This American pianist and composer established his reputation in the mid-1950s. His music had an original quality, informed by classical music influences. In his landmark compositions, he imposes his complex ideas and atypical rhythms on the music. The CD Time Out, featuring the classics Take Five and Blue Rondo à la Turk, confirmed once and for all his quartet's place in jazz history. His longevity is legendary, keeping him more active and able than his 90 years should allow.
David Warren Brubeck was born in Concord, California, on December 6, 1920. Encouraged by his mother, a piano teacher, he began his music studies at the University of the Pacific in California. Though he was unable to read music initially and was almost expelled as a result, Brubeck still managed to obtain his diploma in 1942.
After serving in the army for four years, Brubeck went back to school, studying with the great French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud persuaded Brubeck to follow a dual career in jazz and composition. Also offering Brubeck some instruction was Arnold Schoenberg.
The lessons thus learned allowed Brubeck to lend jazz-a musical idiom still steeped, at the time, in organic notions of spontaneity-a more complex compositional structure and organization of sound.
Eight, four, three
With the Dave Brubeck Octet, formed in the mid-1940s, the pianist recorded original compositions (released on the Fantasy label) bearing his trademark complexity. When these efforts failed to achieve success, however, Brubeck opted to change his approach. After working with a trio, he founded a quartet in 1951, and it was with this quartet that he vaulted to international renown. The foursome was originally made up of Paul Desmond on saxophone, Bob Bates on bass and Joe Dodge on drums, with Bates and Dodge eventually replaced, respectively, by Eugene Wright and Joe Morello.
Brubeck distinguished himself with his unique playing style, using sequences of block chords and playing mainly in the bass and medium-bass register. In doing so, he was able to achieve interesting rhythmic effects as part of the harmonic basis for his material.
Dave Brubeck made a name for himself by touring extensively, particularly on university campuses. His first album, Jazz Goes to College, released on the Columbia label, is a brilliant tribute to this period. Brubeck's musical consecration came when he made the cover of TIME Magazine in November 1954.
Brubeck released Time Out, his most celebrated album, in 1959. It included compositions whose rhythmic audacity raised a few eyebrows among critics. Public reaction, however, was unequivocal: A million copies of the album were sold, marking the first time an instrumental album had achieved such a feat.
Two of the tracks from Time Out-Blue Rondo à la Turk and the timeless Take Five, a composition by saxophonist Paul Desmond-have long since entered the great book of jazz standards. Other similar efforts followed. At the height of their popularity, the quartet toured the world, even performing in the Middle East and Asia.
Starting in 1967, Brubeck, who had dissolved the quartet by then, began collaborating with Gerry Mulligan and various accompanists or soloists, among them drummer Randy Jones and clarinettist Bill Smith, another Milhaud protégé.
During the 1970s, Brubeck and his three sons, also musicians, formed Two Generations of Brubeck. The group featured Darius Brubeck on keyboards, and brothers Chris and Danny on bass and trombone, respectively.
The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal welcomed Dave Brubeck for the first time in 1981, paying tribute to the pianist who, 30 years earlier, had penned a new chapter in jazz history.
The program hailed Brubeck as a "perfect musician, indefatigable composer and exceptional pianist. Dave Brubeck is all of these things, of course, and much more: he is one of those rare musicians who has used his God-given talent to capture the essence of jazz for the greater public." The pianist was flanked, at the 1981 Festival, by the members of his most recent quartet, including his son Chris.
By the time Brubeck returned to the Festival in 1985, his stature and influence on the jazz scene had grown. Now, the program notes stated that "if a pianist like Cecil Taylor furiously fractures the tempo, Brubeck was still the first jazz musician to take interest in a music not confined to the binary time signatures driving bop".
The history of jazz-rock and jazz fusion owes a great deal to Brubeck, who was the first artist to integrate elements from classical composition and contemporary European thought into his music, including atonality, the fugue and counterpoint, as well as some new notions related to harmony.
"I want to lend my music the vigour and strength of straight-up jazz, the harmonic complexities of Bartok and Milhaud, the form and dignity of Bach and, sometimes, the lyric romanticism of Rachmaninov," Brubeck once explained. For lack of achieving this lofty musical alchemy, the composer, to his credit, never stopped trying.
A different Brubeck
In 1987, the Festival got a chance to discover Dave Brubeck's orchestral work. Largely religious in nature, it was little known even though it has been used in the rites of various churches since the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra released Brubeck's The Light in the Wilderness in 1968.
Also featured was The Gates of Justice, another Brubeck work from the 1960s, chosen to mark the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Colorado in 1986, as well as La Fiesta de la Posada, a choral piece partly inspired by Mexican folk songs. The latter piece was part of the repertoire sung by the choir at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. It was also recorded by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Dale Warland Singers.
Rounding out the program were excerpts from works by Brubeck as well as orchestrations of successful Brubeck compositions such as Elementals, for jazz ensemble and orchestra, and They All Sang Yankee Doodle, which reflects the variety of ethnicities in America. Brubeck and his quartet were backed up, on the occasion, by 55 musicians from the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.
In 1991, the musician celebrated his 70th birthday by launching a tour that included a stop at the Festival. On opening night, Brubeck gave dual performances, first with his quartet-a formula he's favoured for 40 years-and then with an orchestra of 25 musicians backed up by the Tudor Singers of Montreal, a 50-voice choir: by way of a gift, the Festival had given Brubeck the pleasure of presenting his orchestral work To Hope: A Celebration.
Among the Festival's emblematic figures, along with Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, Dave Brubeck frequently reminded jazz aficionados of his affection for the city and Festival. He returned to the Festival in 1993, just after the release of an historic box CD commemorating his career from the 1940s up to now. He'd also recently released the album Trio Brubeck, which reunited his sons Chris and Dan.
In 2002, Brubeck shared the same bill at the Festival with Jim Hall, Toots Thielemans and Angèle Dubeau. Four years later, he marked a return to the Festival. The great pianist and composer, it seems, has never ceased to turn back the clock. At the ripe age of 80, he continued to record and perform with the same verve and spirit.
In 2008, Dave Brubeck played two Festival concerts as part of the Invitation series. The following year, he returned to celebrate the Festival's 30th anniversary for a performance that also marked the 50th anniversary of his classic album Time Out.
In 2010, the musician received a special Miles Davis Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Brubeck played his last Festival concert in 2011. He passed away on December 5, 2012, the day before his 92nd birthday.