How Brubeck’s Take Five gave us our groove

JAZZ composer and pianist Dave Brubeck aimed to make complex music easy to listen to - so he could translate the joy of playing to the ear.

And that, over a career that spanned almost 70 years, is exactly what he did.

Brubeck's pioneering style was never better than on his timeless hit Take Five.

His success annoyed jazz purists, who found linking fame and art an anathema.

It made no difference to Brubeck or his audiences.

Brubeck had a career that spanned almost all American jazz since the Second World War.

He formed The Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 and was the first modern jazz musician to be on the cover of Time magazine - on November 8, 1954.


He had become the face of the swinging, smoky rhythms of 1950s and '60s club jazz.

The seminal album Time Out, released by the quartet in 1959, was the first million-selling jazz LP, and is still among the bestselling jazz albums of all time.

It opens with Blue Rondo a la Turk in 9/8 time - nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats.

The album also features Take Five - in 5/4 time - which became the Quartet's signature theme and even made the Billboard singles chart in 1961. It was composed by Brubeck's long-time saxophonist, Paul Desmond.

"When you start out with goals - mine were to play polytonally and polyrhythmically - you never exhaust that," Brubeck told The Associated Press in 1995.

"I started doing that in the 1940s.

"It's still a challenge to discover what can be done with just those two elements."

Born in California on December 6, 1920, Brubeck had planned to become a rancher like his father.

He attended university in 1938, intending to major in veterinary medicine and return to the family's 18,000ha spread. But within a year Brubeck was drawn to music.

He graduated in 1942 and was drafted by the US Army, where he served - mostly as a musician - under General George S. Patton in Europe.

At the time, his Wolfpack Band was the only racially integrated unit in the military. In an interview for Ken Burns' miniseries, Jazz, Brubeck talked about playing for troops with the band, only to return to the US to see his black bandmates refused service in a restaurant in Texas.

After serving in the Second World War and studying at California's Mills College, Brubeck formed an octet including Desmond on alto sax and Dave van Kreidt on tenor. Cal Tjader played the drums and Bill Smith played clarinet.

The group played Brubeck originals and standards by other composers, including some early experimentation in unusual time signatures. Their groundbreaking album Dave Brubeck Octet was recorded in 1946.

The group evolved into the Quartet, playing colleges and universities, recording its first albums in 1953.

Ten years later, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass joined with Brubeck and Desmond to produce Time Out.

In later years Brubeck composed music for operas, ballet, even a contemporary church service.

In 1988, he played for Mikhail Gorbachev, at a dinner in Moscow that then-president Ronald Reagan hosted for the Soviet leader.

"I can't understand Russian, but I can understand body language," Brubeck, after seeing the general secretary tapping his foot, said.

In the late 1980s, Brubeck contributed music for a variety of television, from a Charlie Brown cartoon special to another about NASA and the space station.

He worked with three of his sons - Chris, Dan and Matthew - and included excerpts from his Mass To Hope! A Celebration, his oratorio A Light in the Wilderness, and a piece he had composed but never recorded, Quiet As the Moon.

"That's the beauty of music," he told AP in 1992. "You can take a theme from a Bach sacred chorale and improvise.

"It doesn't make any difference where the theme comes from - the treatment of it can be jazz."

In 2006, the University of Notre Dame gave Brubeck its Laetare Medal, awarded each year to a Roman Catholic "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity".

At the age of 88, in 2009, Brubeck was still touring despite a viral infection that threatened his heart and forced him to cancel shows.

By June, though, he was playing in Chicago, where the Tribune critic wrote that "Brubeck was coaxing from the piano a high lyricism more typically encountered in the music of Chopin".

In 1996, he won a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys and in 2009 he was a Kennedy Centre Honours recipient.

Brubeck told AP the Kennedy Centre award would have delighted his late mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist who was initially disappointed by her youngest son's interest in jazz.

He said she had lived long enough to come to appreciate his music.

Mamy well-known jazz musicians were already on their way to Connecticut this week for a birthday concert in Brubeck's honour that had been scheduled for yesterday in Waterbury.

The show went on as a tribute to Brubeck and his work.

Brubeck and his wife, Iola, had five sons and a daughter. Four of his sons played with the London Symphony Orchestra in a birthday tribute to Brubeck in 2000.

"We never had a rift," Chris Brubeck once said of living and playing with his father. Dave Brubeck was on the way to see his cardiologist when he had a heart attack.

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