"Your group don't swing, but you do."
-Miles Davis, to Dave Brubeck
He is one of the most well known jazz pianists, rare in that he has been blessed with (gasp!) both talent AND commercial success. Numerous pianists such as Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor claiming him as their influence. He was one of the major figures in West Coast Cool Jazz in the fifties and sixties.
Brubeck was born on the sixth of December, 1920, in rural northern California. The little tyke was playing the piano by age four, picking out his own melodies. It is said that because of this, he avoided learning to read music - however it has also been attributed to vision problems.
He studied at the College of the Pacific (now University), at first majoring in pre-med. On the advice of a teacher, he went into music, though he was nearly held back from graduation when it was discovered he could not read music. His graduation was contingent upon his promise that he would never teach.
He immediately drafted after graduation in 1942, and stayed for almost four years. He played in a band that entertained the front-line troops. Once out of the army, Brubeck studied under the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland and founded the Dave Brubeck Octet with his fellow students. They first recorded in 1949, but it later in the fifties that the combination of drummer Joe Morello, double bassist Eugene Wright, and long-standing band member Paul Desmond on alto sax that made them overwhelmingly popular. These guys literally invented the college concert circuit, playing across the country and turning millions of college kids to jazz. Transitional_Man also told me of Brubeck turning down any gig that wanted Eugene Wright to be replaced with a white bassist. Each time Brubeck would state "If you don't want Eugene, you don't want the quartet."
They particularly liked to experiment with unusual time signatures, producing works like Blue Rondo a la Turk and Take Five (many excellent writeups in that node). Time out went on to be the first ever million-selling jazz record.
Interestingly enough, Brubeck has often been scorned by critics. He says:
"The critics will help you when you're coming up. I had all the help in the world coming up. John Hammond was writing glowing things about me when I was an unknown. But get to the top and see what happens. The same structure that helped you up is gonna turn that wheel on you and try to put you down. Almost everybody does a full 180-degree turn. The guys that didn't like you start liking you, and the ones that discovered you say you've gone commercial. Why have you gone commercial? Your records are selling. You haven't changed..."
The group recorded and performed together through 1967, when Brubeck left to develop his composing skills.
Brubeck has recorded two ballets, a musical, an oratorio, four cantatas, a mass, solo piano pieces, and many works for jazz combo and orchestra.
His honours include:
He has won readers polls in:
He has performed for kings, royalty, heads of state, the British royalty and the pope.
He is still recording and performing, at the age of eighty! He produced a record to mark his seventy-fifth birthday - each song a collaboration with another jazz great, old and new. Each song was based on the rhythm evoked by the guest's name's pronunciation. Either that, or the song is based on the words that the given name implies. For example, James Moody's tune is blues inspired.
His music is complicated and sophisticated, but beautifully accessible - and he continues to produce, perform and create new music after a career spanning almost five decades. A truly remarkable individual.
Editor's Note: Dave Brubeck passed away on December 5, 2012, of heart failure in Norwalk, Connecticut, at the age of 91.