Jazz Pianist Brubeck Expanded Musical and Social Frontiers
Washington — In 1959, after a State Department–sponsored tour as a cultural ambassador, jazz musician Dave Brubeck released the album Time Out, incorporating some of the time signatures he and his band had been exposed to during their Eurasian travels, including the songs “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” which his record label doubted would win the appeal of American jazz fans.
Instead, Time Out became one of the genre’s greatest hits, peaking at number 2 on Billboard’s pop albums chart — the first jazz album to sell more than 1 million copies.
Brubeck passed away in Connecticut December 5, one day before what would have been his 92nd birthday, leaving a groundbreaking musical legacy of more than 500 songs and having lived a principled life that challenged his contemporaries to embrace racial integration and social justice.
Born on a California cattle ranch in 1920, Brubeck originally planned a career as a cattleman while learning to play the piano and several other instruments at home by ear. It was not until he left for college that he considered making a living in music, despite being nearly expelled when his professors learned that he could not read music.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army as a rifleman during World War II, but when his commanding officer heard him play the piano in a Red Cross traveling show in Europe, the officer told his aide-de-camp, “I don’t want that boy to go to the front,” and Brubeck’s military career become devoted to entertainment. It was in the Army that he first met alto sax player Paul Desmond, and the two developed an original musical style that combined Brubeck’s accented piano chords with Desmond’s haunting horn lines.
In 1951, Brubeck and Desmond formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which would eventually include its classic lineup of drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright. All performed on Time Out.
The band made it a priority to tour U.S. college campuses, a practice that has since become a standard for most popular American musicians trying to attract younger audiences. Live concert recordings were released as albums such as Jazz Goes to College in 1954, and a 1957 follow-up, Jazz Goes to Junior College.
PRINCIPLED STAND AGAINST RACIAL PREJUDICE
With the addition of Wright, who was African American, the Dave Brubeck Quartet became an integrated act at the height of the American civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and as a result it faced prejudice from many colleges in the South.
University officials demanded that Brubeck substitute a white bass player for Wright during the group’s 1960 tour, and many would not allow their audiences to be integrated. Rather than compromise, Brubeck cancelled 23 of the 25 concerts that had been booked, which cost the group $40,000 at a time when an average American earned $5,000 per year.
In a 2008 interview with National Public Radio, Brubeck recalled, “We were really doing some work that people seemed to forget how hard it was to do, where you had to have a police escort to the concert. The president of the college refusing to let you go on, and the students demanding you go on.”
Despite their fame, some hotels refused to house the group, even outside the South. Brubeck also refused to tour South Africa in 1958, when he was asked to sign a contract demanding that his band be all white.
“Jazz stands for freedom,” Brubeck told the Christian Science Monitor in 1987. He also told the University of Georgia newspaper the Red and the Black in 2008, “We were able to do things that I think helped integrate the universities or the concert halls.”
He would also collaborate with jazz icon Louis Armstrong in 1962, when he wrote a musical dealing with race relations called The Real Ambassadors.
Brubeck’s career as an American cultural icon took him, as part of a 1958 State Department–sponsored tour, to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Sri Lanka and other countries, including Poland, where his group was among the first U.S. jazz musicians to perform behind the Iron Curtain.
“In each new country, Mr. Brubeck mingled with musicians, absorbing local rhythms and melodies. Long before the term ‘world music’ gained currency, he was writing compositions that borrowed elements he had heard from other countries,” wrote Matt Schudel in a December 5 Washington Post article.
Brubeck’s manager, Russell Gloyd, told Schudel that Brubeck’s 1988 performance in Moscow before President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a summit meeting may have helped to break a diplomatic stalemate and lead the two leaders to sign a treaty to dismantle nuclear weapons.
A day after the performance, then–Secretary of State George Shultz “broke through the ranks, gave Dave a big hug and said, ‘Dave, you made the summit. No one was talking after three days. You made the breakthrough,’ ” Gloyd said.
Brubeck was honored in Washington in 2009 by President Obama, who said: “You can't understand America without understanding jazz. And you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck."
According to New York Times writer Ben Ratliff, Brubeck said one of the reasons he believed in jazz music was because “the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart.”
“It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat,” Brubeck said. “It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”