DAVE BRUBECK : A LIFE IN TIME
By Philip Clark
Headline Publishing. 445 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-4722-7247-8
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Dave Brubeck aroused a variety of responses when his group came to the fore in jazz in the 1950s. Looking through an old scrapbook in which I pasted cuttings from the Melody Maker and other weekly music papers during my army days between 1954 and 1957, I came across an interview with clarinettist and saxophone player Tony Scott in which he stated that “He just doesn’t swing. Just now I said a musician must build. Brubeck, his music is like a box and he’s caught inside it. I don’t think he’s a jazzman and I think he’s a poor musician even in what he plays. I’ve studied modern music for years and had an education in classical music. Believe me, Brubeck is childish. In classical music he’s childish, and it’s the same in what he calls his jazz”.
Philip Clark doesn’t refer to Scott’s dismissal of Brubeck, though
he mentions some other negative comments about his music by
saxophonist Billy Root and critic Ira Gitler. But after reading his
book it’s plain that he’d have strongly objected to what Scott said,
had he seen it at the time.
Dave Brubeck was born in
It’s clear that Brubeck’s poor reading skills probably limited his opportunities to follow a conventional path by working in groups, and especially big-bands, as most aspiring young musicians did at the time. He needed his own groups so that he could, in a sense, dominate in order to fulfil his potential as a soloist. Improvisation was of key importance in his thinking, even though in the mid-1940s he experimented with a group that utilised a fair amount of arranged music. And he needed sympathetic musicians to achieve the sort of sounds he wanted. Trumpeter Dick Collins and tenor-saxophonist Dave Van Kriedt were vital components of the Octet, just as alto-saxophonist Paul Desmond played a key part in the classic Brubeck Quartet of the 1950s.
It is the Brubeck/Desmond partnership that most people will think of
whenever the pianist’s name crops up, and especially the group wIth
Gene Wright on bass and drummer Joe Morello. There had been other
bassists and drummers present as Brubeck began to establish a
reputation in the early and mid-1950s, but for various reasons none
of them ever settled into the format that the pianist devised as his
experiments with time signatures began to occupy his thinking.
Before the days of fame when Brubeck toured the world, there were
periods when he and his musicians, always including Paul Desmond but
with a several different bassists and drummers, appeared in jazz
Another problem that Brubeck had to face when the black bassist
Eugene Wright joined his group was that of racial prejudice while
working in the South.
I have to say that
I mentioned earlier about his partiality for what he refers to as polytonality and polyrhythm. He defines them in this way:
“Polytonality – music sounding in two or more keys simultaneously – and polyrhythms – overlays of different rhythmic impulses and grooves – were, like the attitude he took towards life, techniques that allowed obsessions and tics to coexist. Brubeck plied his music with overlaps between musical cultures in “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, which combined an indigenous Turkish rhythm with the blues, and in “Three to Get Ready”, which squared the circles of a waltz by inserting bars of 4/4; between different time signatures, like his version of “Someday My Prince Will Come”, which managed to be in 4/4 and 3/4 at the same time; Between the radically diverse range of musical styles through which he waded in his improvised solos - no sweat as Liszt flowed into James P. Johnson”.
I suppose it could be asked if most of the audiences hearing and enjoying Brubeck’s group in performance would have been aware of what was taking place rhythmically other than in a general sense? Let me make a personal confession at this point. I was familiar with early Brubeck recordings like “Frenesi”, “Mamselle”, and “Crazy Chris”, which had been issued on 78s before I went into the army in 1954. And I’d started to buy a few Brubeck LPs as they appeared later in the decade. Tracks like the exciting “Le Souk” and the attractive “Laura” caught my attention. I also saw the Quartet live at concerts when I got back into civilian circulation after 1957. My main pre-occupation was admittedly with the alto playing of Paul Desmond. And though I no doubt tapped my feet in time to the tricky rhythms I was hearing, I couldn’t have identified them beyond the straight 4/4. That’s not completely true because I could recognise a waltz rhythm. But along with many others in the audience I was just responding to the overall musical experience. It may offend musicians to say it, but listeners on the whole don’t need to identify which notes are being played, any more than they do the rhythms, in order to enjoy what they’re hearing.
As I said earlier, it was always Paul Desmond who was, for me, the
main attraction whenever I attended a concert or bought a Brubeck
LP. His feather-light tone, and his melodic improvisations seemed to
be the epitome of “cool”. I was primarily a fan of the more-intense
playing of Charlie Parker, Ernie Henry, and East Coast altoists like
Phil Woods, Gene Quill and Charlie Mariano, and Desmond provided a
contrast to them that was impossible to ignore. I think that what
persuaded me to pay attention to his work, as opposed to that of
Brubeck as a soloist, is that I could place Desmond in a tradition
of jazz that the pianist didn’t seem to easily fit into. I’m talking
about my impressions of the music I was hearing in the 1950s, and I
have to say that
Clark mentions Hampton Hawes when, discussing how different pianists
played, he describes how
bop practitioners functioned: “the left hand outlined the
rapidly unfolding harmonic patterns, a secure grounding over which
the right hand launched busy, athletic lines”.
If I can don my nerdish cap for a moment, he also refers to
Hawes making “his debut record in
Paul Desmond’s behaviour had become erratic by the early-1960s and
he was reputed to be drinking heavily. There is a story of him
disappearing part-way through a concert tour of
Philip Clark has written an informative and informed book. He knew
Dave Brubeck and talked to him on many occasions about his life and
music. His biography of the pianist does rely a great deal on pages
of close analysis of recorded material, and anyone looking for
colourful descriptions of personally outlandish behaviour will be
disappointed. Brubeck was a dedicated family man and married to the
same woman for 70 years, didn’t smoke or use drugs, drank little,
and paid close attention to business as well as musical matters.
It’s difficult to imagine