December 6th is Dave Brubeck’s birthday, and WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at the secret behind the legacy of this giant of jazz. Along with leading his Quartet for decades, 1959’s Time Out was the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and from that, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” was not only their biggest hit, it is still the biggest jazz single in history. But what about Dave Brubeck’s playing?
Dave Brubeck may be the most unlikely of jazz pianists. He almost was tossed from college in his senior year, he related, because they discovered that he hadn’t learned to read music.
His style of playing also sets him apart, and some wished that he’d cut loose during solos like other pianists. But he wasn’t like other pianists, and his music isn’t like other music. His block chords and rolling ruminations lend themselves to the sometimes-punishing chromaticism of the tunes.
Dave Brubeck made music like no one else. He was always trying something new, looking for sonic breakthroughs that would illuminate the bones and sinews of a piece. That was his swing, and his jazz, and it works.
The secret of Brubeck’s music, though, and of his success, has nothing to do with style. His impact on jazz isn’t because he’s cool or West Coast. It’s not that Brubeck didn’t play standards (he did). It’s not even rhythm or time signatures.
No, Dave Brubeck’s secret is that his music is beautiful—unerringly, dreamily, laughingly beautiful. He wrote new standards. Jazz or no jazz, he wrote songs, and each solo within the song was also a song. That is his secret, and that is his legacy.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet performs In Your Own Sweet Way, live: