West Coast Jazz Legend Dave Brubeck Dead at 91

West Coast jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, passed away this morning, just one day shy of his 92nd birthday. Brubeck’s seminal album Time Out included a song called “Take Five” – the bestselling jazz tune of all time. Brubeck’s intellectual compositions, combined with his swinging yet light piano playing style and his incredibly talented ensemble, established a completely new genre in the jazz idiom.

It wasn’t until I was in the sixth grade that I began studying jazz in earnest. But like Miles said, you can’t learn jazz in school, it is something you have to live. Unfortunately, as a sixth grader, my parents weren’t too keen on me living the full jazz lifestyle: hanging out in nightclubs at jam sessions until morning and shooting smack…

But that isn’t really what it means to “live jazz.” To live it, you have to start by listening to it. Then as you compare the written music with what the musicians are playing, you begin to understand how their improvisations weave in and out of the established structure of music. You listen, and then you listen some more. The more you listen, the more you can appreciate what those artists accomplished – completely spontaneously, in a single take. (No overdubs or auto-tuning here, folks.)

Brubeck’s album, Time Out, was one of those early albums that I listened to over 100 times. Brubeck’s piano is delicate and sublime, but swings hard and leaves no doubt that he was leading the session. His chord voicings are complex, but not at all gratuitous.

Prior to the release of Time Out, the leading innovators in jazz were primarily Bebop musicians. Bird, Dizzy, Coltrane, etc., led the evolution of Bebop in the post-war era, and this style was typified by complex chord progressions, played over extremely fast tempos. The sheer complexity of the improvised solos of the hard bop greats rivals that of the greatest “European composers” – despite the fact it was composed instantaneously. Where Bebop is “hot,” the new style of Brubeck (along with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan) was decidedly “cool.”

Brubeck’s group, along with a handful of other performers, effectively created a completely new style of jazz that became known as the “West Coast” or “Lighthouse” sound. With more laid back tempos, more focus could be given to the note choices and subtle nuances of the performers. While “Take Five,” with its odd time signature (5/4) is the song everyone talks about, every song on Time Out is a work of art. “Blue Rondo À La Turk,” “Strange Meadow Lark,” “Three To Get Ready,” and “Everybody’s Jumpin'” are all not just great tunes, but amazing performances.


Dave Brubeck, his compositions, and his recordings, taught me a lot about music, and music taught me a way of seeing the world. I will remember this day for a very long time. In the same way I remembered when other greats died: Miles, Dizzy, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Tito Puente, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Smith, and Dexter Gordon.

Remember: life is too short for crappy music. So do yourself a favor and check out the amazing work of the legendary Dave Brubeck:


Image courtesy Dontworry