Freedom within Discipline, or Time Flies

David Brubeck always had an odd sense of timing. He died today, just one day shy of his 92nd birthday. He was reportedly on his way to visit his cardiologist when he had a heart attack.

Bad timing, Dave.


His most famous album, 1959’s Time Out, was all about tunes that used unconventional time signatures. The opening number, “Blue Rondo ala Turk” was in 9/8 time, and the most famous song off the album, “Take Five” was in 5/4 throughout. Even if you aren’t a jazz fan, you must have heard this song before. It’s been everywhere, even car commercials. Here’s the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing it in 1966 in Germany.

Another bit of bad timing: “Take Five” was Brubeck’s most popular song, but it was NOT ACTUALLY written by him. It was Paul Desmond on Saxophone that can get credit for this one. “Take Five” was only song on the album not written by Brubeck, as it turned out. Also, the song “Kathy’s Waltz” is named after Brubeck’s daughter. Only problem is that Brubeck’s daughter spells her name with a “C”. You see what I mean?

The album was so popular that they did a “sequel” a few years later called “Time Further Out”.


There was one thing that you couldn’t say about Brubeck’s timing: you couldn’t say he was born at the wrong time. Born in 1920, he came of age at a time when jazz was crossing over into the mainstream, (“Time Out” charted on the Pop music charts, for God’s sake). He was at the forefront of what jazz historians like to call “West Coast Cool”. I guess that’s because he’s from the West Coast, and he was so frickin’ cool, in my book. “Jazz is about freedom within discipline,” he said one time. Being classically trained, he knew all the rules before he decided to go in and break a few. He didn’t really think he was doing anything all that revolutionary. He believed the classical greats, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, were all great improvisers in their own way, in their own time.

Everybody COUNT!

Everybody COUNT!

If I were to show you my jazz collection on iTunes, it would heavily lean towards jazz pianists. Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, and of course Dave Brubeck. I can’t explain this, except that when I listen to jazz, I prefer listening to jazz piano, or at least a jazz trio or quartet that feature a piano. It’s just my personal taste. But out of all of these guys, Dave Brubeck was my first love, and the one I still listen to the most today.

My Dad had a copy of “Time Out” on vinyl, and although he mostly played classical stuff on the ol’ hi-fi, every once in a while he would put on Dave Brubeck, so his sound was a part of my childhood.

In high school, our choir sang this amazing piece called “Autumn in our Town” written by Dave Brubeck. I didn’t realize he did some choral work on the side, but this song is so hauntingly beautiful that I begged our choir director to let us sing it again in Grade 12 (we had done it previously in Grade 11). It captures the smokey melancholy of the season so well, that I linked to an instrumental version of it in a blog post back in October. It was a post where I talked about the difficulty I have most years transitioning from summer to autumn.

If anyone in the fanbase can find me a copy of this song WITH WORDS, I would be in your debt. I’ve looked for it over the years, (not real hard, but STILL) and couldn’t turn it up, but SOMEBODY has to have recorded it, yes?

I only got a chance to see Dave Brubeck play live once, but I’m grateful for that one chance. He was headlining the local jazz festival in town about 15 years ago and I was determined to go see him. None of my friends were at all interested, and telling them that it was the composer of that really sad, slow song about autumn we sang in high school didn’t really win any of them over. So I did what any secret jazz lover would do: I took my Mom.

I had to remind her who he was. “Remember Dad had one of his records? Remember “Take Five”?” Well she remembered “Take Five” alright (how could you not once you heard it?) and I think she felt kind of bad for me, so she agreed to go.

It was a wonderful evening, although I had my doubts when the quartet took to the stage for the first time. There was no opener, and the house lights were up when these four ELDERLY guys shuffled onto the stage. They looked like they were walking out on a sheet of ice, Leslie Knope campaign style, and I thought maybe one of them was going to slip off the edge, but they all made it to their places. As soon as Dave Brubeck sat down at the piano and touched the keys, it was like he was 20 again. The quartet played for over 2 and a half hours before the encores began! And the crowd was so demanding, I lost count of the number of  encores they actually played, but it was super impressive, especially for a group of guys in their late 70s. Finally, after the umpteenth time, Dave Brubeck came out by himself, sat down at the piano and played the sweetest version of the “lullaby” song you’ve ever heard. The crowd erupted into laughter and an ovation at the same time and Brubeck smiled back at us, relishing in his little musical joke. He gave us a little wave and was gone for the last time that night.

About four years ago, we bought a MacBook and there was this deal that you got an iPod with it for free. This is how dumb I was: I asked the guy at the computer store where do you put the batteries. He just looked at me and said, “you don’t change the batteries, dude. You just plug it in.” I’m a late adopter, obviously. I didn’t think I’d use it all that much at first, but I thought I should put a few “essential” albums on there to try it out. The first two albums I put on my iPod were U2’s “Achtung Baby!” and “Time Out” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

I’ve never taken it off since. I guess I’m still looking for the right time.

I’d say “Rest in Peace”, but I have a feeling you only ever felt peace when you were restless, so let me just say “Thanks” for writing and playing the kind of music that has resonated with me my whole life, and what gets me through September every year. Time flies. What a gift.


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