Dave Brubeck Unsquared: On Philip Clark’s New Biography

Dave Mandl takes five with “Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time” by Philip Clark.

Dave Brubeck Unsquared: On Philip Clark’s New Biography

Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time by Philip Clark. Da Capo Press. 464 pages.

PIANIST AND COMPOSER Dave Brubeck, forever known as the man behind the groundbreaking recording “Take Five,” is something of an enigma in the jazz world. He studied with several of the most influential modernist European composers, was an undisputed innovator several times over, garnered more or less every major award and honor possible, and in a 60-year career released around a hundred LPs, which include some of the best-selling jazz records of all time. Yet — let’s be honest — his name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as those of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, or Sun Ra. Why is that?

One somewhat awkward explanation may be that he was white. Related is the fact that he grew up in a comfortable, even privileged, family in the San Francisco suburbs, and spent most of his career on the West Coast, whose laid-back jazz scene has often been treated as the red-headed stepchild of the edgier New York scene. Another explanation, for which there is no shortage of evidence, is Brubeck’s reputation as a “highbrow” or “academic,” rightly or wrongly an indelible stain among many jazz critics and artists. And then — surely connected to the above — there’s the relative dearth of books and articles about him.

Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time goes a long way toward correcting this. It’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to write a Brubeck bio than Clark, who spent long periods of time with the man, his band members, and his wife Iola; had unlimited access to his papers and correspondence; and has been a flag-waving fan of the music for ages. His book, though only just short of 400 pages, contains a head-spinning amount of detail bordering on micro-history, with in-depth accounts of recording dates and tours going back to the beginning, as well as the kind of musical analysis that could only have come from years of close listening. To call it “exhaustive” is to undersell it, but those looking for a straight-ahead narrative may be surprised by what they find.

For reasons that aren’t completely clear, Clark mostly separates Brubeck’s musical history from his early family history, saving the latter for the last quarter of the book. But the family history is actually an important background to the music. Brubeck’s mother, Elizabeth, was highly cultured. She had been tutored by composer Henry Cowell and at one point moved to London — her three young kids staying at home in California with her husband — to study with the great pianists Myra Hess and Tobias Matthay. (Brubeck’s father, Pete, by contrast, was a rancher and wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps, the source of some tension in the family.) Elizabeth gave him piano lessons at an early age, and taught him how to harmonize Bach chorales. Though Brubeck was influenced first and foremost by the jazz stars of his youth — Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, and Fats Waller — all this classical training made Brubeck’s approach to composition and playing unique among jazz musicians.

In fact, the voracious Brubeck’s musical consumption extended even further. One set of recordings he listened to avidly while growing up was The Belgian Congo Records of the Denis-Roosevelt Expedition, a collection of ritualistic dances, songs, and chants assembled in the 1930s. There’s no doubt that these recordings influenced Brubeck’s radical (by Western standards) approach to rhythm, certainly his most enduring legacy. But the figure who exerted the greatest overt influence on him was the French avant-garde composer Darius Milhaud, whom Brubeck studied with at Mills College. Significantly, Milhaud was very taken with American jazz, having enthusiastically visited Harlem jazz clubs and collected records from the Harlem-based Black Swan label. But Milhaud was also a proponent of polytonality, which entailed playing in two or more keys simultaneously, a nearly heretical idea in classical music in the early 20th century, and more heretical still in jazz. Polytonality would be one of the identifying features of Brubeck’s music from the beginning. His early piece “Curtain Music,” for example, opens with Brubeck playing an A major chord with his right hand and a G major with his left.

Brubeck and his quartet could swing with the best of them, but his outré experiments with tonality would earn him a continuous stream of opprobrium throughout his career. He was branded, early and often, as an “academic” or “intellectual” — and not in a good way. In a 1956 opinion piece in the Philadelphia Jazz Digest, saxophonist Billy Root compared Brubeck unfavorably to Charlie Parker: “Brubeck fans think they have to ‘study’ his music […] The very title of one of his albums, Jazz Goes to College, is ridiculous.” (The album title was meant to be a pun, as the record was recorded live at several colleges; it clearly backfired.) But Root’s was a bad-faith argument; as Clark points out, “Until the rise of John Coltrane, no jazz musician’s solos were pored over, transcribed, learned, and absorbed into jazz language more than Charlie Parker’s.” Furthermore, Parker himself was an admirer of Brubeck.

Clark, to his credit, sees an obvious parallel here in rock music history, with the long-running wars between progressive rock fans and punks. Like Brubeck in the 1950s, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who were among the coterie of groups that pushed rock music well past its original three-chord, blues-based framework in the ’70s, “stood accused of turning music that audiences ought to be able to feel in their gut into an over-intellectualized game,” writers Clark. There’s a certain reactionary impulse that surfaces from time to time among advocates of “simplicity” or “going back to the roots” in rock music, and, similarly, throughout Brubeck’s career the word “feel” comes up as something that his supposedly over-intellectualized music does not have. Brubeck himself, inevitably, opined on this subject more than once. In what is now an eerie pre-echo of the debate for and against the “progressive” impulse in rock, Brubeck said, “I don’t see any challenge in [Dixieland music, an early strain of jazz] for a young kid. Makes me sick to see a young kid playing Dixie […] if that’s all he can play. From an audience standpoint it’s even worse; there’s so little challenge in it.” This strong statement needs context: Brubeck had nothing but respect for jazz’s early practitioners, but he had no time for bands that in the ’50s were trying to recreate the past instead of making something new — “a pointless rewind, Brubeck thought, back through history,” to quote Clark.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: “Take Five,” the 1959 tune (actually composed by Brubeck’s saxophonist Paul Desmond) that marked the innovation Brubeck is best known for, the piece that made his name and his fortune. “Take Five” was played in the time signature 5/4 — containing five beats to each measure rather than four. Though today the vast majority of Western music is still in 4/4, it’s hard to imagine an era when virtually all of it was, even in jazz, supposedly the most rhythmically adventurous genre around. But that was the state of things in 1959, and, in fact, on Time Out, the LP that included “Take Five,” Brubeck went even further with “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” in what would have seemed like a completely incomprehensible and almost alien 9/8. (The “Blue Rondo” rhythm was inspired by music Brubeck had heard street musicians playing in Istanbul, where presumably it would not have been so strange.) In all-knowing retrospect, including these two tunes on a Brubeck album seems uncontroversial enough, but that was not the attitude of Columbia Records at the time. “I was very seriously advised, by people at Columbia, not to put Time Out out,” Brubeck said, because “no one will dance to something in 5/4 or 9/8.” The abstract painting on the record’s cover, rather than the traditional group photo, and the fact that the album contained all original compositions and no standards, added to Columbia’s unease. Surely they would take a bath on the LP, right?

