Piano Spotlight: Dave Brubeck

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Dave Brubeck was one of the first pioneers and innovators of west coast “cool” jazz.


David Warren Brubeck was born on December 6, 1920 in Concord, California. His father Peter was a cattle rancher.  Brubeck’s mother Elizabeth was a pianist who had intentions of being a concert pianist; after studying music in England under Myra Hess, she also taught piano lessons. Dave’s two older brothers were on their way to becoming professional musicians, which he had no intention of doing himself, although he took lessons from his mother. Dave could not read music in his early lessons due to poor eyesight, but hid this problem so well that it went unnoticed. Dave continued to take lessons throughout high school although he had intentions of joining his dad’s business of cattle ranching.

It was not until he was attending the College of The Pacific for veterinary science that he began seriously considering music. One of his professors urged him to transfer out of science and into the music conservatory. Dave was almost kicked out of the conservatory because he could still not read music. Many of his professors argued that his knowledge of harmony and counterpoint would allow him to stay, and the school let him graduate under the stipulation that he would not be allowed to teach piano at the conservatory.

After graduating in 1942, Brubeck was drafted into George Patton’s Third Army. Dave got into playing piano for the troops for leisure and even escaped fighting in the Battle of The Bulge because he was playing piano at a Red Cross event. He received such a great response from the audience that he was told to form a band. This band was called the “Wolfpack” – one of the Army’s first racially integrated bands.

After four years in the army, Dave went back to school at Mills College, studying under composer Darius Milhaud. He studied fugue and orchestration but not classical piano. After his short time with Milhaud, Dave helped found Berkeley California’s Fantasy Records. Brubeck was playing in an experimental octet at the time, and it wasn’t until 1949 when Jack Sheedy, another California record label owner, wanted to make the first recordings of Dave’s octet and later, his trio. On the Fantasy Records label, Dave began selling records and was in demand to record more.

In 1951, after a near fatal swimming accident that left him incapacitated, Dave formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond on saxophone. This quartet gained popularity as one of the first groups to tour college campuses. They recorded several live records before Dave’s debut, Jazz Goes To College, on Columbia Records in 1954. That same year, Dave Brubeck was the second jazz musician featured on the cover of TIME Magazine. Dave later expressed that he felt Duke Ellington should have made the cover instead of him.

In 1959 Dave released Time Out, an album that Columbia was hesitant to publish because of its odd time signatures like 9/8 and 5/4. It included the now famous tunes “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and the album quickly shot to platinum. The quartet continued touring until 1967, releasing up to four albums a year.

Stepping away from the quartet, Dave had more time to focus on composing than he ever had before.

Dave Brubeck recently passed away December 5th, 2012.


Dave Brubeck has had an everlasting effect on jazz as we know it today. He is one of the first pioneers of what is known as West Coast Jazz. Also, his introduction of odd time signatures had a lasting effect on the quartet and jazz in general. His quartet was more focused on the compositions and arrangements and not as much the improvisation, which differed from the approach of other quartets of the time.

Style & Technique

What drove Dave Brubeck’s playing was his compositional and arranging skills, and his knowledge of harmony. He wasn’t a terribly technical player, and did not even know how to read music by the time he entered college. Though Dave’s technique was not quite as polished as other jazz pianists of the day, it was his style that really defined him as a piano player. Dave’s playing was very diatonic, straight, and quite conservative, always coming back to the (?) odd time signatures that became a signature sound to his tunes. Creating a dichotomy, the harmony was conservative while the rhythms were definitely more progressive. Also central to his sound is his comping style behind the saxophone. He used very light block chords, moving with the chord changes, and sometimes playing modally through the key, creating a unique sound for the Dave Brubeck Quartet.



          February 6, 2016