Two of the most original and compelling jazz artists in history were born in the same year. Charlie Parker, the co-inventor of bebop in the 1940s, and Dave Brubeck — who made one of the coolest and best-selling jazz albums of all time — were both born in 1920. By the time Parker died at 34 in 1955, Brubeck was just starting to come into his own. He wouldn’t record his best-known album, “Time Out,” until 1959, and it took another year or two for it to become a certified pop hit, propelled the infectious quality of its classic instrumental hit, “Take Five.”
“Time Out,” which contains half a dozen other tunes equally as original and exciting as “Take Five,” broke musical boundaries but still manages to be, after all these years, accessible, lyrical and timeless.
Brubeck died today at 91, just one day before his 92nd birthday. He deserves to be remembered as not just a jazz original but as an American original. He grew up as a cowboy in Northern California – his father was a champion roper – and took an interest in music early in life.
Never comfortable reading music off the page, Brubeck gravitated toward jazz and learned tunes by the old-fashioned way of the bandstand: by ear. Once a tune was in his head, it never left. Even if he hadn’t played a tune in decades, he could still call it up at a moment’s notice and play it in full, and with the improvised variations that are the hallmark of jazz.
Brubeck was a humble guy who, even after traveling the world and living in Connecticut for more than 50 years, still seemed to retain the aw-shucks aura of a cowboy from an earlier, more rural time. I got to know Brubeck fairly well late in his life and spent time with him and his remarkable wife, Iola, at their winter home in Florida.
He wrote music every day of his life – every single day. There are dozens, if not hundreds of tunes that have yet to be recorded. He wrote catchy little jazz numbers, as well as complicated orchestral and choral works. There was a deeply spiritual side of him, and he had an affinity toward the Catholic Church, even though his true religion was the church of jazz.
Brubeck and his wife were married for 70 years. The other great long-term relationship of his life was with the witty, erudite and somewhat mysterious Paul Desmond, who played alto saxophone with Brubeck for a quarter century.
They met in California in the 1940s, worked together off and on and had their occasional spats, but theirs was a musical partnership that ranks among the most important in jazz history, like those of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn or Count Basie and Freddie Green.
Back in the 1950s, Desmond and Brubeck looked enough alike – with wavy hair and thick, horn-rimmed glasses – to be often mistaken for brothers. (In fact, Brubeck’s six kids took to calling Desmond “Uncle Paul.”)
Desmond was also quite the ladies’ man, who often lamented the ones who got away. He also took a portable typewriter with him on the road and was immensely well-read. Once, after noticing an attractive woman at a nightclub, accompanied by a considerably older businessman, he quipped, “This is how the world ends. Not with a whim, but a banker.”
Desmond had an unmatched gift for melody, and his pearl-toned alto saxophone sound was the perfect counterpart to Brubeck’s rough-edged, aggressive attack on piano. Desmond was credited with writing the one tune everyone identifies most with Brubeck, “Take Five.” Brubeck had a big hand in piecing the tune together, but the melody was Desmond’s, and Brubeck magnanimously gave him full credit as its sole composer.
They recorded the tune on July 1, 1959, and no one expected it to have a long shelf life, let alone become a monster instrumental hit. First of all, it was written in 5/4 time – something almost unheard of in jazz or popular music of the time – and it didn’t have lyrics.
But there is something about “Take Five” that is utterly irresistible. Once you hear it, you can’t forget it, and it simply never grows old. It’s been revived countless times for commercials and by other artists, and Brubeck played it every night in concert for the rest of his immensely long career. Every time, “Take Five” still sounded fresh, thrilling, even a little sexy. The tune begins with the syncopated beat of Joe Morello’s drums – supposedly, Desmond improvised the tune after hearing Morello play the five-beat rhythm while warming up – and floats out of Desmond’s horn with a lithe, sinuous sense of swing.
Brubeck wrote hundreds of tunes, including such certified jazz classics as “The Duke,” “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” but it’s more than a little ironic that the tune for which he’s best-remembered is one credited to someone else. He and Desmond were great for each other musically, and they broke musical and diplomatic boundaries together up until the Brubeck Quartet broke up in 1967. (Besides Morello, who died last year, the other primary member was bassist Eugene Wright, who is still alive.)
Desmond died of lung cancer in 1977 at age 52. Brubeck never quite got over it. I remember sitting with Brubeck in his winter home 30 years later, saying that I still missed the music they made together.
“So do I,” Brubeck said.
READ MORE: Pioneer of jazz dies at 91