DAVE BRUBECK OCTET (Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-101-2) [1951/56]
JAZZ AT OBERLIN (Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-046-2) [1953/57]
JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE (
RE-UNION (Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-150-2) 
One of the more vexing aspects of watching Ken Burns’ Jazz was the fractured picture given of Dave Brubeck and his contributions to jazz. First we are shown Brubeck leading a racially integrated combo in the Army, during World War II, playing for troops in
That’s extraordinary. Few musicians dominated the jazz scene in the ’50s more than Dave Brubeck – one of the perhaps a half dozen major jazzmen well-known to the general public and given a cover on Time magazine. Brubeck both epitomized and transcended West Coast Jazz – but by the time “Take Five” was released on 1959’s TIME OUT (on Columbia Records) Brubeck’s career had already peaked, at least creatively.
Brubeck made literally scores of record albums in the ’50s – for two labels, Fantasy and
TIME OUT was (in 1959) Brubeck’s 13th album for
But his important work was recorded between 1946 and 1954; that which followed cemented his popular success but did nothing further to advance jazz.
It starts with the Octet. “We were organized in the Spring of 1946 (the year some of the selections on this LP were recorded), while most of us were students of Darius Milhaud, the French composer, who teaches at
Of the 18 pieces on the OCTET album, five are compositions or arrangements (of standards) by Brubeck. Seven are the work of van Kriedt, however; three are by Smith and one by Weeks. (Two tracks are standards – “How High the Moon” and “You Go To My Head” – for which no arranger is credited.) They vary considerably in their nature and quality, ranging from “cool” versions of standards (ground-breaking in 1946-48) to compositions in the style of Poulenc and the other composers of 20th Century French wind music, obviously inspired by the teachings of Milhaud.
Considered in the context of jazz in the late ’40s, these were revolutionary pieces. They were harbingers – a full decade earlier – of Third Stream Music. They were experimental successes. “Counterpoint, which had become almost dormant in the Swing era and is now a commonly accepted device in modern jazz, was the distinguishing feature of the Octet,” Brubeck noted. “Along with polytonality it was the unifying quality in the varying individual styles of the group’s arrangers. We were experimenters. We explored polytonality, polyrhythms, various rhythms, and new forms. Dave van Kriedt’s fugues were among the first, I believe, to come from a jazz musician. We tried to write arrangements that were interesting as composition, but still reflected the style of the soloist, and left the improviser free to create.”
Thus even the standards – popular tunes of the day – were deconstructed and then rebuilt as fugues and other new (for jazz) forms. Most were short – running under three minutes – and were originally recorded on a portable 78-rpm recorder, on acetates. Only two pieces – van Kriedt’s “Serenade Suite” and “How High the Moon” – are longer. The latter (almost seven minutes long) is an unusual treat: a suite in which the then-new song is put through its paces in a variety of different styles, from pseudo-Dixieland to Swing, Bop and beyond, while a radio announcer introduces each style with some brief but clever patter. “How High The Moon” was a favorite of Brubeck’s – as it was of many jazz musicians, especially the boppers – and crops up on many of his ’50s albums.
The Octet was musicially ambitious, but not a popular success. “The economic struggle of keeping so large a group together was too great. After three years without work we disbanded,” Brubeck stated. He was not happy about the reception the Octet received in the jazz press of the time: “Within the past ten years,” he wrote in 1956, “I can think of very few released recordings with more musical importance than the work of the Octet. I have seen within the time lapse of a decade the growth of so-called West Coast jazz. I have heard more and more of the Octet innovations being used and accepted in the ‘mainstream’ of jazz. I have seen the individuals of the Octet, once removed from the geographic isolation of their
How little has changed in 50 years. Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns repeated the same mistakes made by the jazz press half a century earlier, ignoring not only the contributions of the Octet, but those of West Coast jazz and Brubeck himself.
