Dave Brubeck, R.I.P.

Dave Brubeck died today, just short of 92 years old. He was a plodding pianist and a less inventive composer than many obits are suggesting. (It was his alto saxophonist Paul Desmond who wrote the biggest hit "Take Five" in 5/4 time, and while Brubeck wrote many pieces in more exotic times still, they didn't swing or flow like Desmond's.) Still, Brubeck was a colossal figure of modern jazz in many ways.

First, he was the most tireless ambassador in the State Department's program to bring jazz to the rest of the world. The idea, dreamed up by Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was to win the cultural Cold War: the Russians had the Bolshoi, which they sent out on comparable tours, but jazz exuded the freedom and verve of American democracy. This had consequences. When Brubeck and his band toured the Soviet bloc in 1958, thousands of young men and women—who would grow up to be the next generation's reformers—greeted him wildly. When he returned to Warsaw nearly a half-century later, one of those greeters came up to him and said, "What you brought to Poland wasn't just jazz. It was the Grand Canyon, it was the Empire State Building, it was America."

Second, inspired by his college mentor, the adventurous classical composer Darius Milhaud, who taught him to write the music that he heard in life, Brubeck brought back the sounds and rhythms of foreign lands, infusing his own music with exotic flavors that helped make American culture, in the broadest sense, more cosmopolitan. The flipside of "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," written in 9/8 time, is based on a street melody he heard on the streets of Istanbul. This was the beginning of "world music."

Third, he popularized small-ensemble modern jazz. The single of "Take Five" and the album that included it, Time Out, were the first jazz records to sell more than 1 million copies. (Time Out is still the 2nd best-selling jazz album of all time, outgunned only by Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.) And it sold so well because it exuded a fresh, progressive, inventive sound that meshed well with the sense of excitement, of the "countdown to tomorrow," that pervaded American life on the eve of the sixties and the dawn of the space age. (Both Time Out and Kind of Blue were released in 1959.) As early as 1953, he and his wife, Iola, came up with the idea of touring college campuses, where his band's brand of propulsive rhythms and cool intonations (Desmond likened his style of saxophone playing to a "dry martini") appealed to young students who were appreciating, but not quite going so far as to join, the Beats. His appeal was so vast, he became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine. At the same time, his fame didn't inflate his ego; he publicly expressed embarrassment that the honor hadn't gone to the worthier Duke Ellington.

Fourth, Brubeck did as much as any cultural figure to liberalize American society. His quartet was one of the very few racially integrated small jazz bands. During one of his tours, the president of a Southern college refused to let the band perform because of it; Brubeck backed out of the concert, started packing up. The president, fearing backlash from his jazz-fan students, relented a little bit, saying they could play but only if the bass player—Eugene Wright, who was black—stood way at the back of the stage. When the concert began, Brubeck told Wright to play way up front. The students applauded wildly anyway.

Finally, I feel a personal link to Brubeck. One of his great albums was Live at Oberlin, which was also one of the first live jazz albums, was recorded in Oberlin College's Finney Chapel in 1953. In 1973, as a sophomore at Oberlin, I saw Brubeck play at Finney in a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of that concert—a great, boisterous evening—and, in 2003, one of my daughters saw him play in that same wonderful space in a celebration of its 50th anniversary. I also interviewed him for my 2009 book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed. He was, to me and by all accounts, an extremely generous, civilized man.

He recorded dozens of albums over the years. I would particularly recommend Live at Oberlin, the 1951 Stardust (which was almost avant-garde by the standards of the day), Jazz at Storyville (1952), Time Out, All the Things We Are (1974, with a young Anthony Braxton on saxophone!), and the elegiac Brubeck & Desmond 1975: The Duets.

thom_osburn's picture

I hope that one day my piano playing is only as plodding and my compositions only as pedestrian as the esteemed Mr. Brubeck!!!!  I only have every album he cut between the war and about 1975 in my collection (all the Fantasy titles, all the Columbias up to then). I think the mono ones are mixed better. Sony, get off your duffs and release a Dave Brubeck: The Mono Recordings Box!

