Dave Brubeck - Biography
By Stuart Kremsky
Popular acclaim and high-quality music go hand in hand throughout the career of innovative pianist, composer, and bandleader Dave Brubeck. From an unlikely start in rural California, he went on to sell millions of records, play for popes, presidents, and kings, and tour as a world ambassador for jazz for half a century.
Dave Brubeck was born on December 6, 1920 in Concord, California. His mother was a music teacher and pianist, and his father was a cattle rancher. Piano lessons with his mother started when Dave was just four. Life changed dramatically when the family moved to a cattle ranch in the remote foothills of the Sierras. Although he was playing piano in dance bands by the age of 14, and continued to perform when he enrolled at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Brubeck left home intending to study veterinary medicine, then return to the ranch. His plans tipped towards music when he met Iola Whitlock, a College of the Pacific student with a music show on the campus radio station. Brubeck proposed two weeks after they met. They married in 1942, after he graduated and enlisted in the Army. The two have been collaborators in musical endeavors as well in a marriage that has endured for 66 years and counting.
Brubeck saw service in Europe with Patton’s Army, where he led a racially integrated band. Upon his discharge in 1946, he returned to the West Coast to study music with composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland. Encouraged by Milhaud and searching for a new way to play jazz that would combine his classical studies with the lessons of swing, Brubeck formed his first octet in 1947. Musicians included alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, clarinetist Bill Smith, and percussionist Cal Tjader. When the octet had problems finding work, a frustrated Brubeck turned to the piano trio format. The group initially had Tjader on percussion and Norman Bates on bass. The latter was replaced by Ron Crotty by the time they made their first recordings for Coronet, and then Fantasy Records, in 1949 and 1950. The trio won both the DownBeat and Metronome awards for Best New Instrumental Group.
A near fatal diving accident in 1951 brought a temporary halt to Brubeck’s career. When his health improved enough for him to resume performing, he organized a quartet with Desmond and a succession of bassists and drummers. The band’s popularity grew sufficiently over the next two years to attract the attention of a major record label. In 1954, the Brubeck quartet moved to Columbia Records, which immediately began to record the group at a series of college dates. The group’s popularity grew rapidly. They also played in jazz clubs around the country, and toured in package shows with such established stars as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. Unusual for the era, many of the group’s albums were live recordings like the highly-regarded Jazz Goes To College (1954 Columbia), recorded on tour, and Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool (1956 Columbia) from performances at New York’s Basin Street East. A Time magazine cover in 1954 affirmed Brubeck’s popularity and wide appeal.
Drummer Joe Morello joined the group in 1956 and bassist Eugene Wright came aboard in 1958 to form Brubeck’s most famous quartet. Together, they toured the globe many times, playing festivals, concerts, and clubs. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the group performed in Poland, India, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and many more countries. The repertoire occasionally incorporated exotic elements gleaned from their exposure to a world of different cultures, resulting in releases like Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958 Columbia) and Jazz Impressions of Japan (1964 Columbia). However, Brubeck did not neglect America, doing an album with blues singer Jimmy Rushing, and recording his Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. (1956 Columbia) and Jazz Impressions of New York (1964 Columbia), the latter his score for the TV series Mr. Broadway.
In 1959, the quartet recorded Time Out, an album of original compositions experimenting with different time signatures instead of the usual 4/4. To everyone’s surprise, not least the record company’s, Time Out became the first jazz album to sell over a million copies on the strength of Desmond’s composition “Take Five” and Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” It remains one of the most popular jazz albums of all time. A series of releases (1961 Time Further Out; 1962 Countdown: Time In Outer Space; 1964 Time Changes; and 1966 Time In, all Columbia) cemented Brubeck’s reputation as an innovator using sophisticated tools like odd meters, polyrhythms, and polytonality in a popular art form. The “classic” quartet of Desmond, Wright, and Morello continued working and touring until Brubeck broke it up in 1967 in order to concentrate on composing large-scale works.
When he returned to touring the following year, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was in his new quartet along with bassist Jack Six and the superb Boston-based drummer Alan Dawson. There were periodic reunions with Paul Desmond, notably the album Duets (1975 A&M), and a world tour and album, 25th Anniversary Live (1976 A&M), to celebrate the classic quartet’s 25th anniversary. In the late Seventies, Brubeck formed a band with sons Darius, a keyboard player, Chris, who plays electric bass and trombone, and Danny Brubeck, a percussionist. Another son, Matthew, plays cello. Saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi became a regular member of the group in 1978. Clarinetist Bill Smith came back into the fold in the early 80s.
With remarkably few changes over the years, Brubeck has kept his small bands working and recording. Beginning in late 1979, his albums were released on Concord Records, coincidentally founded and named after the town of his birth. He moved to Telarc Records in the late 80s. Brubeck still takes great delight in improvising, as is clear to anyone who sees him perform. Although he has at times received unfavorable reviews for his reliance on block chords and an occasionally bombastic approach to soloing, his piano playing has kept evolving. As of spring 2008, Brubeck continues to tour with his current working quartet of saxophonist and flutist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones, playing club dates, concerts, and special shows around the globe.
Brubeck’s career has flourished in a number of differing and complementary directions over the decades as he has maintained his world-wide popularity. As early as the late 50s, he began to devote more of his time to extended forms. An early career milestone was a 1959 collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performing Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, composed by Dave's brother, Howard. He’s written a number of pieces for the ballet, beginning with Points On Jazz, commissioned by the American Ballet Theater in 1960. Brubeck’s interest in the art form led him to undertake tours of Japan, Europe, and North America with the Murray Louis Dance Company. Brubeck’s first orchestral composition, “Elementals”, written for an improvising jazz combo and symphony orchestra, had its premiere in 1962. With choreography by Lar Lubovitch, “Elemental Brubeck” has been in the repertoire of the San Francisco Ballet and several other dance companies. A notable early success was his musical theater piece “The Real Ambassadors,” with lyrics by Iola Brubeck. Starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae, the show was recorded for Columbia and performed to great acclaim at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. Brubeck’s compositions include a Christmas choral pageant, oratorios and cantatas, a string quartet, chamber ensembles, pieces for solo and duo-piano, violin solos, orchestral works, and a mini-opera based on Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” that premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. There have also been solo piano recitals, beginning with Brubeck Plays Brubeck (1956 Columbia). Brubeck is also a prolific composer of jazz tunes, including the well-known and often-played, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and “The Duke,” a dedication to Duke Ellington.
A stalwart anti-racist and defender of human rights, Brubeck cancelled concerts in the 50s rather than temporarily replace his regular bassist, Eugene Wright, an African-American. At least one television appearance was skipped when Brubeck learned that Wright would be kept off-camera. Among his orchestral works is “The Gates of Justice,” a 1969 cantata based on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Old Testament.
In a lifetime of honors, Brubeck has performed at The White House for several Presidents, beginning with a State Dinner for King Hussein of Jordan during the Johnson administration. He has received countless national and international awards, including the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and the Smithsonian Medal. Holder of numerous honorary doctorates from American, Canadian, English and German universities, Brubeck's a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University. The National Endowment for the Arts declared Dave Brubeck a Jazz Master in 2000 and he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2007, he received a Living Legacy Jazz Award from the Kennedy Center. His international honors include a citation from the French government and the Bocconi Medal from Italy. Brubeck serves as chairman of The Brubeck Institute at his alma mater, now known as the University of the Pacific. In April 2008, he received the inaugural Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, awarded by the US State Department.
Jazz fan and film director Clint Eastwood is currently producing a documentary about Brubeck's life, directed by Bruce Ricker. The film will trace Brubeck's career from his youth on the ranch to his worldwide renown as a musician and a proponent of human rights.