Remembering a pianist who created a style of jazz all his own.
I don’t think I would’ve expected an internationally renowned jazzman to have started off in life wanting to be a rancher instead of wanting to play the piano. And it probably isn’t the case very often. But, it was the case once.
This month is the 100th anniversary of the birth of pianist Dave Brubeck. Brubeck was born in Concord, California on December 6, 1920. His mom taught him and his two older brothers piano lessons. And, as he remembered, his brothers took to music but he did not. He didn’t want to play the piano. He wanted to follow his dad into ranching.
In the late 1930s, he enrolled in the veterinary program at what’s now the University of the Pacific but apparently his professors recognized something in him even if he did not. His zoology professor told him to change his major to music and stop wasting both their time. He graduated in 1942, was drafted into the Army,
and sent to the European theater. He was in Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge the month he turned 24. After the war he entered Mills College in Oakland to study composition with renowned French composer Darius Milhaud.
In 1951 he formed his own group, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with bass, drums, and another army veteran, Paul Desmond, on saxophone and commenced playing gigs in the Bay Area and on college campuses. In 1954, his first album for Columbia Records was a live album made from performances at three midwestern universities. It was called Jazz Goes to College and sort of branded the group as something that particularly appealed to the highbrows, or, as Adlai Stevenson was called at the time, eggheads.
That same year Brubeck was on the cover of Time Magazine, only the second jazz man so honored. The first was Louis Armstrong five years earlier. Like Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and his Quartet also toured internationally in the 1950s under the aegis of the State Department. When they came back, they recorded the classic album Take Five, which was the first jazz album to sell over a million copies and whose title track, written by Desmond, became the quartet’s most famous piece.
Brubeck received the national medal of the arts from the NEA in 1994, a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1996, a Benjamin Franklin award for public diplomacy in 2008, and was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2009. “You can't understand America without understanding jazz, said President Obama at the time, “and you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.”
Brubeck died in 2012 the day before his 92nd birthday.