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Dave Brubeck is one of very few jazz musicians whose biography would excite a major trade publisher. Surprising, then, that this is his first serious biography. Brubeck’s status results from ‘Take Five’, his 1961 single from the 1959 album Time Out: the first million-selling jazz instrumental. Philip Clark tells his engrossing life-story – Brubeck was a thoroughly admirable man, not least for his long battle against racism – in a definitive biography.

Brubeck (1920-2012) studied at the College of the Pacific with Milhaud. Ellington introduced him at Newport in 1955 as ‘from the Darius Milhaud school, with a very modern French influence’. Joined by alto-saxophonist Paul Desmond in 1951, his Quartet became one of jazz’s most successful groups.

Brubeck experimented with unusual time signatures: 5/4, 9/8, 11/4. ‘Take Five’ was credited to Desmond, but as Clark explains, the saxophonist produced two unconnected themes in 5/4 that Brubeck joined, based on a rhythm by drummer Joe Morello – the piano vamp was Brubeck’s. It’s a knotty story, and frustratingly the session reels are missing; only the master-takes remain. The hit single, Clark explains, was edited from an alternative take. Its huge success handed Brubeck ‘complete creative control over his career’ – till the end, his concerts culminated in ‘Take Five’ and the single’s B side, ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’.

Clark interviewed Brubeck extensively from 1998, and as a colleague of his at Jazz Review, I knew of the project from early on. The result comes across as uniquely well-informed and researched – and highly readable and entertaining. We learn that stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce was an unlikely babysitter for Dave’s son Darius; and that the proprietors of his first label, Fantasy, worried that increasing sales would threaten its tax write-offstatus.

The book is ideally pitched for the non-specialist, with musical concepts like polytonality – an approach derived from Milhaud – vividly explained. However, the ‘time’ motif is expressed through a complex flashback technique, with the narrative of Brubeck’s UK tour in 2003 as ‘present’. Thus Dave’s discharge from the army in 1946, and reunion with wife Iola, appears on page 43, while his marriage to her is described only on page 320, following an account of his early life. Rigidly chronological biographies often open with 50 tedious pages on earlier generations; Clark’s approach is the extreme opposite.

The critical onslaught against such a popular figure, suspicious to jazz purists, began early. Clark analyses it deftly, citing Brubeck supporters such as Parker and Mingus. Critics complained that Brubeck couldn’t swing. Clark argues that he often simply decided not to: fascinated by the varieties of rhythm, he made them co-exist within the same solo.

In a DOWNBEAT article from 1950, Brubeck wrote that ‘improvisation is the criterion by which all jazz, written or unwritten, is judged’. But for Clark, Brubeck was as much a composer as an improviser, concerned with techniques like stride piano as compositional material, and focusing on polyrhythms and polytonality. From the 1960s he wrote large- scale compositions, including oratorios and cantatas as well as works for jazz ensemble. Perhaps the paradox is resolved by saying that Brubeck appreciated the value of improvisation as a compositional method in its own right.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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