On tour with the man behind ‘Take Five’ ... the definitive biography of one of jazz’s most successful pianists
Thu 13 Feb 2020
In 1954 the pianist Dave Brubeck became the first jazz musician of the postwar generation to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, infuriating those who felt that this white middle-class Californian had no business taking the limelight from Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk, the true pioneers of an essentially African American music.
In the decades that followed, Brubeck remained the focus of controversy, even as his quartet’s albums – with their abstract-expressionist cover art by Joan Miró, Franz Kline and Sam Francis – became almost as ubiquitous a fixture in the homes of the upwardly mobile as a hostess trolley or coffee percolator. By the dawn of the 1960s, when “Take Five”, a catchy little number in 5/4 time, was high in the pop charts, regularly requested on the BBC’s Sunday lunchtime radio show Two-Way Family Favourites, he was effectively the public face of modern jazz, even though his genial temperament and settled family life – he was married to the same woman for 70 years – ran contrary to what was generally seen as the idiom’s beatnik tendency.
For all the resentment he provoked, and the scorn poured on his sometimes heavy-handed playing, Brubeck was an interesting musician whose experiments with unorthodox time signatures helped open the way for others to venture beyond the standard 4/4 and waltz time. Combining his commitment to jazz with the lessons learned during his early studies with the expatriate French classical composer Darius Milhaud, he was happy to explore a hybrid work such as his brother Howard’s four-movement “Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra”, which he and his quartet recorded with the New York Philharmonic in 1960, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. That earned him no points from the jazz purists, but their scepticism did not deter him from writing his own orchestral and choral pieces, some of them on sacred themes, later in life.
The British writer Philip Clark is not the first to attempt a Brubeck biography, but he is exceptional in leaving the details of his subject’s early life – a childhood that might have led to a career as a cattle rancher, for instance – until the final quarter of the book. That is because the author is after a looser, more discursive structure, examining the impulses behind Brubeck’s creativity through an approach freed from strict chronology, roaming backwards and forwards in his search for strands of development.
The first of his own encounters with Brubeck came in 1992, after a concert in Manchester, when he asked the artist to cast an eye over one of his own student compositions and received an encouraging response. A rapport was established and led Clark to accompany the quartet throughout a UK tour in 2003, continuing a dialogue maintained almost up to the pianist’s death, aged 91, in 2012. He supplements those conversations with material from Brubeck’s extensive personal archive, to which he was given access.
The bandleader’s early years and his rise from obscurity are closely examined, but the main focus of the story is inevitably the 10-year lifespan of Brubeck’s classic quartet, in which he and the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, his long-term musical partner (and the composer of “Take Five”), were joined by the bassist Eugene Wright and the drummer Joe Morello. This was a perfectly balanced mechanism with an immediately identifiable sound, thanks largely to the ethereal purity of Desmond’s tone in the group’s foreground. Clark reveals that the musicians were subject to an unusual set of printed “principles and aims” in which Brubeck detailed their individual roles and responsibilities with a bracing and slightly alarming clarity.
For all his success, Brubeck was an essentially modest and unpretentious man whose immediate reaction to the Time magazine cover was that it should have gone to Duke Ellington. He once related, with some amusement, an enigmatic compliment paid to him by the great avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor: “He told me I was the missing link. He didn’t say between what and what.” Clark comes as close as anyone ever will to filling in the blanks.