Dave Brubeck: Classical Swing

by Jonathon Roberts on April 28, 2015

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American composer and pianist Dave Brubeck had a huge influence on jazz in the 20th century. Brubeck started playing piano when he was four years old, while growing up on his family’s ranch in Concord, California.[1] Later in life he became extremely popular as a jazz performer and composer. His music combined jazz swing with time signatures that looked like algebra and standard musical forms like rondos.[2] This combination of European compositional ideas, complex rhythmic structures, and jazz song-forms and improvisation put Brubeck at the forefront of an emerging American-European style of jazz.[3] To be sure, Brubeck’s improvisational music did not seem as bluesy or earthy as that of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or other African American jazz musicians.[4] It might be said that Dave Brubeck’s talent lay in a different area: namely incorporating aspects of music from across the Atlantic.

In 1944, Brubeck led an army band that toured Europe during the Second World War.[5] Brubeck was known for including African Americans in his army bands, and caused controversy while doing so.[6] Brubeck was mindful of racism and was considered a humanitarian.[7] After the war, Brubeck studied at Mills College with classical composer Darius Milhaud.[8] It was here that Milhaud showed Brubeck the complexities of polyrhythm and polytonality that he would later incorporate in his music.[9] 1954 was known as Brubeck’s breakout year when he was touring with the great American Composer, Duke Ellington.[10]

During this time Brubeck experienced great success with Ellington, as well as his own quartet. While on tour, TIME magazine interviewed both Brubeck and Ellington. Once the magazine was released, Ellington knocked on Brubeck’s door and showed him the TIME magazine with Brubeck’s face on it.[11] Brubeck describes the event as a tragedy, “The worst thing that could have happened to me was that I was there before Duke, and he was delivering the news to me.”[12] While Brubeck appeared innocent and claimed he would much rather have Ellington’s face on the cover of TIME magazine first. Brubeck’s critics claimed he was a sell out because he made so much money. He was also criticized for showing a fondness towards European classical devices with his complex tempos, while other jazz artists were pouring out their soul into their improvisation.[13] It is very possible that Brubeck’s face was on Time magazine first because of his skin color. This is not the first time a white musician achieved greater success simply due to their skin color and a racist society. Similarly Fatz Domino’s “Ain’t that a shame” topped the pop music charts when white vocalist, Pat Boone, covered it. Clearly Domino’s version is much more authentic, however Boone’s rendition achieved greater success.

The transatlantic aspect of Brubeck’s music is audible. The European classical devices that Brubeck was fond of can especially be heard in his quartet’s famous song “Take Five.” The track is of the record “Time Out” was the first post bebop million selling record in 1959.[14] Odd time signatures were favorites of Brubeck’s, and “Take Five” was written in 5/4, very clever. Throughout the song there is a repeating “A” section as well as a “B” section, similar to classical music form. In another famous song, Blue Rondo à la Turk,” Brubeck again implements the use of classical European devices by taking the listener through a pattern of 9/8 time with a 4/4 feel swing. The first three measures of the rhythm can be subdivided into “ 2+2+2+3”, followed by one measure of “3+3+3.” “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” are representations of Brubeck’s style consisting of syncopation and repeating musical ideals. Brubeck didn’t always swing the way others thought he should, but he continued to implement European techniques throughout his career.

[1] Bulger, John, “ Dave Brubeck the Humanitarian”

[2] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[3] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[4] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[5] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[6] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[7] Blake, John, “What the Tributes to David Brubeck Missed”

[8] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[9] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[10] Blake, John, “What the Tributes to David Brubeck Missed”

[11] Blake, John, “What the Tributes to David Brubeck Missed”

[12] Blake, John, “What the Tributes to David Brubeck Missed”

[13] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

[14] Fordman, John,” American Jazz pianist annoyed the purist by finding global fame”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Forté May 1, 2015 at 2:07 pm

Solid read. I’ve definitely dipped my feet in some Brubeck but haven’t ever taken the time to explore his music contextually. I find the critical response to his monetary success especially amusing; an artist “selling out” and/or “going mainstream” is commonplace jargon in today’s music culture and it’s funny to see it has persisted since the 50s.

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Anonymous April 30, 2015 at 4:10 pm

Nice article on Brubeck. His music, namely the song “Take five” that you reference was one of my first notable introductions to jazz. Brubeck definitely exemplifies a cooler jazz sound, and as I’ve gotten to know jazz a bit better I am most moved by ‘traditional’ soulful African American jazz and yet Brubeck doesn’t stop being grand- maybe this is due to his cleverness you referenced. I haven’t looked into his personal life as an artist and I’m really happy t0 read here that he was considered a humanitarian, and did to whatever degree include Black artists into touring during the war and after.

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