Dave Brubeck: The Unsquare Dance

December 2012

Blue Rondo a la Richard Cook...

Dave Brubeck looked the part. The face that stared out from a Time magazine cover 30-odd years ago had the sober, shaven outline of a college professor and the small twinkling eyes of a frat member with a secret perversion – like drinking in the library. Brubeck's music, mild, exotic in a correspondence course sort of way, slipped into a Beat vernacular almost accidentally.

It wasn't as though the pianist was adapting his music to an attitude of campus bohemianism. Brubeck's Quartet was massively popular on the US college circuit of the 50s – witness all those recordings of the Jazz Goes to College ilk – but the music was a development of directions Brubeck had already pursued for the previous ten years. There would have been Brubeck outside any Beat era.

For one thing, he was half a generation older than many of the cool players who were his peers on the West Coast in the 40s and 50s. Dave Brubeck was born in 1920, the same year as Charlie Parker, and by 1946 – the year of Bird's Savoy sessions – he had put together an Octet of fellow student-players, many of whom had studied with him under Darius Milhaud. The music on The Dave Brubeck Octet (recently reissued by Fantasy as OJC-lOl) is a mix of standards and original miniatures based on fugue figures and incessant counterpoint. The ensembles are too brittle to hint specifically at the imminence of cool, but it must be said that the group certainly glances towards what Mulligan, Davis and Tristano were about to make solid.

It was Brubeck's only instance of being ahead of his time. The Quartet grew out of the larger group, and the trend they set was virtually extra-musical: a flavour of heavenly indolence, a study in relaxation, even when the band had to play in times that would tax the average cocktail outfit to its limit. Nobody in the band was stylistically influential by himself: Brubeck's locked-hands solos, his dry, sifted manner on ballads, his clattery contrast at faster tempos - George Shearing, Erroll Garner and Jaki Byard did the same, but not because of Brubeck.

The altoist was Paul Desmond, whose brushed, effeminate tone and willowy phrasing were quite unlike the still smooth but snappier West Coast reeds: he played pretty in a lonely, chilled sort of way, and it was actually too difficult to easily emulate. The rhythm section, usually Norman Bates or Gene Wright and Joe Morello, had a proscribed role, like Heath and Clarke in the MJQ: they scuffle respectfully at the heels of the other two, although they could certainly swing.

Desmond described Brubeck's aims as "the vigour and force of simple jazz, the harmonic complexities of Bartok and Milhaud, the form (and much of the dignity) of Bach ... the lyric romanticism of Rachmaninoff". A bit much for a polite little group playing "Laura" and "These Foolish Things". But you can see what Desmond meant. Brubeck's method is that of a man who loves the minutiae of the masters: he reproduces effects that might, in other hands, satirise the 'composerly' touch in jazz, but without any special irony. His devices are less obvious than those of Shearing, although his way of stamping out a standard theme as a show of parody (as in their 1967 set of Cole Porter tunes) can grate after a while.

Paul Desmond might often sound like Lee Konitz after eating too many marshmallows, but he is at least personal; Brubeck's fingerprint is something of a smudge.

Why did this group become so popular? Such easily palatable music will always find a large and willing audience. A cruel analysis might go something like this: Brubeck continued the white emasculation of jazz which the demise of the big bands had temporarily abated; he bled all the passion out of bebop and prettified its agility; he doctored together fashionable bits of European art music, like 'experimental' time signatures and clever harmonies, and packaged it in a romantic, cool, pop-jazz way that was undoubtedly light and airy and pleasant on the ear.

It had a sophisticated veneer too, so inexperienced listeners could imagine they were plugged into the biggest hits, Time Out and Time Further Out (now available as a CBS double set), appeared after the Brubeck boom had apparently peaked. "Blue Rondo A La Turk", "Take Five", "It's A Raggy Waltz" and "Unsquare Dance" are no less memorable, perhaps no less 'soulful' than Cannonball's "Sack O'Woe" or Jimmy Smith's "The Sermon". "Bluette", from these sessions, is wonderfully lyrical, a slow blues in 3/4 that distils the best qualities of the Quartet. Beautifully recorded (by Teo Macero), these albums do a decent amount of justice to the group's work.

In most respects, Brubeck would suffer in the jazz memory. Big-scale popularity in your own lifetime is always held against you by posterity. Brubeck's group had little to do with the Beats – Brubeck himself was too old! – but their path seemed to enter the Beat philosophy: music as art for art's sake, jazz drawing succour from the classical cats. Most of all, it was the surface sweetness of his music that drew in the dilettante element which was the Beat way. It sounded light and hip and serious and it could be drawn on for a soundtrack to something else.

No wonder the co-eds took to Brubeck so painlessly. But if it underlined the sham dedications of a movement that dared not go too deep, Dave Brubeck's Quartet still made a sound worth keeping. Every "Take Five" busker in your town will testify to that.

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