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. Clark is an unabashed and enthusiastic advocate for the pianist’s achievements, ranging from his earliest trio, quartet and octet recordings in the late-1940s and early-1950s to his later extended compositions using larger groups of musicians. He isn’t blind to certain Brubeck performances on record that he sees as below par, but at the same time he places them in a context that considers them as minor failings in a generally high level of musical accomplishment.

Dave Brubeck was born in 1920 in California. His mother was a talented pianist and his father a rancher. He grew up with classical music in his consciousness and combined it with practical work on the ranch his father managed. It’s interesting to note that Brubeck had difficulty reading music throughout his career: ”I can write music, but I am not a good reader. I got used to using my ears from such an early age, through listening to records (and) then trying to work out what I had heard by going to the piano, and listening in to the piano lessons my mother gave, that reading kind of passed me by. But my mother did teach me the basics of notating music on paper and harmony, so that by the time I went to College of Pacific I had enough to go on. But I could never, even now, play a piece of Beethoven or Milhaud from the sheet music”.

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. Clark is particularly keen on these and devotes a fair amount of space to investigating their use in the Quartet’s performances. “Take Five” is the best-known example, and became a popular hit.

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 clubs across America. Life wasn’t easy for them, and there were the usual problems relating to travelling, accommodation, and facing up to the fact that the clubs were often controlled by the Mafia. Brubeck was always a clean-living person, but some of his musicians succumbed to the lure of the drugs scene that was seemingly an integral part of the early-1950s jazz world. At one point he lost the services of bassist Ron Crotty and drummer Lloyd Davis.

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. Clark has a couple of anecdotes which highlight the kind of situations that could arise. When they arrived to play a concert in 1958 at East Carolina College in Greenville, North Carolina, Brubeck was informed that it wasn’t acceptable for Eugene Wright to appear on stage. His response was that if Wright couldn’t be there then neither could the other musicians. The college authorities backed down and the concert went ahead successfully. An even more telling story is of Brubeck rejecting what would have been a financially beneficial tour of the Southern States when he was asked to replace Wright with a white bassist.

I have to say that Clark doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on a close biographical analysis of Brubeck’s life. A reader looking for lots of anecdotes about incidents and personalities will have to search hard for them. They’re there, but the book doesn’t follow a conventional pattern of biographical studies with a clear chronological narrative. Where personal details do occur, whether of Brubeck or his fellow-musicians, they mostly do so in relation to the music they produced. And it’s the music that concerns Clark most of all.

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 does a good job of analysing Brubeck’s solos and demonstrating how, as well as incorporating classical references, they indicated that he had a sound awareness of jazz traditions. He wasn’t a bebop improviser in the style of Bud Powell, and the numerous pianists who followed him, such as Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Barry Harris, and Hampton Hawes, and that may have worked against him in the minds of critics and fans. They expected to hear bebop-influenced music and were confused when they didn’t get it. I include myself in that category.

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 1955”. But Hawes had recorded under his own name several times in the early-1950s, as well as with altoist Sonny Criss in 1949. And he was one of the two young pianists (the other was Russ Freeman) who took part in the legendary 1947 recordings from a concert at the Elk’s Club, Los Angeles.

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 Germany, and eventually being found a couple of days later in a Hamburg bar.  It wasn’t perhaps surprising when the Quartet broke up in 1967. Clark provides a thorough survey of how Brubeck carried on with other musicians added, including some from his own family. He didn’t just restrict himself to the conventions of the Quartet, and moved into what some jazz enthusiasts might have regarded as the dublous territory of classical music. However, I suspect that when his name crops up in conversation or elsewhere it will be in connection with the Quartet recordings of the 1950s and early-1960s.

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 Hollywood ever making a biopic about his life. Desmond with his drinking, womanising, frustrations about wanting recognition as a writer as well as a musician, and other personal foibles, might make a better candidate. It’s to Clark’s credit that he manages to blend the personal details in with the music. Writing about music for a general audience that might not want to know all about the intricacies of polyrhythms and polytonality isn’t easy. I just applied my own test to Clark’s book – did it make me want to listen to the music? It did, and I was soon hunting for those old Brubeck tracks from the 1950s.