Dave Brubeck: Perfect Timing

Dave Brubeck played piano. He became the most famous jazz piano master in the second half of the twentieth century.

He got started in 1942. He played until he died in 2012. That was a 70-year career.

He studied music at the College of the Pacific. Only toward the end did one of his professors discover that he could not sight-read music. He was allowed to graduate only by promising never to teach piano. That was in 1942.

He was immediately inducted into the Army. He got started with jazz when he was stationed in Europe. He played for the troops at a Red Cross show one evening. They were so enthusiastic that the Army had him create a jazz band. That was one of the truly brilliant military decisions of the war. He was in the Third Army — Patton’s command. I don’t know if Patton made the decision, but he gets credit for it.

In 1949, he was playing in the San Francisco area. This was at the same time as the beginning of the Lighthouse All Stars concerts, 400 miles south. A small record label recorded him and his trio. The owner got into financial troubles and sold the tapes. The new owners created Fantasy Records. They released a series of singles in 1949. Here is a nice one: a jazz version of the theme from the movie Laura.

He formed the first of his quartets in 1951 and began performing regularly at San Francisco’s Black Hawk club. Paul Desmond played alto sax. Brubeck had met Desmond in 1944. Desmond remained with him for 25 years. The quartet was popular on college campuses in the early 1950’s. Fantasy released two albums of these performances. Brubeck made it onto the cover of Time in 1954, only the second jazz man to do so. Louis Armstrong made it in 1949.

This is from Jazz Goes to College (1954), his first album with Columbia. I can still recall the album on the store’s shelves. That meant that it still was selling. You will hear how dominant Desmond is. This was true of all of the quartet’s albums.

Fast forward five years. With a new drummer, Joe Morello, and a new bassist, Eugene Wright, the quartet was ready for a breakthrough. (His previous bassist had the unlikely name of Norman Bates.) Columbia released Time Out in December 1959. If there was a revolutionary jazz album after 1950, this was it. It went platinum, the first jazz album to do this: a million sales.

What made the album unforgettable was Brubeck’s arrangements. They were in strange times: 9/8,6/4, and 5/4. The first song on side 1 was “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” No one had heard anything like it. It was in 9/8 time. Brubeck wrote it. I define post-big band jazz as music for listening, not for dancing. Surely this describes the following.

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