Taking Five with the Late Dave Brubeck

At just 14 years old, hearing "Take Five" leap off the vinyl initiated us boys into all the things that would soon come to matter: abandon and sex, ecstasy and intelligence, serious ideas and sensual pleasure in one package.

When pianist Dave Brubeck died last week, many jazz fans lost the man who first taught them how to love the music—and to learn to love the possibilities of passion and adulthood.

The death of jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck on 5 December 2012, one day short of his 92nd birthday, was a day of mourning for many jazz fans. So many of us came to jazz through Brubeck—his strange and stunning music had a way of hooking the ear of jazz novices.

Critics found it easy to dismiss Brubeck over the years, unfairly. The truth, as I wrote in a career retrospective back in 2008 ("Looking Back at Brubeck" (21 August 2008), is that he was a compelling and swinging player and leader. Innovative, too.

But upon his death, my reaction is less as a critic than as a grateful fan. For me and many others, his was the first music that opened my ears. But it was more than that: he sometimes lacked subtlety, but Brubeck taught many of us to love the whole idea of passion and abandon in our lives.

In 1974 I was just a kid in 8th grade who’d been hearing some cool and otherworldly music on a New York radio station that seeped through my clock radio when I had my bedroom doors closed. I’d barely heard the word “jazz” and certainly didn’t know who Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie were. But certain tunes the DJs played more often than others got into my head like a pretty girl’s smile, and I heard the DJs say, “The Dave Brubeck Quartet”.

Soon enough I’d bought the record, a two-LP set on Columbia of this guy’s All-Time Greatest Hits. It had a big gatefold opening with illustrations of the players on the outside and a long set of notes by Mort Goode that went through what these guys were up to. And a couple hip friends and I spent the better part of the next year listening to those songs over and over again, as if contained the secrets of growing up.

“Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”. “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “The Duke”. We bobbed our heads and tapped our feet and we set our hands out in front of us and pretended we were playing the piano or the alto sax, fingering the notes of these ingenious made-up solos from memory and instinct.

Of course, this music did contain the secrets of growing up. For us. This was the music that allowed us become ourselves, to set ourselves apart from the pack and start experiencing the possibility that the world—and our hearts—were bigger than “Stairway to Heaven” and Three Dog Night (as fun as that all was). Brubeck’s music was somehow an utterly pure expression of that freedom while also an easy pleasure: strong melody and insistent rhythm.

Mostly, like so many other folks, we loved “Take Five”.

The version on All-Time Greatest Hits was the one that’s been played on the radio (and since, in TV ads and everywhere else) a million times. The tune’s composer, Paul Desmond, plays his airy alto sax, while Brubeck plays the famous bouncing figure in 5/4 time that is the signature of the song. The winding but spikey melody on the first part of the song was tricky to scat along to at first, but then it came quickly to your ear—played over a simple pair of chords that never changed. Then the bridge had a set of suddenly moving harmonies over which Desmond floated a melody of amazing symmetry and ease.

Best, though, was the improvising. I’m not sure we even knew what that word meant when we were 14. But there was this saxophone player, with Brubeck bouncing that figure beneath him (mm-bump, mm-bummmm, boom-boom, mm-bump mm-bummmm, boom-boom, on and onward) unspooling a set of notes that were spontaneous but perfect—notes that are so logical and right that I can sing every one of them right now from memory.

“Take Five”, my friend Bobby says, “is the essential American musical performance of the third quarter of the 20th century.” And he may be right. Its rhythm momentum and harmonic simplicity arguably exploited part of what was making rock such a powerful force around that time (the take I’m discussing was recorded in 1959), and it prefigured Contrane’s more critically lauded experiments in recording over a static harmonic pattern that would a come a year later (My Favorite Things, 1960). Also that solo, while brief, was a completely open “jam” over no particular chordal pattern. In its freedom but simplicity, it was the shape of jazz (and rock) to come.

More thrilling than that record to us, however, was a live version of “Take Five” that we found in Bobby’s father’s record collection, a version with Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax taking Desmond’s place. Last Set at Newport (1971) contained a “Take Five” that was faster, and it was more aggressive. Mulligan dug into the melody with a deft brawniness, low in his register. The drummer is now Alan Dawson, who is punching the 5/4 figure like mad with accents and snare clicks. And as Mulligan begins his solo, he is taking no prisoners right from the start. Very soon, Brubecks’ punching chords get weirder, less regular, and Dawson is essentially playing his own improvised solo beneath the baritone solo. Brubeck’s solo is only tangentially related to the chords of the song in a whole bunch of places, and his rhythmic play gets adventurous very quickly. Is it too much to say that this performance is essentially avant-garde? Probably, but not by much.

Listening to this second version of “Take Five”, climaxed by a flamboyant drum solo that has a reckless quality, sticks flying every possible way, which Brubeck then joins back into in his high register so that becomes a mad duet before quieting down into a subtle lesson in how simple patterns become more interesting as they are repeated across a polyrhythm. Brubeck jumps back in with abandon, becoming a virtual pianist machine-gun. The theme returns and the crowd goes fabulous nuts. So too did we, as 14-year-old boys.

That performance, by a 50 year-old pianist in the ripe center of his storied career, changed us. Sitting on Bobby’s bed, listening to the sounds leap off the vinyl, initiated us into all the things that would soon come to matter: abandon and sex, ecstasy and intelligence, serious ideas and sensual pleasure in one package. For me at least, jazz still stands for all those pleasures to this day.

“Take Five” and Dave Brubeck opened the door, and I would soon pass through to get enveloped in Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sonny Sharrock, Louis Armstrong and Cecil Taylor. My Brubeck albums would go unlistened-to for long stretches.

But this week, with the man himself gone, I can replay them in my head without so much as dropping the needle onto wax. I remember and love every note.

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