12/10/2012 06:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Dave Brubeck Quartet Changed My Life (and I Didn't Know It)


As a 1950s kid growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, my rainy day babysitters were the Ambassador and Sherwood "theaters" where our beleaguered parents sent hordes of us to watch 5 and 10-cent double features. Every now and then they'd show a classic like High Noon or The African Queen, but most soggy Saturdays we'd watch The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or It Came from Beneath the Sea, reminders that alien life was out there, waiting to overtake our bodies and our destinies.

The only thing more alien to those celluloid intruders was higher education. Even though all of our dads were WWII vets, the GI Bill wasn't their meal ticket -- a good job was, and there were plenty of them to go around. We didn't know anybody who attended college, or aspired to attend. And the local colleges we were remotely aware of -- Penn, Temple, LaSalle, Villanova and St. Joe's -- seemed like graduated high schools where local guys went just to play more basketball.

Continuing one's education definitely wasn't a priority with my mother's large first-generation Italian clan. Her 10 siblings -- from old Uncle Clarence down to sassy Aunt Helen and everywhere in between -- never uttered a word about going to school beyond high school. In fact, if the topic of education ever did come up, the focus was on short-circuiting high school altogether, not about signing up for any baccalaureate marathon.

That is, until my cousin Pete enrolled at Penn State University and forever changed my perceptions and ambitions.

Pete's dad was Uncle Al, my mom's nearest brother in age. My mom and Al were close, which meant our families spent more time together than the rest of the siblings and spouses. Al and his wife Joyce had four children -- Pete was the oldest and his baby brother Steve was my age. They lived near us in another crowded west Philly row house. My strongest memories of them were the holiday feasts we shared together -- Thanksgiving at our house and Christmas dinner at theirs.

One day, Al and Joyce and their four kids abruptly moved away. Al and Joyce relocated on a grand scale -- they moved to Bryn Mawr on Philadelphia's Main Line. Al had made it big in waste management, but that didn't stop his extended family from being less than enthusiastic about his success. "Who does he think he is?" was a common refrain within my mom's extended clan.

Not paying much attention to these adult machinations, I reveled in our periodic visits to Al's big ass house in the suburbs where there were wide-open fields, huge lawns and single homes with a garage.

And cars -- very, very shiny, expensive new cars.

By the time I turned 11 we were spending more than just Thanksgiving and Christmas with Al and his family. I think my parents realized how much I loved to go out there, hanging out with Steve and riding bikes through what seemed like the wilderness. Steve and his brother Neal slept in their own loft above the garage, which was just about the coolest thing ever. I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life there.

Over Thanksgiving dinner back at cramped quarters, I noticed Pete was missing. I quickly surmised that he was probably in the Army or had to work, but I decided to ask anyway.

"Where's Pete?

"He's spending Thanksgiving with his roommate's family," Aunt Joyce replied pleasantly enough.

"Who's his roommate?" I responded reflexively, unaware I was treading into unknown, albeit private territory. My parents shot me a disapproving look and my brother smirked. Uncle Al came to my rescue.

"Tim McClellan is Pete's roommate and he lives in Manheim, PA " he told me. "That's where Pete is spending Thanksgiving."

Uncle Al could tell I still wasn't getting it, so to prevent me any further embarrassment, he placed his hand on my arm and added gently. "Pete lives in a dormitory with Tim and hundreds of other guys because he's going to college. He's in college at Penn State!"

He and Aunt Joyce looked they were about to burst with pride, but so did the turkey, so that was the end of that conversation.

As Christmas time rolled around, my parents started to search for their own place in the safe suburbs. When they were out on these excursions, they'd usually stop by Al's for a meal or a pit stop, so I gladly volunteered to go along, often staying behind with Steve in the loft as my folks continued their quest. One late Saturday afternoon, Steve and I were listening to his hi-fi and playing with his dogs up in the loft when we heard a shriek downstairs. I looked at Steve -- he knew it was his mom -- and we both ran down to see what was going on.

There, standing in the living room was as best I could tell some sort of alien. This guy was wearing dark rimmed glasses, a bright blue letter sweater with PSU embroidered on it, crisp tan khakis, white socks and penny loafers. He had a pipe in his mouth and a big grin on his face. When he put Steve in a headlock, I realized it was my cousin Pete, home from college!

After all the welcome home folderol, Pete took me and Steve outside to show us his "wheels" as he called them. My jaw dropped at the site of a 1957, two-seat Thunderbird hard top convertible. It was hands down the coolest car I had ever seen. A large Penn State decal adorned the rear window. Man, it looked fast!


Pete smiled and talked about the car and college and coeds, which I later understood to be girls. My head was spinning -- no wonder everyone had kept this college thing quiet -- it sounded too good to be true, and if the word got out, hell, everybody would want to go to college.

After dinner that night, Pete paid a visit to me and Steve in the loft where we were listening to "Lonely Teardrops" and "You Send Me." Pete was smoking his pipe and carrying a record album that he proceeded to put on the Hi Fi.

"I want you guys to listen up," he instructed us. "This is the greatest music you'll ever hear."

WATCH: Dave Brubeck, "Take Five," 1966

The next thing I knew, there was the sound of a drum and cymbals, a piano playing in a strange rhythm, then a bass and finally a saxophone that almost seemed to be talking to us, inviting us somewhere, somewhere different and exotic... I kept waiting for the lead singer to come in or a chorus of voices to sing "do-wop-shoo-wop" but they never came. The music just kept going, taking us with it to places I'd never heard before.

"That's the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and that's jazz," Pete pronounced when the song was over. "Take Five." He said something to us about 5/4 time and counter patterns and other stuff I couldn't even begin to follow.

"It really swings!" were Pete's final words to us as he tossed the album in our direction.

"Time Out," it said in big bold letters under the band's name. Even the cover was intoxicating -- strange shapes and bright colors and bizarre objects that you couldn't quite figure out. I looked at Steve, a question on my face. He didn't let me speak.

"He's a college Joe now," Steve said, as if that explained just about everything.

* * *

Nearly 50 years later, I was in Los Angeles attending a national conference on college access and retention. A group of about 40 of us were asked to explain, briefly, what had personally motivated each of us to attend college. I was at the end of the line and by the time it was my turn, scores of bright, articulate people had spoken eloquently of their academic journeys, often highlighted by an anecdote about a special someone -- a grandparent, a parent, a mentor, a teacher -- who inspired them to continue their education.

When it was finally my turn, I knew I had to be honest. So, I told them that my educational aspiration began that December Saturday in 1959, my sights having been set by my College Joe cousin on T-Birds, girls and all that jazz.