Dave Brubeck, jazz pianist and all-around musical innovator, died today, one day before his 92 birthday. Though long a resident of the east coast, he was born in Concord and spent much of his early life in the Bay Area.
Brubeck blasted onto the charts in 1959 with a tune penned by his sax man, Paul Desmond, called "Take Five". It is one of the most beloved jazz tunes of all time, a song most people recognize when they hear it, even if they don’t know its title or who plays it.
The musicianship on the tune is, of course, stellar. Jazz players tend to be the kind of musicians who practice for hours every day, and Brubeck was no exception. But what makes “Take Five” remarkable for its popularity is not so much the quality of the playing, or the catchiness of the tune. It’s the fact that, unlike 99.9 percent of American chart hits, it’s in an odd time signature. 5/4, to be exact.
Brubeck and his band made a career out of playing music that was way out of the box, yet somehow accessible to mainstream ears. His music is challenging, but not in an academic sense – untrained ears can enjoy his melodies while untrained toes can tap along, even if the tunes are in 10/4, 7/4 or even 9/8 (as is another hit, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”).
Brubeck was also a racial pioneer, forming the first multi-racial US Army band in history, the Wolfpack. Those were times when mixing white and black musicians in jazz bands was considered taboo, at least for non-musicians. This despite the fact that jazz as a genre was the creation of African Americans - it took a great deal of courage then to defy entrenched Jim Crow attitudes.
After the army, Brubeck's band recorded a series of popular albums, played in San Francisco jazz clubs, and toured colleges. His success was sealed when he signed with Columbia Records in 1954, and landed on the cover of Time Magazine that year. It points to his natural humility that Brubeck was somewhat embarrassed by the honor.
Brubeck was also instrumental (pun intended) in the formation of Fantasy Records, a Berkeley-based jazz label that would later become famous as the home of Creedence Clearwater Revival Band.
With the exception of Louis Armstrong, jazz has never really achieved the kind of popular status that its less sophisticated musical cousins have, in part because it challenges the ears and rarely tries for the easy tug on the heartstrings. But Brubeck’s piano skills and instincts managed to bring fairly complex jazz into the average home and onto the airwaves of America.
It’s no wonder Concord is so proud to call him a native son. He was a musical treasure, an American icon, and will be sorely missed.