An Appreciation: Remembering Dave Brubeck

By Mike Katz

When Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” became a runaway hit, it was 1959 and I was in the third grade.  By the time I started seriously listening to jazz, in the late sixties, Brubeck’s original quartet had broken up and the jazz scene was in a flux. Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis were going electric. Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine, among others, had gravitated to the CTI label and would soon be flirting with disco. The jazz that found its way onto the college campuses Brubeck once cultivated had been repackaged as fusion, backing up bands like Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago.

“Take Five,” meanwhile, had become sort of a pre-curser to Pac-Man, munching up everything else the Brubeck quartet had produced.  That would be some considerable munching, since Brubeck, Paul Desmond and company had spent a decade atop the charts, playing to SRO crowds, with Dave becoming the first jazz artist to grace the cover of Time Magazine long before the Time Out LP was ever conceived.  But for the general audience, “Take Five” was Brubeck and to a certain extent always would be.

One 1970-ish day I was idly flipping through a record store in Evanston and found a double album compilation of the Brubeck quartet called Adventures In Time. It had all of the famous Brubeck tunes (most of them unknown to me): “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “Three To Get Ready,” “It’s a Raggy Waltz,” “Unsquare Dance,” many of them in different takes or performances than the originals. All the songs but one were composed by members of the quartet. All but one were in time signatures other than  4/4.  Listening and listening and listening some more, until the grooves were worn down, I finally figured out what these guys were doing – not that it was really necessary. Incessant foot tapping and aimless humming as I wandered the Northwestern campus were explanation enough.

Looking back, it seems strange that Brubeck endured criticism for not being, for lack of a better word, jazzy enough. Jazz is improvisation and experimentation, and what could be bolder than taking the basic 4/4 march time, not only of jazz but all popular music, and standing it on its ear? And there was more. When Brubeck, in 1957, released “Dave Digs Disney,” there was much sniggering from critics, yet “Someday My Prince Will Come” became a standard for Miles Davis and “Alice In Wonderland” one of Bill Evans’ best known tunes from the Village Vanguard sessions.  Still, while jazz searches for the “next” Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Bill Evans, we never hear about the “next” Dave Brubeck.

Perhaps that is because he really never left.

Although it’s been written that he devoted much of his post-original quartet years to larger orchestrations and cantatas, there was plenty of jazz left in the Brubeck oeuvre. Most musicians would have loved to have the mid-life career Brubeck shared with Gerry Mulligan in his second major quartet.  The baritone sax may seem the polar opposite to Paul Desmond’s “sound of a dry martini,” but it still sounded great. Check out LPs like Last Set At Newport, or some of the tracks with Mulligan on the Monterey Jazz Festival’s  release Live At The MJF. Brubeck continued to compose in the jazz space as well. His 1995 release Young Lions and Old Tigers featured lovely themes for Roy Hargrove, James Moody and flugelhornist Ronnie Buttacavoli, as well as two wonderful tunes with Mulligan and a duet with George Shearing on Brubeck’s classic, “In Her Own Sweet Way.” And that is just one CD out of dozens.

One of the joys of becoming a regular at the Monterey Jazz Festival was getting to see Brubeck perform live in a milieu that had become in many ways a second home for him. He was “discovered” by festival  co-founder Jimmy Lyons, played at MJF 1, MJF 50, MJF 52 and many, many times in between.  Two of my favorite memories are the cantata, co-written with his wife, Iola, based on John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, featuring Roberta Gambarini and Kurt Elling, performed at MJF 49 in 2006; and his MJF 50 duet with Jim Hall the next year. Their rendition of “Take Five” was stunning, and one can only hope both those performances, now in the MJF archives, will someday be shared with the public.

So, finally, Dave Brubeck has left us. Certainly “Take Five” never will, as long as there is someone walking down the street, humming and tapping and daydreaming.

To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.

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