Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)


Dave Brubeck has died, and lives on like so very few will ever live on, in countless influenced lives and fond memories.

Time Out was the very first CD I bought. Yes, I had it on vinyl before that. It was the first Jazz album to sell a million copies, so I wasn’t alone. I loved it, of course–it should not surprise anyone that time signatures would move someone who thrives on meter and verse. Time signatures and modes, that’s what Time Out had fun with–a classic example of the effect of constraint on creativity. The mythology is that improvisation (and, for that matter, poetry) is free from rules. No. Not at all.

I loved the opening quote from (I think it was CBS) one of the evening news programs’ coverage of Brubeck. In vintage footage, the announcer asks “Are there any rules for improvisation?” Brubeck immediately replies “You bet your life there are! And the rules in Jazz would just scare you to death.”

Creativity is not born anew with each creative act; creativity evolves. Creativity builds on what has worked in the past, toys with different successful variations, and once in a bunch of lifetimes, produces something like Take Five.

Two things, now, vie for “the damnedest thing” at this point. One. The song Brubeck is best known for is the only one on the album that is not his own. Paul Desmond, genius in his own right, wrote “Take Five”, the best known tune on Time Out. Two. Of all of Brubeck’s accomplishments in jazz, Time Out is not the most important. Well, probably. Despite its importance, despite its reputation, despite its well earned place in any history of jazz (arguably, it has been overplayed to the point of repressing other music, but we won’t go there)… his low-key but insistent support of racial equality was, in my opinion, the greater accomplishment. Brubeck had the first integrated band in the US Army, at a time when such a thing was unheard of. On tour, he would not play in places that did not accept his integrated band.

SMITH: And then you had to deal with similar hostility when you toured the South in the early 1960’s. Talk about that.

DAVE: I wasn’t allowed to play in some universities in the United States and out of twenty-five concerts, twenty-three were cancelled unless I would substitute my black bass player for my old white bass player, which I wouldn’t do. They wouldn’t let us go on with Gene [Wright] and I wouldn’t go on without him. So there was a stalemate and [we were] in a gymnasium, a big basketball arena on a big campus. And the kids were starting to riot upstairs. So the President of the school had things pushing him from every side: The kids stamping on the floor upstairs, me refusing to go on unless I could go on with my black bass player.

So we just stalled and the bus driver came and said, “Dave, hold out. Don’t go on. The president is talking to the governor and I think things are going your way.” And the Governor says, “You’d better let them go on.” So we held on and the president of the college came in and he said, “Now you can go on with the understanding that you’ll keep Eugene Wright in the background where he can’t be seen too well.” And I told Eugene, “Your microphone is off and I want you to use my announcement microphone so you gotta come in front of the band to play your solo.” Well the audience went crazy. We integrated the school that night. The kids wanted it; the President wanted it; the teachers wanted it. The President of the college knew he might lose his funding from the state. So here’s the reason you fight is for the truth to come out and people to look at it. Nobody was against my black bass player. They cheered him like he was the greatest thing that ever happened for the students. Everybody was happy. My point is those students had hired me in twenty-five universities. And twenty-three had to cancel because of what they thought they would lose from the state government. But they wouldn’t lose it. We went back and played all of those schools in a few years. And we’ve had a lot of terrible things happen to us while we’re fighting to have equality – police escorts from the airport to the university, or where I wouldn’t go on [stage] until the blacks could come in or [until they] didn’t have to sit in the balcony. I wouldn’t play until they were in the front row. You gradually stop all these ridiculous old rules that nobody really believes in.

(from PBS’s Rediscovering Dave Brubeck)

Anyway, if I had all week, I couldn’t do justice. So here, go listen at NPR. And if by some weird chance you have never heard of Dave Brubeck, go immerse yourself (in music–come on!). And if you have only heard Take Five (the song, or Time Out, the album) go listen to more; it’s wonderful. And if you have listened to Brubeck and not anyone else, you get a day or two to mourn, and then go check out *his* heroes, and prepare to be blown away.

Edit…. ok, I’ll add this:

And also note that this is an edited version–Commenter “dannorth” catches me in a stupid mistake. I conflated “Take Five” (the song) and “Time Out” (the album). I’d call it evidence that Desmond’s song overshadowed the rest, but the parsimonious explanation is that my memory sucks. Thanks to dannorth for the correction!


  1. Cuttlefish says

    Holy shit…. you are so right! (well, of course you are!) Serves me right for writing from memory. I’ll make some changes. Thanks for the correction!

  2. dgrasett says

    Brubeck dead.
    Shit! Shit, Shit! Damn!
    My personal favourite was always Unsquare Dance. Nobody else can do that one.

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