Like many others today, I’m spinning (digitally, anyway) some Dave Brubeck. He died today and his significance as an artist who somehow found a way to make jazz both more exotic and accessible is secure. It wasn’t jazz fans, after all, who made the Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” a million-seller in 1960. As Donald Fagen memorably recounted in his semi-autobiographical The Nightfly album from 1982, being into Brubeck was part of adolescent/college culture of the time, music for the would-be hip who lived in the burgeoning suburbs. “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck,” Fagen’s narrator says to the lover with whom he’s preparing to party in Dad’s backyard bomb shelter. “I like your eyes—I like him too.”
Time Out functioned as a rite of passage all right—though I suspect more for drawing listeners to jazz then as atomic make out music. Count me as just one of many people in college who heard Brubeck on the way to getting deeper into the music (and thanks roommate Cliff Dolph—that was a sweet cassette you had). I ended up not exploring Brubeck’s music very far beyond Time Out, but one thing I always admired were Brubeck’s album covers on Columbia, not only for Time Out but for Time Further Out: Miro Reflections (1961) and others. S. Neil Fujita, Columbia’s art director, became good friends with Brubeck and the pianist agreed to use Fujita’s abstract expressionist painting for the Time Out cover. As I mention in Blue Notes in Black and White, Brubeck’s alliance with modern art was very much of the time, a period when it seemed that jazz could function both as high culture and still sell records and concert tickets in healthy numbers. Brubeck’s ascendance, along with the advent of the Newport Jazz Festival, the New York school of painting’s international prestige, and the state department jazz tours—in which Brubeck was a participant—all were touchstones in the U.S. culture of affluence during the height of the Cold War. It is the sophisticated music of Ike and JFK, the music of young people who still wore ties to school. Brubeck reaped the rewards with a lovely modernist home in the Oakland hills.
But Dave Brubeck was about much more than this. He also attuned himself to the urgent need for social change and resisted segregation at his concerts. He wrote classical music with words that argued for racial justice and against discrimination. He did what it would have been very easy not to do before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and he continued addressing these themes after the supposed end of the movement in the late sixties. For decades, he stood for equality.
Miles Davis and Gil Evans famously recorded Brubeck’s Ellington tribute “The Duke” on Miles Ahead (1957), but today I feel a lot closer to another Davis recording of a Brubeck tune from Workin’, the title of which sums up some 70 years of Brubeck’s journey: “In Your Own Sweet Way.”