After the Octet disbanded, Brubeck formed a trio with drummer Tjader (who would later become a successful bandleader on his own) and bassist Ron Crotty. This trio recorded for Fantasy (Brubeck’s first album releases – Fantasy 3-1 and 3-2) but Tjader left to form his own group and a succession drummers would follow him as Brubeck brought in the Octet’s alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, to create the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
This Quartet (the two stable members of which were Brubeck and Desmond; drummers and bassists came and went) rose to major prominence in the jazz world of the ’50s. In early 1953 Crotty was still on bass and Lloyd Davis was playing the drums when they gave a concert at
Brubeck quickly realized that college campuses were an excellent new venue for his Quartet. There were many reasons for this, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the Quartet. On the latter side, college kids in the early and mid-’50s were a new and growing audience for jazz. To “dig jazz” was to be “cool” in an era that highly valued “coolness.” The hip young intellectuals (and colleges still attracted a mostly intellectual crowd in those days before mass higher education) had not yet discovered rock (& roll), and often dismissed classical music as belonging to their parents’ generation. Jazz, then welling up in a post-war ferment in parallel to the other modern arts, had a broad appeal in its many forms.
But the Brubeck Quartet was better suited for the college crowd than many other, perhaps more visceral, jazz groups were. The Brubeck Quartet was whitebread, vanilla. Even the occasional black bassist or drummer in the group could not change that. Brubeck’s music spoke to a white sensibility far more than it did to blacks. It was a politer music, and one which seemed less rooted in the blues than in classical counterpoint. Brubeck’s actual piano style was distinguished by his use of “block chording,” in which the hands lock into chords which are repeated – often rapidly – in ascending or descending figures. It’s an “orchestral” piano style, better suited to the concert hall than to a roadhouse, and it had relatively little prior use in jazz, making Brubeck’s useage distinctive.
And in Desmond Brubeck had found the perfect partner: a man who thought musically as he did, had received the same training and had a similar orientation. Both musicians were intimately concerned with the melodic structure of jazz, and their explorations went hand in hand. Desmond was a master of the alto sax, capable of playing complex boppish lines but often with a cooler, more “legitimate” saxophone sound. In this he was part of the Tristano-inspired “cool” school of saxophonists (following Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh), but his melodic individualism elevated him to a unique position no longer associated with any “school” of jazz.
The Brubeck Quartet recorded the vast majority of Brubeck’s ’50s albums – for both Fantasy and
I bought the LP when it was initially released and played its first side over and over in continued delight. Eventually I moved on to the second side, but it wasn’t quite as rewarding to me then. I already had a couple of Brubeck’s earlier albums on Fantasy (oh, that distinctive clear red vinyl!) and neither had prepared me for the impact of JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE. Subsequently I bought most of Brubeck’s other Fantasy albums and each Columbia album as it came out, but I never found in any of them what I’d found in JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE. (The sole exception to my disappointment was the OCTET album, which I bought upon its release as a 12-inch LP in 1956. But it, of course, was vastly different.)
JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE is taken from three separate 1954 concerts. Five of the seven pieces on the album were recorded at the
The album was excellently annotated by producer George Avakian, who offered this explanation for its musical success: “Each of these performances is a completely shaped work of art [thus presaging the Marsalis/Burns commentary on jazz as the creation of “art” every working night], with every part (vertically as well as linearly) solidly integrated as to form – in all segments as well as in total.”
Avakian continued: “This is achieved by a kind of teamwork which is without parallel in the entire field of music. Except for set beginnings and endings (and sometimes the latter aren’t even set at all, as some of these performances show), the Brubeck Quartet improvises with freedom and daring such as few musicians have ever attempted; yet the music of this group is of an integrated quality such as few musicians have ever produced. It is an axiom in jazz that no two improvisations on a given tune are the same; in Brubeck’s case, this is so true as to be staggering.”
He then explains how it works: “The Quartet accomplishes its wonders of improvisation first by dividing itself in half. A swinging, driving rhythm section (bass and drums) lays down a solid beat at all times, with the bass holding the group together by feeding the harmonic line as well as the beat.” At this point Bob Bates was playing the bass and Joe Dodge the drums. Bates was new to the group, Ron Crotty having come down with jaundice on the eve of the concert tour in early 1954. Because Bates was unfamiliar with the group’s “book” of material, there was more “jamming” and freer improvising when these concerts were performed than usual – which may be the key to their musical success. But I have interrupted Avakian:
“Pianist Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond work against the bass and drums; Brubeck’s piano solos are sometimes so far removed from the melody and harmony of the number he is playing that one sometimes doubts that any return is ever possible. [In fact, Brubeck famously practiced getting into musical holes and playing “wrong notes” just as exercises to try to extricate himself or make the “wrong notes” right.] Desmond, while he usually ‘goes out’ less far than Brubeck, is an equally fearless and gifted improviser. When Desmond is playing, Brubeck sometimes acts as an intermediate link between the sax and the other two members of the quartet, but more often he joins Paul in a two-part flight of fancy against the realistic pulse of the bass and drums.”
In my opinion, the opening track of the album, “Balcony Rock,” is the best piece Brubeck and Desmond ever created – and it’s the more remarkable for being wholly improvised, from the first bar to the last. Avakian describes it: “In ‘Balcony Rock,’ an eight-bar introduction sets a relaxed mood; then Desmond takes over for nine choruses in a row with Brubeck kneading along behind him. No particular melody appears (the real ‘melody,’ if you insist on ‘Balcony Rock’ having one, finally shows up in the last two choruses!), but Desmond weaves a series of lovely lines over the firmly rocking rhythm laid down by the other three. When Dave comes on, he plays 12 of the most astounding choruses of the blues ever to emerge from a piano. The first three establish a marvelously dreamy mood; without so much as quoting a bar, his second chorus manages to suggest a heady whiff of ‘Stormy Weather,’ and later on (in the start of the eighth chorus) is an even more ephemeral but equally moving feeling of ‘Mad About The Boy.’ (Yes, I know it seems impossible to evoke specific tunes without playing any part of them, but Brubeck does it.) There’s an ‘old country blues’ flavor (marked by some rocking triplets) which he develops beginning with his fourth chorus; the fifth and sixth are conceived as one twenty-four bar chorus [the blues form uses a 12-bar chorus], with open, long chords against a walking bass. An appreciative ripple from the audience underlines a return to lowdown blues; Dave builds into some fantastic block chording at the beginning of his ninth chorus, and a strutting figure which starts the eleventh chorus develops into a chordal Bach-figure in the twelfth. The fugue idea turns into a piano-sax duet in the next chorus, and finally Paul and Dave fall into the melody referred to above – a singularly plaintive strain which is reprised in the last chorus with Dave playing harmony under Paul as this Incredibly beautiful blues comes to and end.”
In other words, “Balcony Rock” is created right in front of the audience, from scratch, in a tour de force performance. (And don’t you wish modern album-notes authors had the knowledge and the skill to turn out analyses like this one? George Avakian set a lot of standards of his own in producing and annotating jazz records.)
My suspicion is that JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE merited special attention as Brubeck’s debut
Four years later, and after quite a few Quartet albums (for both Fantasy and
Having two horns in the group gave it a fuller band sound, and van Kriedt was an excellent foil for Desmond, his light fluid tenor (very much in the Zoot Sims range) providing both contrast and commonality with Desmond’s alto. All of the compositions are van Kriedt’s – except for his arrangement of Bach’s “Chorale.” They are very much in the style of ’50s West Coast jazz – much more so than Brubeck and Desmond’s quartet work at that time – cool, but boppish in their complex lines. There are similarities to the music of Jack Montrose and Jimmy Giuffre’s Capitol recordings. One piece recorded by the Octet, “Prelude,” turns up here again. Brubeck himself is subdued, his piano playing a more background role, the horns taking the center stage. For 1958 this was almost retro-music, harkening as it did to the early and mid-’50s. Even “Prelude” no longer sounds as new, nor as startling as it did in its Octet performance.
I credit Brubeck for refusing to stay in the mold fashioned by his amazing popular success – for trying new musical contexts at the end of the ’50s – but he was by then a leading member of the jazz establishment and no longer a young rebel exploring the outer realms of jazz. His success was very much a ’50s phenomenon – a product of those unique times, to which he made a major contribution.
A trip to any well-stocked record store will reveal dozens of Brubeck albums available on CD; these are only a specifically-selected sample. I recommend DAVE BRUBECK OCTET and JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE highly, despite the music on them having relatively little in common (Brubeck’s piano isn’t even heard on all the Octet tracks), for reasons already articulated. Feel free to sample any of his many other albums if you like either of those, but don’t expect to find others exactly like them.
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