Skip to main content

Brubeck: Jazz master with big heart

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 11:13 AM EST, Thu December 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Dave Brubeck, a good guy and masterly jazz musician, died Wednesday
  • Brubeck led iconic jazz ensemble in '50s, 60s; crossed onto pop charts with "Take Five"
  • Seymour: Brubeck gained popularity from campus tours; known for unusual time signatures
  • Seymour: He was humble, had infectious sense of play, lured fans to simple joy of jazz

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a jazz and film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. He is a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Jazz

(CNN) -- Jazz fans, as with their counterparts in rock 'n' roll, tend to be enthralled with the outlaws, renegades and mystics in their artistic realm. The further "out" jazz musicians or composers are in their personal lives, goes the myth, the more visionary and transcendent their output. Who creates great, or even good art by playing it safe?

Dave Brubeck, who died of heart failure Wednesday, one day short of his 92nd birthday, was the paradigmatic "good guy" of post-World War II jazz. But he was, of course, much more than that.

He was one of the rare jazz musicians whose name and face were easily recognized by those who don't know much about jazz. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, which featured Brubeck on piano and Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, was one of the iconic jazz ensembles of the 1950s and '60s, making its reputation with college campus recitals, playing in festivals and concert halls all over the world and releasing albums that went platinum.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

The group even put out a single, "Take Five," that climbed the pop charts, peaking at number 25 in 1961 on Billboard's Hot 100, rare air for any jazz artist, before and after the Beatles stormed the American pop firmament.

"Take Five" was one of the few Brubeck hits the leader didn't write himself. (Desmond, who died of lung cancer in 1977, did.) But there were other enduring standards ("Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Three to Get Ready") introduced on the 1959 platinum-selling "Time Out" LP, along with "Take Five." These and other pieces did clever, unexpected things with time-signatures ("Blue Rondo" has a 9/8 beat while "Take Five' is in 5/4) that charmed audiences with their ingenuity while accustoming novices to jazz's capacity for surprise.

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck dies

Brubeck's piano playing was itself something of a rhythmic effect, striding, vamping, riffing with heavy chords and thick intonation. Desmond's wry, airy lyricism provided the counterpoint and some critics preferred his playing to Brubeck's. Still, not even the most discerning of these skeptics could deny Brubeck's gifts as a composer.

Besides such durable standards as "In Your Own Sweet Way," "Summer Song" and "The Duke," a tribute to his hero Duke Ellington, Brubeck wrote suites for orchestras, oratorios for choirs and even the occasional theme for a TV series. (The lively "Theme from 'Mr. Broadway'" proved more enduring than the one-season wonder it was written for.).

News: Jazz great Dave Brubeck dies at 91

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Through it all, he was, by all accounts, gregarious, self-possessed and generous in spirit. He was married to the same woman, the former Iola Marie Whitlock, from 1942 to the end of his life. He raised six children, four of whom followed their father into the music business, sometimes performing and recording on their own, sometimes with him.

He and his family spent most of their lives in their Wilton, Connecticut, home where, despite a global touring schedule that, at one point had him doing 120 consecutive days of concerts in several cities, he always found sufficient time to write music, practice his piano and play with his children.

In other words: No outlaw or renegade in this corner of the room. But Brubeck, as his multitudes of fans (and more than a few historians) attest, carried substantial artistic weight of his own while walking the straight-and-narrow. If ever there was an exemplar of the "good guy" as visionary artist, it was Brubeck, who leaves behind a radiant legacy of steadfast integrity, an open-hearted (and open-minded) worldview and an infectious sense of play that lured listeners at whatever level of musical appreciation into the simple joys of fiddling with time and space.

This son of a Stockton, California, cattle rancher would reap many honors for not heeding his father's warning, recalled by Brubeck to me in a conversation a few years back, that there was no real life to be found "playing in a smoky nightclub." In 2009, he was honored for lifetime achievement by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, along with such diverse peers as Mel Brooks, Robert De Niro, Grace Bumbry and Bruce Springsteen.

His 90th birthday was commemorated two years ago with a documentary produced by Clint Eastwood, featuring testimonials from sources as varied as President Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, George Lucas and Stanley Crouch.

In that documentary, Brubeck recalls not only his years of study under French composer Darius Milhaud (along with Ellington his greatest musical influence), but also his service in World War II, most of which he spent in Patton's Third Army in Europe. He would have fought at the Battle of the Bulge if he hadn't been asked to play piano at a Red Cross show.

He spent the last year-and-a-half of the war leading "The Wolfpack," an Army jazz band that was also one of the first racially mixed units in the armed services before the military's postwar racial integration. In Ken Burns' 2000 miniseries, "Jazz," Brubeck spoke with quiet, impassioned eloquence of the difficulties his unit encountered both with segregated troops overseas and with home-front racists at a Texas restaurant who refused them service.

In his breakout year of 1954, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Instead of being overjoyed at what was then a prestigious coup, Brubeck recalled his embarrassment over the fact that he had been so honored ahead of Duke Ellington, whom he felt was far more deserving.

Being a "good guy" was no small thing to Dave Brubeck or his fans. It shouldn't be to anyone else.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT