The innovators in any genre are always remembered kindly by history. But the popularisers of any artform are also as important, if in some ways not more so. Jazz icon Dave Brubeck, who died yesterday aged 91 was both.

Like Stravinsky, Miles Davis or Thom Yorke, pianist and composer Brubeck managed to stay true to his artistic vision while enormously expanding the audience for his chosen music. His most popular album, 1959’s Time Out (the first million selling jazz record) was largely an experiment in playing jazz over odd rhythmic meters or time signatures. Nothing on the record is in the usual 4/4 – and the biggest hit of his career, ‘Take Five’ is played over a five beat pulse. ‘Take Five’ (actually composed by Brubeck’s long time foil, the über-chilled altoist Paul Desmond) seemed to epitomise the ‘cool’ of the time – not as weirded out and dissolute as the beatniks but still not as straight laced as 1959 America wanted you to be. To this day it has lost none of its freshness and eternal hippery.

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Brubeck’s compositions were always heartfelt, soulful and innovative – among them ‘The Duke’ (covered by Miles Davis on his groundbreaking 1957 album with Gil EvansMiles Ahead) and ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ (covered by everyone, everywhere) – and contained harmonies and ideas as much from European classical music as from American jazz (he had studied under the French composer Darius Milhaud). His exclusion from the pantheon of jazz greats for many years was as much due to the inverse racism which existed/exists in American jazz as it was to his genial, sunny, un(bad)newsworthy character.

Dave Brubeck’s energy was known to have put pianos out of tune in clubs across the US. He never really learned how to sight-read music properly and was often accused of not being able to “swing” (usually by music critics whose own prose swung like a housebrick). Like Herbie Hancock, he was always interested in the music of the times – in the mid 1970s he mounted a world tour with his sons, Darius, Chris and Danny as The Two Generations of Brubeck, mixing in jazz-rock fusion elements and night after night wearing out the young’uns with the relentless drive of his playing.

US sax giant Dave Liebman put it well when he said, in a tribute: “Dave had the misfortune in jazz to become popular … how dare you?” For those that care about such things, walk on. For the rest of us, it will do to put ‘Take Five’ on the stereo, raise a glass of something cool and chic and whisper a thank you starward to Dave Brubeck who managed to alchemise something timeless and universal out of the thin air of jazz.

Published December 2012 on theorangepress.net
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