Remembering Brubeck

OVER the last few days, I have been, out of the corner of my eye, keeping watch over the anecdotes about Dave Brubeck. From the ex-punk guitarist to the film critic, to the book seller, to the animator, I’ve read many deeply heartfelt messages that elevate Brubeck’s album Time Out to the sense memory category. It was a record that had been out for years by the time I had arrived on the planet, but it was still in heavy rotation on the jazz station here — KBCA at the time — and wash of mood music at restaurants and part of the background texture at “grown up” parties.

Much later, I would periodically borrow a short stack of LPs out of my mother’s collection to listen on my small mono player — when I got to the B’s, Brubeck’s Time Out was one of them. Though later, I returned her copy of his Jazz Impressions of Japan, I did hold onto her copy of Time Out with it’s heavy cardboard sleeve that had begun to split with wear.

It was a record that ended up in my collection — that I, I suppose in truth, absconded with — not necessarily because I listened to it much any more, but because it was part of the texture of life of a moment – it referenced something that couldn’t quite be put into words. I got stuck on “Blue Rondo A la Turk” for awhile. For a kid who had a very lively imagination, I saw colors and shapes when I listened. You could travel on top of it — and I did. So it was illuminating this week to go back to this New Yorker story in particular, which detailed serendipitous origins of the music that became the patchwork of this record — and the man himself:

Here’s a little bit of it here:

He was most famous for “Take Five,” which the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded in 1959, for their album “Time Out.” There’s a story behind the song. In the nineteen-fifties, the U.S. State Department cultivated a group of “jazz ambassadors,” whom they would send on tour around the world to demonstrate the overwhelming coolness of American culture. In 1958, they sent the Dave Brubeck Quartet to East Germany, Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Iraq. Fred Kaplan, in his book “1959,” describes the origin of “Time Out” this way:

Walking around Istanbul one morning, Brubeck heard a group of street musicians playing an exotic rhythm, fast and syncopated. It was in 9/8 time—nine eighth notes per measure—a very unusual meter for Western music…. Later that day, Brubeck had an interview scheduled at a local radio station. Like many broadcasters at the time, the station had its own symphony orchestra. When Brubeck arrived, the musicians were taking a break from a rehearsal. He told some of them about the rhythm that he’d heard on the streets and asked if anyone knew what it was. He hummed the tune, and several of the musicians started playing it, adding flourishes and counterpoint, even improvising on it. It was a traditional Turkish folk song, widely known—in Turkey.

As the tour continued, Brubeck kept listening for interesting rhythms, and he kept asking his quartet to experiment with them. Later, back in the States, the group recorded “Time Out”—an album of songs with unusual time signatures. “Take Five,” which is written in 5/4 time, was the breakout hit single. On the single’s b-side was “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” a song written in 9/8 time, like the music Brubeck had heard in Istanbul.

In June of 1961, Robert Rice profiled Dave Brubeck for The New Yorker, in an article called “The Cleanup Man.” Brubeck, Rice wrote, was a decidedly uncool cool jazz musician. He grew up on a ranch, and spent most of his youth wanting to be a cowboy (that accounts, Rice thinks, for the way he moves at the piano, “rid[ing] the piano stool hell for leather, as if it were a cow pony”). Brubeck liked to save money, didn’t smoke, and limited himself to one martini before dinner. (Paul Desmond, the quartet’s sax player, explained Brubeck’s experiments in hedonism this way: “Every five years or so, Dave makes a major breakthrough, like discovering room service.”) Brubeck once proudly declared, of his quartet, “We’re the worst-dressed group in America!” In his playing, he displays patience and fortitude. Brubeck calls himself “the cleanup man” because, when the other members of the quartet get tired of a solo and abandon it part-way through, he picks up the slack, out of a sense of duty. “The only part of the jazz world Brubeck has an affinity with,” Rich concludes, “is jazz.”

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