John Atkinson's picture

Fred Kaplan replies: My characterization of Mr Brubeck's piano-playing is pretty widespread among musicians and critics--which isn't to say you're not entitled to your own opinion. However, I did not, nor would I ever, describe his compositions as "pedestrian." They are anything but. And please do read more than the first paragraph, where I elaborate on the many ways in which Mr. Brubeck was a "colossal" figure in jazz, American culture, and American life very broadly.

JohnnyR's picture

.....only on Stereophile will you find some one defaming a well liked performer before his body is cold. Stay classy Sterophile.

ChrisS's picture

There's that wind blowing over the steppes and that smell again...

Paul Luscusk's picture

that he hated following Dave at club gigs, because the pianos action was destroyed.

JohnnyR's picture

Lets bring "say so" into the discussion now shall we?

Paul Luscusk's picture

In a  segment of the old PBS Previn & The Pittsberg ,featuring Oscar Peterson.I don't make stuff up.BTW It's up on you tube Previn and Peterson parts 4(near the end of part4) & 5

barw41's picture

What enormous insensitivty, waiting for you to post an apology. If an apology is not posted, I will stop visiting the stereophile site.

FSonicSmith's picture

Lighten up folks. Mr. Kaplan wrote a tremendous tribute and you have become fixated on a somewhat provocative, but probably true, opening line. I don't claim to be an expert on piano playing technique, but "plodding" sounds fairly appropriate to me. Death does not warrant taking liberties with the truth. People use death as an opportunity for all kinds of truth-twisting. Watch the documentary about Pat Tillman for exhibit A. 

tmsorosk's picture

Dave will be truly missed. Saw an interview with him a few years ago, what an interesting gentlemen to listen to.

soulful.terrain's picture

I must say that I was suprised to see the "plodding pianist" and the "less inventive composer" description in Fred's article.

..damn.....just damn.

Josh Hill's picture

While I wouldn't have used the word, "plodding pianist" I can see -- see the comment on the accident that limited his dexterity. (Not that it much matters, if music rather than empty virtuosity is what one is interested in.) But calling him the "less inventive composer"? No way! Take Five may have been the biggest hit, but when have public accolades ever been a measure of artistic achievement? Just listen to what's on the charts to be disabused of the notion of that -- and to Brubeck's own works, which in my opinion anyway demonstrate more creativity and skill, and much more musical sophistication, than "Take Five."

Devil Doc's picture

The first paragraph might be ok in a review, but not his obit. Geez, you could use a lesson in class.


mauidj's picture

Yet another "provocative" opening sentence to a Stereophile blog. (see the last piece of "writing" from Ariel Bitran) What gives? Are you enjoyng riling people up lately. As the previous poster commented. Those words might fly in a review but in an obituary they are infalamtory and grossly insensitive to the man and his millions of fans...most of whom probably do NOT share Mr Kaplan's viewpoint.

And regardless of what he then goes on to say in a positive tone. After that opening everything else is damning by faint praise.

It really is getting rather dificult to continue reading these posts and even worse the "I don't give a damn" responses to your readers when they oppose your opinion or express a disatisfaction with your writings.

jamesgarvin's picture

I think people object to a writer or reviewer who appears to claim him or herself an expert, and in so doing, implicitly characterizes other people's views as being wrong or incorrect. I've not read all the obituaries on Brubeck's death, but I presume some of them to which Mr. Kaplan refers were written by learned people in the field of jazz, although, apparently, not as learned as Mr. Kaplan. I am not sure why these other writers even bother to try.

Otherwise, why the comment that contrary to those obituaries Brubeck's playing was prodding, or that he was less than an inventive composer? Did those other obituaries get it wrong, and Mr. Kaplan right? Perhaps it would have been better form to either omit the reference to other obituaries, and simply state that in Mr. Kaplan's opinion Mr. Brubeck's playing was plodding and his compositions less than inventive, or to add that this was his opinion. Should we assume this is what Mr. Kaplan meant? Not the way he wrote his blog. He clearly means to say that the other writers are wrong, and he is right.

