s as part of the U.S. State Department's tours to promote freedom.

In the late '50s and early '60s Mr. Brubeck and his wife composed “The Real Ambassadors"—a jazz musical featuring Louis Armstrong and other artists. Recorded in 1961, the score was performed only once in 1962. “After Louis Armstrong's State Department tour in 1960, it was clear that he was America's real ambassador to the world," Mr. Brubeck told this writer. “He was the person most identified with America worldwide."

But to the Brubecks' great disappointment, the musical never made it to Broadway. “Joe Glaser was Louis Armstrong's manager and my manager," Mr. Brubeck said. “Joe didn't want two of his main moneymakers tied up night after night plus two matinees weekly."

From the 1960s onward, Mr. Brubeck continued to record and perform at universities, helping to found the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific. In 2009, he was named a Kennedy Center Honoree, and in 2010 he was the subject of a documentary—"In Your Own Sweet Way"—produced by Clint Eastwood. [Photo of Dave Brubeck above by Paul Slaughter]

“When I signed Dave to Columbia in June 1954, I knew he was a fine artist and that his music would appeal to young people," Mr. Avakian said yesterday. “But I had no idea how big he'd become and how fast. Within weeks, sales of his first album—"Jazz Goes to College"—exceeded his advance. That's when I knew we had huge jazz star." [Pictured above: George Avakian]

JazzWax note: To read my interviews with Dave, go here, (this one is a five-parter, so go to the top of Part 1, above the red date, and click on Part 2), here, here and here.

JazzWax tracks: One of my favorite collections is The Dave Brubeck Quartet: The Columbia Studio Albums Collection: 1955-1966 (Sony Legacy). You'll find it here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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