Music Appreciation in 5/5 Time: Five Profs Take Five Questions on Dave Brubeck

By Andrew Salomon

Dave Brubeck, one of several jazz innovators who helped to re-popularize the art form in the postwar era, died Dec. 5, a day before he would have turned 92. He is probably best known for the hit single “Take Five,” written by his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, and the album on which it appeared, 1959’s “Time Out,” the first jazz LP to sell more than 1 million copies.

But Brubeck’s life and work are far more complex than odd time signatures and a song that has, at times, been repurposed to help sell cars. To get a fuller understanding of the composer, his work, and his legacy, The Beat interviewed five professors from Purchase’s Conservatory of Music: Joe Ferry, Pete Malinverni, Jim McElwaine, Richie Morales, and John Riley. Each was asked the same five questions via email. Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Why is Dave Brubeck important?

John Riley: He found a way to reach and maintain a large audience playing jazz, he had one of the first integrated bands, and he fused modern classical harmony with swinging rhythms.

photo by Metronome via Getty Images

Pete Malinverni: For having experimented with rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic innovations but doing so in a way that sacrificed neither beauty nor (not so insignificantly) popularity.

Richie Morales: He was a pioneer for racial equality (perhaps unintentionally at first), leading racially integrated bands during his time in George Patton’s Third Army during World War II, performing for troops near the front during the Battle of the Bulge. After he became popular, he cancelled concerts when promoters were resistant to the idea of his racially integrated band (his bassist Eugene Wright was African-American) and cancelled a television show when they intended to keep Mr. Wright off-camera.

Joe Ferry: Brubeck created a style of his own, his own voice. His touch on the piano was different than many of his contemporaries. Not necessarily better, because there were some badass pianists out there at that time, but different, interesting, exciting. The same goes for his composing.

Jim McElwaine: His music spoke to nearly every one who listened to it. Accessibility is a rare musical quality, especially in such an intensely personal musical dialect like jazz improvisation.

Q: What are your earliest memories of “Take Five” and “Time Out”?

Ferry:  My Uncle Richie bought a console stereo unit in 1959 or 1960, somewhere in there. The thing was about six feet long, a big, heavy piece of furniture. When the delivery guys set it up and it was ready to rock, the very first cut Uncle Richie played was “Take Five.” I never heard anything like that before. Blew my mind. We blasted that big ol’ stereo. You could hear Brubeck from two blocks away!

Malinverni: His was the first jazz recording I ever bought and the infectious style of his group caught me immediately—I guess I recognized the joy in the music.

Morales: It was a massive hit in 1959. I was 7 years old so I probably heard it on radio and TV and possibly from my parent’s record collection. Years later when I heard Dave’s band play the tune it was kind of like déjà vu. During the ‘90s, legendary saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. covered “Take Five” in a funk/hip-hop rendition, renaming it “Take Another Five.” As member of his group I performed this number countless times while on tour.

Riley: I first heard Morello play “Take Five” with his own group in 1970, then bought “Time Out.” That was around the same time the Mahavishnu Orchestra came on the scene. Both bands opened my mine to odd time signatures.

McElwaine: “Take Five” accompanied my initiation at age 12 or 13 into “odd” meters and scales—with Stravinsky, Bartok, Machaut, and Morley. Paul Desmond’s melody is absolutely comfortable over the soft but unyielding 5 groove. It’s Brubeck’s groove there, along with Joe Morello’s drums. The “Time Out” album, and certainly Desmond’s “Take Five,” are all about articulation—how you start and stop notes. Brubeck’s articulations of time are impeccable.

Q: What does Brubeck mean to you personally?

Morales: While in college at University of Michigan in the early ’70s I met Dave’s son Chris. I joined his band New Heavenly Blue. It was a progressive rock band. Not surprisingly, we played lots of music in odd time signatures. We performed and recorded an arrangement of “Blue Rondo à la Turk” on Dave’s album “Two Generations of Brubeck.” Dave played on the track with us. (We played with him?) We toured nationally as part of a package featuring groups led by Dave and his sons Darius and Chris, culminating in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. It was my first “big gig” on such a high professional and musical level. So to say that Dave Brubeck and the Brubeck family were highly influential in my musical and professional development would be an understatement.

Riley: My teacher was Dave’s long time drummer, Joe Morello, so that was some of the first jazz much I was exposed to.

Ferry: I was a fan of his from the age of 9 or 10. I found his music at once challenging and soothing to listen to. I remember my Uncle Richie, who introduced me to jazz, saying that guys like Brubeck were totally into their music. Nothing else mattered. That was the first time I had ever heard such a thing. It sounded like freedom. Now, all these years later, I thank Brubeck and Uncle Richie for helping me see that the only rules I was going to play by were my own.

Malinverni: He proves that one can be excellent and not be afraid to show love and concern for one’s audience.

McElwaine: He played music for over seventy years! There is no better life.

Q: If you could ask Dave Brubeck one question, what would you ask him?

Morales: I’d ask him what inspired his vision. I remember him as a humble, down-to-earth man, who took great joy from life and music, which were one and the same to him. He always had a big smile on his face and never was one to remind you that you were in the presence of greatness.

Malinverni: What’s your favorite color?

Ferry: Did Alan Dawson ever give you my congratulations after the “Two Generations of Brubeck” show that night at Avery Fisher Hall?

McElwaine: Dave, what did you learn from all that curiosity?

Riley: You’ve had an amazing career. What would you do differently today?

Q: What else should people know about Dave Brubeck?

Malinverni: That he was a tenacious defender of human rights and that perhaps his most remarked-upon trait by those who knew him best was his humility.

McElwaine: “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “Kathy’s Waltz” (both on “Time Out”), “St. Louis Blues” with Gerry Mulligan, his version of “A Train,” “In Your Own Sweet Way, and his music for a Charlie Brown TV special called “This Is America, Charlie Brown.”

Riley: Dave also wrote major religious music of the depth and scope of Ellington’s masses.

Morales: The compositions “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke” are jazz standards. He also wrote critically acclaimed orchestral compositions of a religious and spiritual nature entitled “The Light in The Wilderness” and “The Gates of Justice,” the latter based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the writings of Martin Luther King.

Ferry: Everything he ever did.

Andrew Salomon, an assistant professor of journalism, is the publisher and faculty adviser of The Beat.