Did Mr. Kaplan redeem himself with the balance of the article? I don't think so. Paraphrasing, he basically says that Brubeck was not an inventive composer, he benefited from the compositional skills of others, he sold a boat load of records (so did Abba), but he was a great ambassador of jazz, and he ran an integrated band. In other words, his contribution was less musical than social. I'm not sure that is a great obituary for a musician. Maybe for a politician or a civil rights leader, but not a musician.

hootyboo's picture

to be writing such a tasteless comment anyway?

cobra_verde's picture

In his book Where's the Melody, eminent jazz critic Martin Williams likens Brubeck's playing to an "automaton, pounding away." So I think Fred perhaps is saying something similar by saying Brubeck was a plodding pianist. I might use the word clangorous instead. I can see both critics' points of view, but still I like the album Time Out. And I appreciate that Fred is trying to articulate Brubeck's place in jazz history and in his personal history as well. I prefer Fred's warts and all tribute over the others I have read. 


Alan Tomlinson's picture


In contrast to the majority here, I find Mr. Kaplan's words refreshing. If the end of a life led directly to perfection, I can think of a good many who might want to pursue that path. I doubt that Brubeck would have gotten his panties in a knot over the description of his piano playing that so offends some: Jimmy Rowles, he was not.

What he was, was a guy who was so fired up with rhythm, that his son Darius became infected with it. I remember seeing Dave and sons on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson many years ago and what I remember was fire. Not subtlety.

Fred Kaplan called it as he saw it. I honor that because I detest bullshit. Jazz has lost a fantastically fiery living ambassador. 


Alan Tomlinson

jamesgarvin's picture

Well, in contrast to Mr. Kaplan's opinion, I've linked Joe Lovano's thoughts from his website regarding Dave Brubeck. I'd respectfully suggest that Mr. Lovano has a modicum of credibility of what makes a great jazz musician and composer, though I would be humble enough to admit, not nearly has much as the esteemed society of jazz critics, who, no doubt, at one time butchered Coltrane's excursions into the unknown, and Coleman's free jazz recordings. In any event, publishing one's opinions as fact leads into some murky waters that are sometimes difficult from which to escape.



FSonicSmith's picture

had to correct herself (and whomever wrote her script) from yesterday's piece on Brubeck that it was Paul Desmond and not Dave Brubeck who wrote "Take 5". Given her reputation, this demonstrates how widespread the historical error and misconception is. It is important to recount history accurately, sympathy and nostalgia notwithstanding. And I'll say it again, Fred Kaplan is a jazz critic, he is not some relative speaking at a funeral. It may be appropriate for, say for example, dear old Uncle Milty to gloss over his brother's bigotry and alcoholism, but this was no eulogy. I can't fathom how otherwise intelligent people are so quick to get incensed over so little. 

jamesgarvin's picture

You are, of course, assuming that Uncle Milty was a bigot and an alcoholic. Mr. Kaplan is entitled to his opinion, but not to confuse opinion and fact. Bigotry and alcoholic can be proven as fact. That Brubeck was an plundering pianist, and a less than impressive composer are opinions, regardless of how impressed a critic may be with his or her own knowledge. And given the informed opinion lining up against Mr. Kaplan, perhaps a little humility would be appropriate. Not getting incensed, but if you were dear old Uncle Milty's son, and someone was publicly calling him a drunk and a bigot, and you felt differently, you may very well want to correct the record.

JohnnyR's picture

"I can't fathom how otherwise intelligent people are so quick to get incensed over so little."


 But I'm refering to Stereophile in general and the incompetent Fearless Leader in particular xD

Crocodile Chuck's picture

If any of the critics of Fred's post above would just LISTEN to the first track on the 'Time Out' album, and to Dave's left hand, they would understand EXACTLY what he is referring to.

Have they even listened to the album?

Fred places Brubeck in the context of post war America and the world better than anything else that's been written on him.

UPDATE:  hoisted from comments from Barry Ritholtz' blog re:  Brubeck, a more nuanced take on his piano playing:

"One thing not included in the article is the fact that Brubeck was in a car accident that severely damaged his hands early in his career. His dexterity was quite limited, and while he could still ‘comp, intricate, melodic improvisations were out of the question. That’s why Brubeck developed his distinctive style emphasizing those massive block chords. It also explains why Desmond was so critical to Brubeck’s success.”

junker's picture


I can be a critic too. You should be ashamed of yourself to disparage this man, musician, visionary in only the second sentence of an obituary for a man who only passed yesterday. Just because you’ve written a book gives you absolutely no literary license.


