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.
The Real Ambassador (1962)
The Real Ambassador was one of 20 songs in the jazz musical The Real Ambassadors, developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Dave and Iola Brubeck, in collaboration with Louis Armstrong and his band. The musical was the first major collaboration between Dave and Iola, and it addressed the Civil Rights Movement, the music business, America’s place in the world during the Cold War, the “nature of God,” and a variety of other themes. As historian Penny von Eschen points out, the musical was set in a fictional African nation called Talgalla, and its central character was based on Armstrong and his time as a jazz ambassador.
‘Who’s the real ambassador?
It is evident we represent American society
Noted for its etiquette, its manners and sobriety
We have followed protocol with absolute propriety
We’re Yankees to the core!’
The musical’s soundtrack album was recorded in September and December, 1961, in the Columbia Records recording studio on 30th Street in New York, and was released the following year. The Real Ambassador is featured as the tenth song on the track listing, and captured the often complicated, contradictory politics of the State Departments’ tours during the Cold War Era. As Alana Bridgewater and von Eschen point out, addressing Black nation building in addition to the American civil rights struggle was “satirically portrayed in the international politics of the tour.”
Forty years after its creation, in 2002, The Real Ambassadors returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival, this time featuring the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lizz Wright, Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride. Since then, the musical has been revived twice — once in 2013 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, and again in 2014 at Jazz at Lincoln Centre.
Unsquare Dance (1961)
Unsquare Dance was written and composed by Brubeck in 1961 and was released as a single in the U.S. the same year. The song, featured on Brubeck’s album Time Further Out, peaked at No. 93 on the U.S. Cash Box chart on Dec. 16, 1961, and reached No. 14 on the U.K. singles chart in the summer of 1962.
The piece is an example of Brubeck’s exploration of time signatures. According to Brubeck, the song is based on a blues structure, but also has a distinct country and western feel, (as implied in the title: a square dance being a staple of western American culture). Unsquare Dance is driven by a strong bass figure, with “percussion provided primarily by the rim of the snare drum and hand claps. It combines duple and triple meter.”
In his liner notes, Brubeck stated: “Unsquare Dance, in 7/4 time, is a challenge to the foot-tappers, finger-snappers and hand-clappers. Deceitfully simple, it refuses to be squared. And the laugh you hear at the end is Joe Morello’s guffaw of surprise and relief that we had managed to get through the difficult last chorus.”
Thank You (1958)
According to music journalist Ken Dryden, the impressive number of Brubeck’s compositions “often cause critics to overlook the beauty of his works.” A perfect example is Thank You (Dziekuje), which was written in 1958 on a train, shortly after Brubeck visited the Chopin Museum in Poland. As Alana Bridgewater points out (and as Brubeck described it in the liner notes to Jazz Impressions of Eurasia), the Polish audience responded in “total silence when he premiered it for them, momentarily stunning him.” They then exploded into applause, as they acknowledged the influence of Chopin in this beautiful composition.
As pointed out in the fourth episode of The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights, Brubeck showed ample respect for the oppressed Polish people, and this level of understanding was demonstrated through the composition and performance of this song.
Ken Dryden. “Dave Brubeck: Thank You” Allmusic.com. 2020, https://www.allmusic.com/song/thank-you-dziekuje-mt0004674458.
Penny von Eschen. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. (Harvard University Press, 2004).