Jazz Composer, Pianist Dave Brubeck by Richard Majestic

by Richard Majestic
(Las Cruces, NM, USA)

Dave Brubeck, who died one day short of his 92nd birthday (December 5, 2012), wasn't my first interest in modern music, yet I have come to see him as a genius whose music gets more interesting and popular as it's heard again and again. I have a hunch that my own discovery of the power of jazz—my awakening came courtesy of Dave Brubeck— parallels the experience of so many who have come under his spell. It's the exceptional American music that we will keep coming back to, then the awakening to Miles Davis in his "Kind of Blue" and "Seven Steps to Heaven" period.

The paradox is that the popularity he won with "Take Five," and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” the tunes everyone knows and his 1959 "Time Out" album probably got in the way of the respect that he (along with Paul Desmond, his essential collaborator on the alto sax) deserved.
Too often in the arts, the fact that someone is accessible is taken to mean that he isn't truly creative. This is a very wrong idea, and it's especially mistaken in the case of Brubeck, an extraordinary innovator in rhythm and meter. His music is now so familiar that we forget how daring he was as a composer.
Now a very personal story of mine about Dave Brubeck. His passing is a great loss to the jazz world and here’s the story of my personal encounter with Dave Brubeck in 1958, he was 38 and I was 18.
I graduated from Bellport NY high school in 1958 and commuted to RCA Institute in NY City that fall taking the engineering program. I also started to work part-time for a school A/V equipment dealer in Westbury LI NY repairing tape recorders, 16mm projectors, phonographs and strip film/slide projectors; you remember that high school classroom equipment in the ‘50s. One Friday the boss asked if I was coming in to work Saturday; he said we had a house call to make in Connecticut. We drove from LI to Westchester, pulled into the driveway, I grabbed my tools and we knocked on the door, the owner answered the door, we introduced ourselves, he introduced himself; Dave Brubeck. I was shown a room with four motorized stripfilm projectors that Mr. Brubeck said he used in his jazz club shows. At the time it went right over my head when he introduced himself as Dave Brubeck, I had never heard of him or his music, I listened to rhythm and blues, rock and lots of do-wop at the time, WINS 1010 MW had Alan Freed and WNEW 102.7 was already playing album rock and never modern jazz.
About ten minutes later Mr. Brubeck comes into the room and asked me if I knew anything about recording equipment; I said I knew the Ampex 350s well and the Nagra portable recorders. He said come with me. Out on his very large sun porch, glass looking out almost the full length and brick and stone on the house; he had a ½” three track Ampex 352, three sets of record electronics and three 3-channel microphone mixers and nine B&O ribbon microphones in the midst of a grand piano, drum set, string bass and saxophone setup. All the recording equipment was in portable cases and rented gear with Liberty Music stickers on them. He had also rented an HP 200CD, so I proceeded to setup the playback EQ and level with the test tape there and then with a fresh10.5” reel of Scotch 1-mil recording tape setup the record electronics.
Finished that up and the other musicians started to come in so I setup and positioned the microphones and they started to practice and play. I loaded up fresh reel of tape and pressed record. I took the headphones, plugged them into each mixer and set the levels for a good balance between the three microphones and then set the record levels on the three record electronics with just the VU meters. Tape rolling the quartet started playing or as it turned out writing and rehearsing Blue Rondo a la Turk. They would play for a few minutes, stop and talk and then go into a riff that lasted 10-15 minutes. After an hour I loaded another fresh reel of tape and pressed record again.
After five hours and five reels of tape, 1-mil, 10 ½” reels at 15IPS they asked to hear back their last riffs. Mr. Brubeck commented “you’ve been running tape the whole time?” I learned a few days later from my boss that Brubeck took all the recordings to Columbia studios on Monday and the engineers there edit-spliced together under Brubeck’s direction the final recording “Blue Rondo a la Turk” you hear on “Time Out” recording that was released in early 1959. Later I learned that Brubeck had used the RCA studios in NYC for all the other cuts and Columbia Records released “Time Out” on vinyl in 1959 and later as a CD 1985.
If you own the vinyl “Time Out” LP and listen closely to “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and any of the other tracks you’ll hear reverberations from the glass and stone of Mr. Brubeck’s sun porch versus the dead RCA recording studios where all the other cuts were recorded. Multi-track Ampexs were used in Columbia studios too so the sound is near flawless and very quiet, the Take Five album is used even today to demonstrate expensive audio gear, those B&O ribbon microphones help too.
That’s my story; talk about the being at the right place at the right time. ~Richard Majestic
Brubeck had a career that spanned almost all American jazz since World War II. He formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 and was the first modern jazz musician to be pictured on the cover of Time magazine -- on Nov. 8, 1954 -- and he helped define the swinging, smoky rhythms of 1950s and '60s club jazz.
The seminal album "Time Out," released by the quartet in 1959, was the first-ever million-selling jazz LP, and is still among the best-selling jazz albums of all time. It opens with "Blue Rondo a la Turk" in 9/8 time -- nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats.
A piano-and-saxophone whirlwind based loosely on a Mozart piece, "Blue Rondo" eventually intercuts between Brubeck's piano and a more traditional 4/4 jazz rhythm.
The album also features "Take Five" -- in 5/4 time -- which became the quartet's signature theme and even made the Billboard singles chart in 1961. It was composed by Brubeck's longtime saxophonist, Paul Desmond.
"When you start out with goals -- mine were to play polytonally and polyrhythmically -- you never exhaust that," Brubeck told The Associated Press in 1995. "I started doing that in the 1940s. It's still a challenge to discover what can be done with just those two elements."
After service in World War II and study at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., Brubeck formed an octet including Desmond on alto sax and Dave van Kriedt on tenor, Cal Tjader on drums and Bill Smith on clarinet. The group played Brubeck originals and standards by other composers, including some early experimentation in unusual time signatures. Their groundbreaking album "Dave Brubeck Octet" was recorded in 1946.
The group evolved into the Quartet, which played colleges and universities. The Quartet's first album, "Jazz at Oberlin," was recorded live at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1953.
Ten years later, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass joined with Brubeck and Desmond to produce "Time Out."
In later years Brubeck composed music for operas, ballet, even a contemporary Mass.
In 1988, he played for Mikhail Gorbachev at a dinner in Moscow that then-President Ronald Reagan hosted for the Soviet leader.
"I can't understand Russian, but I can understand body language," said Brubeck, after seeing the general secretary tapping his foot.
In the late 1980s, Brubeck contributed music for one episode of an eight-part series of television specials, "This Is America, Charlie Brown." Above Comments by PAT EATON-ROBB, The Associated Press

Richard Majestic

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