And not only did the editor sign off on this but actually responded – no unapologetically defended these assertions – on behalf of the author in the comments thread. Astonishing. I recently came out and strongly defended this publication and editor from personal attacks in the recent buyer’s guide thread, but at this point I regret doing so.


Regardless, of how eloquent you write, how factual you believe your summary to be, or how vigorously you defend you or your cohorts you are just plain wrong in doing so, and in my opinion, classless.


Time for me to play a good Brubeck recording and respect the man, his music, and even his purportedly plodding and not so inventive musicianship.

John Atkinson's picture

junker wrote:
not only did the editor sign off on this but actually responded – no unapologetically defended these assertions – on behalf of the author in the comments thread. Astonishing.

That's not correct. I made no comment; instead I posted Fred's response because he forgot his password for this site.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

junker's picture

"His appeal was so vast, he became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine."


The New York Times states that Brubeck was, in fact, the second jazz artist, after Louis Armstrong. to appear on the cover of Time.


"In 1954 Mr. Brubeck became only the second jazz musician (after Louis Armstrong) to be featured on the cover of Time magazine."



Rockitman's picture

Since when was the use of plodding so defamatory.  It's a good article and sets you up quickly to not expect gushing praise. And when praise is delivered it's correct and welcome.  I saw DB perform and own wonderful recordings of his.  Stop expecting everything you read in life to mirror your beliefs. 

GeorgeHolland's picture

Typically bad writing in Stereophile. No sense of decency right after a person has passed on.

jrmandude's picture

I saw Brubeck about a dozen years ago with the Detroit Symphony in their wonderful hall.  It was a great concert.  Although I don’t quite get the term, I guess it was the most I ever understood or enjoyed what Schuller called Third Stream.  The music I heard that night seemed worthy of the great Ellington idea of Beyond Category.  Being only a hobbyist, I’d welcome Fred’s thoughts on this.

mauidj's picture

I think the commentators defending Mr. Kaplan are missing the point. I am not objecting to his own personal preferences or critiques of Dave Brubeck. Just the timing and forum he chose to air them. Also to place them in the first sentence completely taints the rest of his essay.

It amazes me how some Stereophile fan boys react to the slightest criticism of their hallowed magazine. Like Mr. Kaplan, we are entitled to our opinion and in this case it is clear that several of us are not in agreement with his assesment of the man's playing or the way in which he has chosen to air his feelings.

I believe there is a place for his comments...it's just not here and now.

Talos2000's picture

Hey, man, this was an obit, not a critique.  He was a colossus in the Jazz world, and he died.  So the correct thing to do is to pay tribute to his accomplishments, not find something with which to pull him down a peg or two.  There is a place for critical analysis, and that wasn't it.

Besides, when did it become a requirement to be a virtuoso to qualify as a great musician?  My wife will listen to Brubeck, but she won't give up two minutes to listen to Brad Mehldau or, heaven forbid, Charlie Parker.

Dave Brubeck's music gave me - and a lot of other people - a great deal of pleasure.  I didn't for one instant think "there went that plodding pianist".

kelven's picture

After listening to a rebroadcast of Terri Gross interviewing Mr. Brubeck on NPR, my admiration for him grew many fold.  Not only did I learn how much he impressed his professors with his playing and composition (despite his compromised ability to read music), he served to unite disparate groups of people during difficult and challenging social-political times--concomitantly advancing the art (as Mr. Kaplan, too, noted).

As for the decision to release Fred Kaplan's bit of prose: as human beings we are fallible and will make mistakes.  It does not mean people who make mistakes are "bad."  My hunch is both Fred and John will note the number of readers who felt uneasy with how the obit began, and will understand how such an opening can overshadow the rest of the article, no matter the humility that followed.

Words are powerful.  Death is humbling.  Humble words when acknowledging another's death are intended to empower the living.  Each of us is allotted only so many breaths. . . only so many words. 

Wishing each of you a peaceful holiday season.


coverto's picture

It's one thing to begin an obit calling him a "plodding pianist," but it's another thing altogether to do so without mentioning the fact that his limitations were due to an injury. The writer has either revealed his insensitivity or, more likely, his simple ignorance.