Article: My idol Dave Brubeck

Jazz-pop singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum tells us why jazz great Dave Brubeck was such an important part of his musical formation and still remains a influence to him and others even as he prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday next week.

Jazz great Dave Brubeck turns 90 next week and, though certainly classed as a legend, he is as vital and urgent a musical force as he always has been and one of my idols.

I didn’t know anything about jazz when I was six years-old. But I had heard Dave Brubeck. Back in the late 50s after the release of The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s biggest album Time Out the song Take Five became a radio hit and mainstay on the college campuses.

Dave Brubeck capitalised on this and toured extensively in American Colleges, sealing his place as one of the most important and popular jazz musicians of all time. 

It’s a little unfair to judge someone on just one hit. Nearly everyone I know, jazz fans and jazz haters alike know the tune Take Five and thus the musician that brought it to the world.

The irony is of course that in this instance, Dave did not write it. His saxophone player Paul Desmond did. Paul wrote it for the album Time Out which saw Dave and his band explore the world of more unusual time signatures within jazz that normally gave itself to the more familiar 4/4 time feel.  

Dave wanted to use the time feels that he had explored in his studies of classical compositions. The contra punctual melodies of Bach two-part inventions and fugues.

The music created on this album from Take Five to Blue Rondo à la Turk explored a more rigorous approach to the small band compositions within jazz, making these odd time signatures feel natural, even danceable and the longer forms part of the architecture.

These ideas were already with him as a young boy riding a horse on his father’s cattle ranch and singing odd time feels over the clip clipping of the horse’s hooves. 

Take Five and its accompanying album Time Out is merely the tip of the iceberg of Dave’s achievements. It has been a great honour of mine to meet Dave a few times in my life, most recently when I interviewed him at the Newport Jazz Festival this summer for my Radio 2 show which will air as a two-part special this week.

Even just shy of 90 years when I saw him perform with Wynton Marsalis, he played as energetically and passionately as the great modern ambassador of jazz next to him. 

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As a soloist, Dave sounds as individual as a Monk or a Basie. His solos are chordal and pounding, notes raining down in huge clumps. He uses the full 88 notes like an Ahmad Jamal or a cat walking up and down the keys taking pleasure in every register.

Compositionally, his work grew and grew, contained both within his legendary quartet but also for bigger ensembles as he continued to take inspiration from all sorts of places. He was one of the first jazz musicians to really explore the Disney catalogue.

He also made place significant with albums like Jazz Impressions of New York, Eurasia and Japan. Inspired by his travels, the Japanese one is particularly beautiful employing scales and musical ideas lifted directly from the music he heard there. 

Working within this framework, he sounds far from restricted, freer perhaps, both playfully and academically exploring new worlds.  

As he disbanded his quartet in the late sixties, Dave concentrated on longer compositions. He wrote for Symphony Orchestras, for Mass, Ballets and musicals, all contributing to an immense and impressive body of work that is growing by the day.  

His fans include the great Clint Eastwood who charts Dave’s extraordinary career in a forthcoming documentary, Arena: Dave Brubeck – In His Own Sweet Way, on BBC Four on Friday 3 December. 

When I interviewed Dave I realised how much of his work has been inspired by that strong seed of an idea, always creating things with strong foundations so that one can play, even dance on the roof: a high ideal indeed. 

He touches on all these things in his interview and interweaves his stories with the strong place his family has had in his life and work. He has six children with his wife Iola whom he married in the forties and was present at the interview. 

I came away from this interview utterly inspired and more than anything, desperate to play some piano. Careful, Dave can do that to you. 

You can hear Jamie Cullum’s Radio 2 show on Dave Brubeck on Tuesday 30 November and Tuesday 7 December at 1900 GMT. Arena: Dave Brubeck – In His Own Sweet Way, will be on BBC Four on Friday 3 December at 2100 GMT.



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