This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
David Warren Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif. Brought up in a musical family, his mother was a classical pianist and was his music teacher until he was 11 years old. As a teenager, Brubeck began playing in jazz combos, and earned a college degree from Stockton’s College of the Pacific. After the Second World War, Brubeck returned to school to study classical music with composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College between 1946 and 1949. After playing with several groups throughout college, Brubeck formed a trio in 1949 with swing bassist Gary Wright and drummer Joe Morello. According to music historian Thom Holmes, Brubeck’s “signature sound … was not complete until he added a fourth musician to his group in 1951 to form the Dave Brubeck Quartet.” The new member was saxophonist Paul Desmond, who had a “distinctively bright” alto-sax sound.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet soon gained national prominence, and Brubeck and his bandmates found themselves featured in magazines such as Time (Brubeck was on the cover of the 1954 edition). As Holmes points out, the band was “largely responsible for the growing appeal of cool jazz, or West Coast jazz,” an easy-going sound that became widely popular in the 1950s. An interesting facet to note is the fact that Brubeck’s quartet was composed of three white and one Black musician, and their music catered largely to a white, college-educated audience that was “otherwise not so into jazz.”
By 1959, Brubeck’s group released the album Time Out, which “explored music written in time signatures using five, seven and nine beats.” It became the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. While the accolades and success continued for Brubeck’s band, it did not sit well with everyone in the jazz community. As Holmes highlights, “Many serious jazz devotees, both Black and white, considered the Brubeck phenomenon misplaced because he was a college-trained outsider to the real world of jazz.” Holmes continues: “The commercial success of cool jazz came at the expense of more experienced an adventurous Black musicians who paid their dues playing clubs and often struggling to make ends meet.”
While the topic of racial discrimination and white privilege in jazz is very real, Brubeck’s talent and success should not be criticized entirely. His accomplishments can “stand on the merits of his music alone.” Brubeck was responsible for exposing a new generation of jazz listeners and musicians to several unexplored ideas. While he certainly was not as talented of a pianist or improviser as many jazz artists were at the time, he was an innovative composer and arranger.
The original Brubeck Quartet played together until 1967, until Brubeck created a new group in 1972. The new band included saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and two of Brubeck’s sons. Between 1974 and 1995, Brubeck played with a variety of quartet bands and he continued to make regular appearances at jazz festivals. In 1995, he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday by premiering a work at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He received many awards and honors, including the BMI Jazz Pioneer Award and the 1988 American Eagle Award. Brubeck passed away on December 5, 2012 in Norwalk, Conn.