A 1954 cover story in Time magazine described Dave Brubeck as “a wigging cat with a far-out wail,” in a cringe-worthy attempt to approximate the hep lingo of the jazz aficionados who crowded into his performances in the smoky bohemian nightclubs of the day. But audiences flocked to see Brubeck at Carnegie Hall and other highbrow settings, too.
Brubeck, who died at age 92 on Dec. 4 in Connecticut, was one of the biggest stars in the history of jazz. His Dave Brubeck Quartet scored the first-ever million-selling jazz LP, Time Out, in 1959, and his signature song “Take Five” actually crossed over onto the Billboard pop charts in 1961. Brubeck was a musical innovator who incorporated unorthodox rhythms into his work and infused jazz piano with classical influences, playing with what Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich calls “an elegance of tone and phrase that supposedly were the antithesis of the American sound.” But he also expanded the boundaries of the jazz idiom, composing and performing choral and orchestral works that challenged people’s preconceptions as well.
Here are five intriguing facts about one of American culture’s great treasures:
- Brubeck came from a colorful background, even for a jazz musician. The son of a cowboy and a piano teacher, he spent much of his youth on a ranch near Stockton, Calif., tending to cattle when he wasn’t at the keyboard. According to Brubeck biographer Fred Hall, Brubeck’s father Pete, a champion rodeo roper, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but his mother Bessie – who thought he had a musical future – forbade him from using certain rope techniques that might injure his hands.
- Brubeck’s heavy, tortoise-rim glasses became his trademark – and probably inspired a lot of would-be hipsters to head to the optician. But they weren’t just a stylish affectation, according to Hall. Brubeck, who was born cross-eyed, had vision problems in his youth that actually made it difficult for him to read sheet music when his mother was teaching him. He managed to hide the problem, because his musical ear was so sharp that he could listen to other students play piano exercises and then imitate them.
- During World War II, Brubeck served in the U.S. Army in Europe, and while in the service he entertained other soldiers as part of the Wolf Pack, a racially-integrated jazz band – at the time, a rarity, especially in the still-segregated U.S. military. According to Hall, some of his fellow musicians were soldiers who had been injured in combat and were recruited for the group from their beds in military hospitals. Brubeck’s virtuosity led to his being appointed bandleader, even though he was a lowly private first class and was outranked by the other members.
- One of his most innovative compositions, 1959′s “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” with its exotic nine-beat rhythm, was based primarily on a folk song that Brubeck heard while touring the Middle East in 1958, according to jazz writer Kevin Whitehead’s Why Jazz? A Concise Guide.
- According to Hall, the unorthodox 5/4 beat that makes Brubeck’s “Take Five” so distinctive, developed because his drummer Joe Morello got bored playing 4/4, and started fooling around with an uneven time signature for kicks. “Nobody expected it to be successful,” Morello, who died last year at age 82, once recalled. “But now, Dave can’t do a concert without including that piece.” It was even used as the theme song for the Today Show in the early 1960s.
Here’s a 1966 video of Brubeck and his band performing “Take Five” in Germany.
Photo: Brubeck Collection, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California