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Dave Brubeck: A Jazz Giant Who Made The Complex Mainstream

Concord's own legendary jazz pianist has died, but his musical contributions will not soon be forgotten.

There aren’t many jazz players whom cities are proud to call their own, for the simple fact that most jazz players are not very well known. But such is not the case in Concord, which has long bragged about the fact that Dave Brubeck was a native son.

Brubeck blasted onto the charts in 1959 with a tune penned by his sax man, Paul Desmond, called "Take Five". It is one of the most beloved jazz tunes of all time, a song most people recognize when they hear it, even if they don’t know its title or who plays it.

The musicianship on the tune is, of course, stellar. Jazz players tend to be the kind of musicians who practice for hours every day, and Brubeck was no exception. But what makes “Take Five” remarkable for its popularity is not so much the quality of the playing, or the catchiness of the tune. It’s the fact that, unlike 99.9 percent of American chart hits, it’s in an odd time signature. 5/4, to be exact.

Brubeck and his band made a career out of playing music that was way out of the box, yet somehow accessible to mainstream ears. His music is challenging, but not in an academic sense – untrained ears can enjoy his melodies while untrained toes can tap along, even if the tunes are in 10/4, 7/4 or even 9/8 (as is another hit, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”).

Brubeck was also a racial pioneer, forming the first multi-racial US Army band in history, the Wolfpack. Those were times when mixing white and black musicians in jazz bands was considered taboo, at least for non-musicians. This despite the fact that jazz as a genre was the creation of African Americans - it took a great deal of courage then to defy entrenched Jim Crow attitudes. 

After the army, Brubeck's band recorded a series of popular albums, played in San Francisco jazz clubs, and toured colleges. His success was sealed when he signed with Columbia Records in 1954, and landed on the cover of Time Magazine that year. It points to his natural humility that Brubeck was somewhat embarrassed by the honor. 

Brubeck was also instrumental (pun intended) in the formation of Fantasy Records, a Berkeley-based jazz label that would later become famous as the home of Creedence Clearwater Revival Band.

With the exception of Louis Armstrong, jazz has never really achieved the kind of popular status that its less sophisticated musical cousins have, in part because it challenges the ears and rarely tries for the easy tug on the heartstrings. But Brubeck’s piano skills and instincts managed to bring fairly complex jazz into the average home and onto the airwaves of America.

It’s no wonder Concord is so proud to call him a native son. He was a musical treasure, an American icon, and will be sorely missed. 

Californicated1 December 05, 2012 at 11:36 PM
It is indeed a sad day for West Coast Jazz as one of its greats has passed on. We will always remember him for what he brought us and that his music shall live on, especially when one takes BART into the Financial District in San Francisco and a few street musicians with Saxophones play their renditions of "Take Five".
Lance Howland (Editor) December 06, 2012 at 05:56 AM
Dave Brubeck lived a long life (unlike a number of jazz geniuses). He was probably the greatest living jazz artist. So who takes over that mantle now? I'm thinking Herbie Hancock or Sonny Rollins, but who am I forgetting?
Californicated1 December 06, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Wynton Marsalis and his brother Branford most likely. Herbie Hancock is well into his 70s himself. Ahmad Jamal is in his 80s. I wouldn't be surprised if parts of the mantle even passed to Diana Krall and even her husband, Elvis Costello, whose musical stylings are all over the place these days. Norah Jones may also be in the running, too.

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