Brubeck knew that the quality of the music you made didn’t depend on the colour of your skin…
Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), jazz pianist par excellence, went to college to study veterinary science to be able to look after the livestock at his father’s cattle ranch. But he switched to music to nurture the talent he had inherited from his pianist mother. Yet the hoofbeats of the horses he rode came back later into the polyrhythms he wove into his jazz.
He brought them into the 1959 album he made with his quartet (Paul Desmond, alto saxophone; Eugene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums). Time Out was the first jazz album to sell a million copies, it’s most famous track ‘Take Five’, the first jazz single to sell a million. The year before, the Brubeck quartet had returned from a tour of Europe and Asia. At AIR’s studios in Chennai they listened to, and later jammed with, the mridangam player Palani Subramania Pillai for what might have been their first formal musical introduction to polyrhythm and the idea for ‘Take Five’, credited to Desmond, in a time of five beats to the measure. From that year, my first at college, I still remember some of my peers carrying the LP around as a badge that they were “with it”.
Its popularity didn’t make Brubeck famous; that he already was since the early 1950s when he got the idea of touring colleges and giving concerts that spawned a series of albums and brought jazz out from bars and dance-halls into auditoria. By 1954 he was on the cover of Time, only the second jazzman to get there after Louis Armstrong, and before Duke Ellington. Brubeck said later that getting on Time before Ellington bothered him, and thought he was favoured because he was white.
He couldn’t read sheet music, and nearly got chucked out of college, but for the teachers who recognised that his natural talent overrode this failing. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he was saved from combat duty by being put at the head of a jazz band, which at his insistence was integrated, unlike the US Army at the time.
Brubeck knew that the quality of the music you made didn’t depend on the colour of your skin and by the early 1950s he had black musicians among his colleagues. Of his classic quartet, Wright was black. He refused to break it up for tours of the Southern states, turning down lucrative contracts.
Armstrong, like Ellington, was one of his idols and by the early 1960s he was occasionally performing with him, while for Ellington he wrote ‘The Duke’, one of the greatest hits of his own career and a hit for many other musicians, including Miles Davis.
In those days he wondered whether his quartet was right for the job when they were asked to back the great blues singer Jimmy Rushing. Rushing overcame Brubeck’s diffidence by insisting, “Man, I’ve been listening to you and I know you’re the right group!”
Although Brubeck didn’t recognise the colour of a musician’s skin, many people didn’t understand that he stood shoulder to shoulder with the black giants who had developed and nurtured jazz. The giants themselves did. On a tour of Europe with Willie “the Lion” Smith, the Lion, Ellington’s mentor, would play a few solo pieces before the Brubeck quartet went on stage. On one occasion, Brubeck was giving an interview backstage just as Smith passed by to open the concert.
The interviewer, as provocative as he was ignorant, said, “Isn’t it true, Mr Willie the Lion Smith, that no white man can play jazz?”
Smith kept advancing towards them, took Brubeck by the arm and just told the interviewer, “I want you to meet my son.”
Not all great musicians are nice men. Brubeck was not just nice; his personal life was exemplary. Deeply religious, he devoted much of his later years to blending jazz with spiritual music.
But he never gave up his jazz vocation. As late as 2010, pushing 90 and fitted recently with a pacemaker, he was at the Monterey and Newport Jazz Festivals.
He was felled on his way to a cardiologist’s appointment on December 5. His 92nd birthday celebration concert the next day was turned into a memorial. It was “time out” for him, but there can never be a time out for his music.