Jazz musician and composer Dave Brubeck lived a good, long life, dying yesterday at the age of 92, but I was nonetheless saddened to hear of his passing. The pianist, composer, and bandleader made some classic records, especially Time Out and Time In, and his music was both adventurous and accessible.
In addition to jazz, he wrote classical compositions and works for jazz combo and orchestra, and he recorded the first million-selling jazz album, Time Out, which featured the classic song “Take Five.” The latter song was written by the band’s saxophonist, and it featured a distinctive, memorable bass line played by Brubeck on the piano. Time Out is a must-have recording. Another personal favorite of mine is the live recording We’re All Together Again (For the First Time), where Brubeck and his excellent rhythm section are joined by saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan. It’s another must-have jazz album.
Brubeck gained his initial popularity when the bop movement was intent on making jazz into Art with a capital A, and Brubeck’s music certainly showed the influence of that movement. Yet he seemed always intent on creating real beauty and giving pleasure to the audience in addition to his more intellectual explorations; although his music could be daunting at times, he continually provided commercially appealing compositions as well. Songs such as “Take Five” and “Blue Ronda a la Turk” exemplify that balance, using unusual, adventurous time signatures while providing pleasing, memorable melodies. And “Strange Meadow Lark,” also from Time Out, is just as smart and beautiful as those two more-celebrated songs from that same album.
Brubeck was a pioneer in racial integration, leading a racially mixed band in the Army during World War II when the U.S. military was largely segregated. His song cycle “The Real Ambassadors,” written with his wife, Iola, spoke out against racism, and “The Gates of Justice” included quotations from the Bible and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Brubeck often expressed his religious faith through the lyrics attached to his compositions, such as his 1968 oratorio for jazz group and orchestra, “”The Light in the Wilderness,” and “On This Rock,” which Brubeck wrote for Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to San Francisco.
He was a family man, touring with three of his sons for his Two Generations of Brubeck band and albums.
Dave Brubeck was, by all accounts, widely admired and good-natured, very much in contrast to cliche of the dope-smoking, snobbish, moody jazz artiste one often finds in the popular culture of his time. Brubeck was an exemplary artist and individual, and he represented some of what is best in the American culture. He enriched this nation by his presence, and we lose much with his passing. Fortunately, his work lives on.