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Dec 10 2012

The Legacy of Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck, one of the true legends of jazz, died on Wednesday, the day before his 92nd birthday. It’s difficult to overstate his importance in the history of jazz as a pianist, composer and bandleader. In particular, his pushing of the boundaries of the genre with odd time signatures influenced the last two generations of musicians like few others have.

If you’ve listened to jazz at all, you’ve surely heard his two most famous songs. The first is Blue Rondo a la Turk, which he based on Turkish folk music that he heard while touring Europe. The song displays his remarkable fluidity with time signature changes, going back and forth between 9/8 and 4/4. The opening of the song is immediately recognizable:

The second, Take Five, is equally infamous and is one of the most covered songs in jazz history. This one is in 5/4 time.

Jazz was born out of black culture, especially in the south, but the white Brubeck quickly gained acceptance and admiration from black musicians (as did his sax player, Paul Desmond). And like all musicians of his generation, he had to contend with rampant discrimination against blacks. His bass player, Gene Wright, was black and Brubeck refused to play clubs that discriminated against him or stay in hotels that would not let him stay. He also refused to tour South Africa because of apartheid. He composed many pieces, including a full musical, that strongly addressed racism and other political themes.

By any measure, Brubeck was one of the true giants of jazz. His name deserves to be mentioned with Dizzy, Bird, Miles, Mingus, Monk and Trane in the jazz pantheon.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I’m sorry, did you forget Vaughn, Fitz, and Billie?

    Taking nothing away from Brubeck, but Strange Fruit became the banner song for a political movement that changed US federalism when the feds criminalized actions that took place entirely locally b/c local governments weren’t enforcing criminal laws against white folk who killed Black folk. It was this rationale, that began with the anti-lynching campaign, that made possible the Civil Rights Act.

    These 3 had tremendous influence over what was seen as jazz and what crossed over into popular music. It was in part through them – and the Duke, really – that jazz became possible for white folk to buy and play. They each helped write and arrange music, although they almost invariably received no credit for it. They each inspired a host of musicians and singers that would come later. They played a tremendous role in shaping jazz and what it was to become.

  2. 2
    xmnr

    It should be noted that Paul Desmond composed Take Five.

  3. 3
    juicyheart

    My tap teacher used only Brubeck’s music in tap class yesterday. Basicly turning ot onto a taps class.

  4. 4
    flex

    I saw Brubeck twice, the second time was part of an concert honoring him, and he really didn’t play much. But the first time, about 7 years ago, was phenomenal.

    He was playing with his quartet of the time and played a lot of the old favorites as well as some newer stuff. But of course, being jazz, the old favorites were also new and fresh as the musicians improvised all their solos. And they took their time about it too, I think Take Five lasted about a half-hour.

    What was probably the most impressive and enjoyable part was that not only did all the music sound fresh, but all the musicians were still interested in what the other members of the group was doing. When the bassist (or sax player or drummer) had a solo, the other musicians actually listened to what they were doing, and were enjoying it.

    I’ve been to too many concerts where the musicians were clearly bored of playing the same thing every night. The Brubeck concert was incredible because they were still having a great time playing, and it showed.

  5. 5
    tbp1

    Just to elaborate a little, the cool thing about Blue Rondo alla Turk is not the 9/8 time per se, but the irregular division of the measure. Typically a 9/8 measure consists of three equal beats, each divided into three eighth notes. In Blue Rondo he uses a measure consisting of three units of two eighth notes each, followed by one of three eighth notes. This is usually called asymmetric meter. The main tune (I think of it as the refrain, although there aren’t lyrics, since it’s an instrumental) consists of three measures of this, followed by a “normal” 9/8 measure as described above.

    Don Ellis, sadly kind of forgotten these days, also did a lot of great stuff with asymmetric meter.

    I only saw Brubeck live once, 5-6 years ago. You would never have dreamed from the energy level he brought to his playing that he was in his mid-80s. And like flex above I was incredibly impressed by how he (and the other members of the group) managed to give fresh, original interpretations of things they had played in some cases literally thousands of times. I also second what he said about the group obviously enjoying each other’s playing. There was just a great vibe to the whole evening.

    I never met Brubeck, but I have friends and colleagues who knew him reasonably well. They all say he was a good guy, generous and caring, and great to work for (although he had very high standards to live up to).

  6. 6
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    “Infamous”?

  7. 7
    tbp1

    @2: I have no independent verification of this, so take with a grain of salt, perhaps, but friends of mine in the jazz world, who are in a position to know, say that it is an open secret that Brubeck actually wrote Take Five, but gave the credit and copyright to Desmond, so he would have some regular royalty income. Desmond apparently lived more like the grasshopper than the ant, and Brubeck was concerned about his financial future. Take Five turned into the group’s biggest hit, of course, and apparently left Desmond reasonably comfortable for the rest of his life.

    Desmond was, by all accounts, a generous man like Brubeck was. Sadly, he smoked and drank himself into an early grave. He left the royalties to the American Red Cross, which has over the course of the years received several million dollars from the bequest.

  8. 8
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    tbp1 – that’s a great story. I had no idea.

  9. 9
    wscott

    Back in my jazz band days, we played a lot of Brubeck, and a TON of Brubeck-influenced material. I agree it’s hard to overstate his importance. Just yesterday, I went to a Christmas choral concert where they sung “Deck The Halls” in 7/8. Dave woulda been proud.

    Another interesting note: in Desmond’s will, he left all royalties from Take Five (and maybe all his compositions; sources differ) to the American Red Cross, which gets like $100K a year from it.

  10. 10
    Curt Cameron

    Both Blue Rondo and Take Five are originally from the album called Time Out.

    Everyone should own this album. Every song does something weird with the time signature, but every song is pleasurable to listen to.

    And Ed: “Equally infamous”?!? Wha?

  11. 11
    imst

    Good call on Don Ellis, tbp1.
    Here’s an example of good music that happens to have a totally bizarre time signature from him:

  12. 12
    vmanis1

    For a long time, I thought Blue Rondo was based on the `Rondo Alla Turca’, the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331. It used to drive me nuts, because I couldn’t hear the connection. Finally I read an interview with Brubeck where he said that the name was just an accident, and he should just have called the piece `Blue Rondo’. Both Mozart and Brubeck wrote their pieces under Turkish influence, but that’s it.

  13. 13
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    @1 – Musically, there is nothing Vaughn (Sara?), Fitz (Ella Fitzgerald?) and Billie (Holiday?) wrote that could not have been written by any competent jazz musician and lyricist. Their strength was vocals and interpreting lyrics.

    Brubeck and his group, on the other hand, were playing and improvising in time signatures that are extremely demanding, with melodies that move around from simple to atonal and complex and back again. Yet, despite the technical complexity and intricate structures, they are accessible to non-musicians. For many, Brubeck was the gateway drug that led to Monk, Coltrane, and Miles Davis.

  14. 14
    democommie

    Reading music, like making sense of math, is not something I can do. I hear it just fine and can vocally reproduce a sound tolerably well re: pitch and duration. I’ve owned a guitar (several different ones, actually) for almost 50 years and I play almost as well, now, as when I started.

    I am not a huge Brubeck fan but appreciate all style of jazz (leaning more toward fusion, big band and be bop) but “Take 5″ has always been a piece that, when I hear it, sets up associations of pleasure from my life in the early 70′s.

    Wonder if “Take 5″ will be worked into his tombstone (if he has one).

  15. 15
    dingojack

    Sadly, the ‘Take Five’ video has been taken down by the user (boo hiss).
    Try here instead.
    Dingo
    ——-
    Ed – Links still wonky in preview.

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