No points for guessing what happened next: in a world-historic rebuke to the timorous label execs, Time Out was the first jazz album ever to sell more than a million copies, the biggest hit ever by an instrumental jazz group. The influence of “Take Five” since its release has been enormous, inspiring rock musicians from The Kinks’ Ray Davies to Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen to Pink Floyd (whose song “Money” is in 7/4) to the aforementioned ELP. (Keith Emerson was a huge fan, doing a cover of “Blue Rondo” with his early group The Nice and asking Brubeck to sign his sheet music copy of the tune later on.) It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether ’70s jazz fusion or ’90s math rock would have existed had Brubeck not blown through the 4/4 door earlier on. More recently, pop-jazz singer Al Jarreau did a vocal version of “Blue Rondo,” which was later sampled by Nas — though Nas smoothed the rhythm out to a more easily digestible 12/8.

Most of the above is not news. What Clark’s book substantially adds to the historical record is hitherto unknown information about the “Take Five” sessions, including the piece’s genesis in rehearsals and early takes, showing, among other things, that even for Brubeck’s crack group, mastering and then improvising over a 5/4 rhythm was no walk in the park.

Once they did master it, occasional self-knockoffs were inevitable, including the 1961 LP Time Further Out, which included the 7/4 tune “Unsquare Dance.” (Could that tune, which prominently features handclaps, have been an influence on Steve Reich’s not-dissimilar 1972 piece Clapping Music, in 6/4?) But by and large Brubeck and his group didn’t rest on their laurels, continuing to push the boundaries of jazz until Brubeck’s death in 2012. Yet jazz it remained, for despite the fact that many critics considered Brubeck’s music a jazz-classical hybrid, Brubeck himself once stated, “I cannot play classical piano,” and insisted that “the heart and development section of [his pieces] are the improvised choruses,” not the composition — a decidedly jazz-oriented view. Nevertheless, Brubeck participated in numerous collaborations with classical composers and conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and — almost — Harry Partch, in a project that was sadly scotched by Brubeck’s record company.

Among the most welcome revelations in Clark’s book are the details on Brubeck’s personal life, which, it has to be said, include little sex (he was married to Iola, his only wife, for more than 60 years), drugs, or criminal activity. Quite the opposite: Brubeck, whose compositions include “History of a Boy Scout,” seems to have had an admirable code of ethics. He somehow managed to steer clear of the Mob at a time when that was virtually impossible, refusing payments that would have compromised him. He was exceedingly decent to his less pure band members, helping them out with cash and, in extreme cases, even working with the authorities to keep them out of jail. And on a month-long Southern tour in 1960, when he was told he had to drop the African-American member of his group, bassist Gene Wright, he refused, costing himself an estimated $40,000 in lost bookings, a tremendous sum for the time. Four years later, at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, the Brubeck quartet, with Wright, played a concert at the University of Alabama to an integrated audience, in defiance of threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

Being an “intellectual” means Brubeck left behind much in addition to his massive body of recorded music. His many interviews, liner notes, and concert program notes leave a substantial record of his thoughts on composition and performance, and even stagecraft. Among the most interesting of these is a mission statement–cum–manifesto that he distributed to his group in the ’50s, titled “The DB Quartet — Principles and Aims.” The document — meant “to help clarify to the members of this group the purpose and individual responsibilities of each man” — contains instructions to the band on such topics as “polyphonic banter” in concert, “appropriate deportment while on stage” (as Clark puts it), and even listening recommendations (“‘folk material of all countries’ and the percussion music of the Far East”). As a statement of intent, that might not rank up there with the “harmolodics” that Ornette Coleman drummed into his band’s heads, but it seems very much in keeping with Brubeck’s style. If Coleman’s appearance on the scene was a nuclear bomb, Brubeck’s assault on jazz was deliberate, measured, and low-key. But it was no less world-changing for that.


Dave Mandl’s writing has appeared in The Wire, The Believer, The Register, The Comics Journal, The Rumpus, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. He was the longtime music editor at The Brooklyn Rail and an editor at Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia. He hosts the radio show World of Echo at WFMU and plays the bass guitar in various groups.

LARB Contributor

Dave Mandl’s writing has appeared in The Wire, The Believer, The Register, The Comics Journal, The Rumpus, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. He was the longtime music editor at The Brooklyn Rail and an editor at Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia. He hosts the radio show World of Echo at WFMU and plays the bass guitar in various groups.


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