Skip to main content

Feature

DAVE BRUBECK: Ambassador of Cool

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

From the opening bars of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five," listeners are swept away by a swinging beat, a lilting piano line, and a sax that has been described as the perfect dry martini. Released in 1959, "Take Five" became the best-selling jazz single of all time, ensuring Brubeck and his West Coast jazz sound a permanent place in the American soundtrack.

There is more to Brubeck, however, than the essence of cool in a melody. "The Times of Dave Brubeck," a new traveling exhibition by the College of the Pacific Library, shows another side of Brubeck as a champion of social equality.

"He maintained his level as a musician while also being a humanitarian," says Michael Wurtz, the archivist who oversees the College of the Pacific's Brubeck Collection. "It's rare for musicians to do that. It's either one or the other."

Brubeck learned to play the piano from his mother, a pianist and music teacher, and by the time he was in his teens, he was playing professionally with local dance bands. After graduating from the College of the Pacific, Brubeck was drafted into the army in 1942, leading a service band that was part of George Patton's Third Army.

Brubeck followed up his army stint with graduate work at Mills College in Oakton, California, studying under Darius Milhaud, a French composer known for developing polytonality, the use of different keys simultaneously. With Milhaud's encouragement, Brubeck began to compose and formed the Dave Brubeck Octet, playing a style of jazz that reflected his interest in polytonality and polyrhythm.

"I always wanted to try and develop the idea of playing in two keys or three keys at the same time," explains Brubeck on an audio track that is part of the exhibition. "With a piano, you divide your left hand, which usually keeps the original key, and with your right hand you develop a new key." Brubeck's compositions also stood out for their use of complex time signatures. Rather than use a traditional 3/4 or 4/4 beats per measure, Brubeck used 5/4, 9/8, 11/4, and 7/4.

In 1951, he formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond on saxophone. The quartet quickly gained a following among jazz critics and fans. By 1954, Brubeck had become the master of West Coast jazz, landing him on the cover of Time magazine, the first for a jazz musician. Not everyone, however, dug Brubeck's sound. Some critics deemed it too intellectual and too removed from the tradition and passion of New Orleans and New York-based jazz. Despite the naysayers, Brubeck's popularity continued to grow. In 1959, the quartet released Time Out, featuring the iconic "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo."

Brubeck used his fame to champion civil rights and democracy. He believed that the jazz community—and his racially mixed quartet—offered an alternative to segregated America. "Jazz," he wrote in 1961, "reflects the American ideal of social equality with its own musical framework."

He battled with clubs and campuses in the South who wanted to hear his quartet's music, but would not allow African-American bass player Eugene Wright to play. In 1960, Brubeck cancelled a twenty-five date tour of the South at a major financial loss when only two colleges would allow the quartet to perform. "If Brubeck's stance," observed the Pittsburgh Courier, "doesn't serve as a step to be taken by other mixed groups who face segregation in the South, it should become a yardstick by which to measure their consciences."

Brubeck's devotion to civil rights also influenced his work. Collaborating with his wife Iola, he wrote The Ambassadors (1960), a musical that tells the story of Louis Armstrong's experiences—some demeaning, some heartening—as he toured the world as a jazz ambassador. The writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., also served as the inspiration for an oratorio, The Gates of Justice (1969), and a cantata, Truth Is Fallen (1971).

Like Armstrong, Brubeck served as a jazz ambassador. At the behest of the State Department, the Dave Brubeck Quartet went on a three-month tour in 1958, performing in Poland, Turkey, Pakistan, Ceylon, Iran, and Iraq. "At last a jazz dish of the greatest quality," proclaimed a Warsaw newspaper after one of their performances.

The Voice of America's music programs had created an appetite for jazz behind the Iron Curtain and in the Third World, but for Brubeck the tour was not just about connecting with fans. It offered an opportunity to show a better vision of America. Writing for the New York Times Magazine about his tour experience, Brubeck observed:

Jazz is color blind. When a German or a Pole or an Iraqi and an Indian sees American white men and colored in perfect creative accord, when he finds out that they travel together, eat together, live together, and think pretty much alike, socially and musically, a lot of the bad taste of Little Rock is apt to be washed from his mouth.

For Brubeck, jazz also represented freedom with a capital "F." It was not a coincidence, he believed, that dictatorships in Europe outlawed jazz—or that when freedom returned, so did the playing of jazz. "Musically, by its very nature, it is the most creative, the freest and the most democratic form of expression I know."

Despite touring Communist Europe, Brubeck did not perform in the Soviet Union until 1987 after the signing of a new cultural treaty. For decades, Soviet cultural apparatchiks had derided jazz as "revolting rubbish" and barred its performance. The following year, Brubeck returned to the Soviet Union, this time as part of President Ronald Reagan's landmark trip to Moscow. Secretary of State George Schultz believed Brubeck's performance, which had both Soviet and American officials tapping their toes, helped break the ice between the two governments.

While Brubeck made his mark during the heyday of the West Coast jazz movement of the 1950s and 1960s, successive decades have taken him in other directions. The Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up in 1967, but Brubeck continued to perform with a quartet, even being joined by his sons in recent years. He also drew on his classical music training, composing orchestral works and a ballet. This past fall, the Monterey Jazz Festival featured the debut of the Brubeck—penned Cannery Row Suite, a jazz opera based on Steinbeck's novel.

To create the exhibition, the College of the Pacific's Library drew on the more than 350-plus linear feet of papers, photos, memorabilia, and audio recordings that comprise its Brubeck Collection.

The exhibition, which has already traveled to the University of Michigan and was featured at the Monterey Public Library during its jazz festival, is scheduled to visit California public libraries in 2007.

About the Author

Meredith Hindley is a writer for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Funding Information

The University of the Pacific Library received $9,273 from NEH to support the creation of "The Times of Dave Brubeck" traveling exhibition.