Dave Brubeck served in Patton's Army during World War II (during which he was actually ordered to form a band by superior officers impressed by his piano talents), he looked as square as any Nixon staffer, he is noted for being a devout Catholic and one of the most personally stable family men in the music business, and enjoyed Top 40 Chart success and platinum status for a jazz recording - a dubious honor usually reserved for Kenny G-style dreck.
So to someone unfamiliar with his work, it might come as a surprise to hear that Brubeck is one of the most successful avant garde radicals of the past 100 years.
His impact on American music rivals that of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Aaron Copland. He subverted all of our conceptions of what "jazz" meant, in the ideal sense of someone who rejected the notion that "classical," "jazz," "blues," etc were meaningful distinctions. He composed and performed music. And that music both transcended and upheld a tradition and a spirit that was fundamentally jazz.
This is a man with boundless energy who did not want to be constrained by what he viewed as the overly rigid structures of any genre. So he used different time signatures. It used to be that the only deviation in jazz from 4/4 time was an occasional 3/4 waltz. He did plenty of those (damn well, I might add), but he then showed us that you could play in 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 9/8, 13/4, and switch back and forth between time signatures in the same song and still keep that swing. He incorporated Turkish street folk, Mozart, and 12 bar blues into the same song. And as noted in a wonderful NPR remembrance today (click here and click on the audio link), his longtime sax player Paul Desmond was extremely intimidated at first by the man when he started to play in two different keys at the same time.
All of this requires the technical mastery of a Julliard-Trained maestro (which he wasn't) while maintaining the wild improvisational spirit of a hot jazz club performer in 1920s Harlem.
"Take 5" [5/4]
Let's start with the big hit. A melody so sweet and accessible it charted and caused thousands of Americans to start tapping their feet in 5/4 time without even realizing it. Deceptively simple sounding, it's actually tough as hell to play (as a mediocre high school jazz band pianist, I quickly learned that all Brubeck pieces were out of my league). This song was actually written by Desmond, it's important to note.
"Blue Rondo a la Turk" [9/8 and 4/4]
This is the Turkish streek folk/Mozart/12 bar blues piece I mentioned earlier. This is the opening track on the "Time Out" album, and it blows your mind immediately. The version I link to is from his legendary At Carnegie Hall performance. In this version, the intensity blows the roof off. You can feel his manic energy and how it infects a quartet that wants to keep up - he's almost daring them the entire time.
"Bossa Nova USA"
Another Carnegie Hall recording, and another example of Brubeck blending genres.
7/4 time!!! Also a hilarious video. From the Time Further Out album, where Brubeck played the tracks in numerical order by time signature. This song also made the Billboard Hot 100.
Brubeck's first orchestral composition; comprises the entire Side 2 of his album Time Changes. YouTube has it split in two parts for some reason. The link is to Part 1. Listen to both. This blew me away the first time I heard it.
"All Night Long"
This is actually a trailer for a weird looking movie. But it includes both Brubeck AND Mingus. No further explanation needed.
From 1966's Time In. He started playing around with religiously-inspired work at this time. More downbeat than some others, and somewhat eerie.
Also from Time In.
"Sermon on the Mount"
Click on the first track here. This is Brubeck with his sons, featuring his son Matthew on cello, recorded in 1997 on the album "In Their Own Sweet Way."
There are many more great pieces I could share. Look them up. You can't go wrong. Dave Brubeck represents everything that is great about American music. It is a fusion of cultures, styles, and techniques. And much like our country as a whole, our music is best displayed and appreciated when all of the component parts are pieced together. And the great thing that Brubeck always understood was that new components are added to the mix every day. Music doesn't stand still. And Dave Brubeck never did, not even for a second.