David Warren Brubeck was born December 6th, 1920. He was considered one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards including "In Your Own Sweet Way" and "The Duke." Brubeck's style ranged from refined to bombastic, reflecting both his mother's classical training and his own improvisational skills. His music is known for employing unusual time signatures as well as superimposing contrasting rhythms, meters, and tonalities.
Brubeck was born in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Concord, California. His father, Peter Howard, was a cattle rancher, and his mother, Elizabeth, who had studied piano in England under Myra Hess and intended to become a concert pianist, taught piano for extra money. Intending to work with his father on their ranch, Brubeck entered the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California (now the University of the Pacific), studying veterinary science. He changed to music on the urging of the head of zoology, Dr. Arnold, who told him "Brubeck, your mind's not here. It's across the lawn in the conservatory. Please go there. Stop wasting my time and yours." Later, Brubeck was nearly expelled when one of his professors discovered that he could not read sheet music. Several of his professors came forward, arguing that his ability to write counterpoint and harmony more than compensated, and demonstrated his familiarity with music notation. The college was still afraid that it would cause a scandal, and agreed to let Brubeck graduate only after he had promised never to teach piano.
After graduating in 1942, Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in Europe in the Third Army. He volunteered to play piano at a Red Cross show and was such a hit that he was spared from combat service and ordered to form a band. He created one of the U.S. armed forces' first racially integrated bands, "The Wolfpack." It was in the military, in 1944, that Brubeck met Paul Desmond. After serving nearly four years in the army, he returned to California for graduate study at Mills College in Oakland. He was a student of Darius Milhaud, who encouraged him to study fugue and orchestration, but not classical piano. While on active duty, he received two lessons from Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA in an attempt to connect with high modernist theory and practice. However, the encounter did not end on good terms since Schoenberg believed that every note should be accounted for, an approach which Brubeck could not accept, although according to his son Chris Brubeck, there is a twelve-tone row in The Light in the Wilderness, Dave Brubeck's first oratorio.
In 1951, Brubeck damaged several neck vertebrae and his spinal cord while diving into the surf in Hawaii. He would later remark that the rescue workers who responded had described him as dead on arrival. Brubeck recovered after a few months, but suffered with residual nerve pain in his hands for years after. The injury also influenced his playing style towards complex, blocky chords rather than speedy, high-dexterity, single-note runs.
Brubeck organized the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951, with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. They took up a long residency at San Francisco's Black Hawk nightclub and gained great popularity touring college campuses, recording a series of albums with such titles as Jazz at Oberlin (1953), Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1953), and Brubeck's debut on Columbia Records, Jazz Goes to College (1954).
When Brubeck signed with Fantasy Records, he thought he had a half interest in the company and he worked as a sort of A & R man for the label, encouraging the Weiss brothers to sign other contemporary jazz performers, including Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Red Norvo. When he discovered that all he owned was a half interest in his own recording, he quit to sign with another label, Columbia Records.
In 1954, he was featured on the cover of Time, the second jazz musician to be so honored (the first was Louis Armstrong on February 21, 1949). Brubeck personally found this accolade embarrassing, since he considered Duke Ellington more deserving of it and was convinced that he had been favored for being Caucasian. Ellington himself knocked on the door of Brubeck's hotel room to show him the cover and the only reaction Brubeck could give was, “It should have been you.”
In 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded Time Out, an album about which the record label was enthusiastic but which they were nonetheless hesitant to release. Featuring the cover art of S. Neil Fujita, the album contained all original compositions, almost none of which were in common time. Nonetheless, on the strength of these unusual time signatures (the album included "Take Five", "Blue Rondo à la Turk", and "Three To Get Ready"), it quickly went Platinum. It was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies.
In September 2009, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced Brubeck as a Kennedy Center Honoree for exhibiting excellence in performance arts. The Kennedy Center Honors Gala took place on Sunday, December 6 (Brubeck's 89th birthday), and was broadcast nationwide on CBS on December 29 at 9:00 pm EST. When the award was made, President Barack Obama recalled a 1971 concert Brubeck had given in Honolulu and said, "You can't understand America without understanding jazz, and you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck."
Brubeck died of heart failure on December 5, 2012, in Norwalk, Connecticut, one day before his 92nd birthday. He was on his way to a cardiology appointment, accompanied by his son Darius. A birthday party concert had been planned for him with family and famous guests. A memorial tribute was held in May 2013.
The Economist wrote: "Above all they found it hard to believe that the most successful jazz in America was being played by a family man, a laid-back Californian, modest, gentle and open, who would happily have been a rancher all his days—except that he couldn't live without performing, because the rhythm of jazz, under all his extrapolation and exploration, was, he had discovered, the rhythm of his heart."
Brubeck is interred at Umpawaug Cemetery in Redding, Connecticut.
One Moment Worth Years (1956): Brubeck said "One Moment Worth Years recalls a moment years ago when I bought my first phonograph record. It was Fats Waller's "Fair and Square" backed by "There's Honey on the Moon Tonight." Something of the Waller swinging bass tradition is preserved in the theme and chorus and a half of improvisation."
Locating The Music
Brubeck's solo piano music is easily found on Amazon. There are two solo piano folios I especially love; Brubeck, Vol 1 and Brubeck, Vol 2. These are rare folios, but well worth the effort to acquire.
Compositions for Solo Piano
Weep No More
In Your Own Sweet Way
Weep No More
When I Was Young
Home At Last
One Moment Worth Years
Chromatic Fantasy Sonata
Four by Four
Points on Jazz
They All Sang Yankee Doodle
It’s A Raggy Waltz
Reminiscences of the Cattle Country
The Rising Sun
The Salmon Strikes