By: Kristen Bialik
While we often think of jazz in terms of syncopated rhythms and lush dissonance, pianist Dave Brubeck was one of the first to help shape that style of experimentation. It's difficult to say whether Brubeck was predicting an inevitable evolution or whether the future of jazz evolved because of his innovations, but even so, Brubeck could not have predicted the extent to which he would be intertwined with jazz's future.
It was Dave Brubeck -- a man who could not read sheet music and who was nearly barred from graduating the College of the Pacific music school in 1942 because of it -- who reinvented the genre with his signature style of polyrhythms, odd time signatures, and polytonality. What Brubeck and the Dave Brubeck Quartet (featuring the famous Joe Morello on drums, Paul Desmond on alto sax, and Eugene Wright on bass) did was so innovative that many contemporary critics didn't understand it. At a 1963 performance in Carnegie Hall, the quartet played a song where each member kept a different, individual tempo going for the whole song. The next day, a reviewer wrote, "The Brubeck Quartet can't even keep time together." What the critic didn't yet grasp was that the music was found in not trying to. Joe Morello alone could play four different rhythms at once between his right and left feet and hands.
Jazz Casual - The Dave Brubeck Quartet
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At the time he sat down with Ralph Gleason of Down Beat, Dave Brubeck explained that the Brubeck Quartet was the only jazz band he knew of that could play an entire concert without playing in 3/4/ or 4/4 time, the standard jazz signatures of the day. Drawing from their travels abroad (including a State Department-funded tour of countries in the Middle East and behind the Iron Curtain in 1958), Brubeck borrowed from Turkish and African traditions and introduced songs in 9/8 (such as "Blue Rondo a la Turk"), 5/4 (such as the hit "Take Five"), and even 7/4 (as heard in "Unsquare Dance"). Always encouraging the band to invent their own time signatures, Brubeck wrote a piece in 10/4 and Desmond wrote another in 11/4 for their album Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962). Countdown, like the quartet's earlier albums Time Out (1959) and Time Further Out (1961) reflect the band's constant push to expand their understanding of musical time with temporal possibilities as limitless as outer space.
Brubeck told Gleason, "Now, the idea was that jazz used to challenge the public and make them think in terms more advanced rhythmically than they were used to thinking in." Beyond rhythm, Dave Brubeck challenged the public's ear with polytonality, or playing in multiple keys simultaneously. Unlike the critic at Carnegie Hall, the public appeared ready for Brubeck's musical challenges when Time Out became the first gold jazz record with over a million copies sold.
At 90 years old, Dave Brubeck's future of jazz is the world's present. Named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress, he continues to tour the country and create new musical compositions. Today, Brubeck has garnered a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, eight honorary doctorates, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a National Medal of the Arts, and induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame. Brubeck's alma matter has established The Brubeck Institute where contemporary music can continue to grow through experimentation and improvisation -- a huge leap from the time Brubeck studied and wasn't allowed to play jazz in the University practice rooms. With well-deserved recognition, Dave Brubeck and the Dave Brubeck Quartet touch at the very heart of good music, music that challenges itself, its listeners, entire genres, and even time itself.
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