Here’s a clip of four man jazz institution, the classic line-up the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing Brubeck’s piece “40 Days” live in Berlin (Brubeck: piano, Paul Desmond: alto saxophone, Eugene Wright: double bass, and Joe Morello: drums).

The classic Dave Brubeck quartet featuring Joe Morello (far left), Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright, and Brubeck himself.

I first heard “40 Days” on a thrown-together live compilation.  I loved how sad it seems to sound, with all of those minor chords that makes it feel more like a pop melody than a jazz or classical piece.  This track sounds so modern; to me it could have been recorded yesterday.  It originally comes from the 1965 album Time In, the last in the series of “time” albums on which the quartet experimented with multiple time signatures, sometimes in the same piece, and played simultaneously.

Brubeck was the first stop during my initial excursion into the vast musical world that is jazz.  In many ways, it was Brubeck’s interest in rhythm and interdependent melody lines and the skills he and his group had to make it interesting which allowed me access to the music, I think.

As a young pop fan in the 1980s, this was a whole new world opened up for me when I pulled a frayed and yellow copy of Brubeck’s The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe (now frustratingly out of print!) from the racks of my Dad’s record collection.  There was something familiar about what I was hearing, even though it was as far from anything I’d ever really listened to up until that point.

There was something about the warmth of the bass sounds from Gene Wright, and with Brubeck’s rhythmic piano almost played like a percussion instrument in places where in others it was delicate, as if waiting for my virgin ears to catch up with it.  Joe Morello’s drums were absolutely steadfast, subtle, and crisp.  And Desmond’s alto sax was like nothing I’d ever heard.  Desmond had once described his patented pure tone as “the sound of a dry martini”. But to me, it was like the essence of a beautiful woman’s voice.   These four square guys in suits and coke-bottle glasses had me hooked.

Brubeck studied composition formally under composer Darius Milhaud at the Mills College of Music in the 1940s after a stint as a part of Patton’s army in World War II.  Before then, he studied music at the College of the Pacific, an institution where he would often return when he began touring professionally, and where he would become an active patron of fellowships, educational programs and jazz festivals.

The Brubeck quartet was one of the first bands to focus on gigs at college campuses instead of traditional club circuits.  This move gained them a massive following. By 1954, Dave Brubeck was on the cover of Time magazine.  But by 1959, he realized that rhythm and time had not really been fully explored in the jazz world to the extent many other aspects had.

Luckily, he had a kindred spirit in Desmond, who contributed the Quartet’s most famous piece, “Take Five”.  The tune was a centerpiece on the Time Out album which remains to be a must-have record for anyone interested in jazz, composition, or music in general. That tune, along with many of the others on the album, played with shifting time signatures, sometimes with one musician playing in common time, while another played off it in 3/4 or 6/8 time.

As complicated and academic as this sounds written down, the quartet managed to make an immensely entertaining record.  This ability to deliver complex music which is as accesible as any pop record would be Brubeck’s genius.

Jazz critics were initially scornful about how much Brubeck appealed to the masses, especially when “Take Five” saw some success on the pop charts.  However, the group continued to build an audience and sell records, taking their brand of accessible and classically influenced jazz to nearly every continent with little regard to the increasingly insular and elitist nature of jazz criticism.

The classic Brubeck quartet line-up would break up in 1967, after Brubeck and Desmond had been playing together non-exclusively for seventeen years.  The break-up was amicable.  Brubeck would work with Gerry Mulligan by the end of the 1960s, and form groups well into the next few decades, including line-ups with his sons Darius, Chris, and Dan Brubeck.  Sadly, Paul Desmond died in 1977, well remembered as not only a consummate musician and innovative soloist, but also as a singular wit.

Now at age 87 (88 in December), Dave Brubeck still playing regularly.

Check out the Dave Brubeck official website for information about releases and tour dates.


[UPDATE: December, 2012. This year, Dave Brubeck passed away, one day before his 92nd birthday. His influence on my appreciation for jazz, and for music in general, cannot be calculated. And he left behind a multi-faceted legacy that went beyond the musical realm.

One aspect of this is an idea that we rightly take for granted today – the interracial band. During World War II, Brubeck’s band that he formed to entertain the troops included black musicians. He’d continue in this tradition, even before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Here’s an article about Dave Brubeck and his approach and influence to the question of jazz, race, democracy, and how he forsaw a future  world where difference isn’t something to be feared, but rather to be embraced for the benefit of everyone.



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