Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck: 'He was a great individual in a music that is supposed to be all about great individuals'

The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Delving into the life and work of the legendary composer and pianist in his new biography, we speak to the writer to find out more

One of jazz's most popular artists, Dave Brubeck's music reached millions. The composer and pianist, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, is best known for the 1959 album Take Five, and standards like 'The Duke' and 'In Your Own Sweet Way'. Yet his commercial success has tended to overshadow his musical achievements. Philip Clark's new biography, Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, aims to redress the balance.

'He was a great individual in a music that is supposed to be all about great individuals,' says Clark. 'If you're looking for a pianist that emerged in the 1950s, who walked a path that had literally nothing to do with bebop, Dave is your man.' Clark dismisses the notion that Brubeck was a classically trained pianist who 'learned' jazz, pointing out that he was an 'ear player' from an early age.

'The essentials of the Brubeck style were formed by slamming together his deep appreciation of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller with his later studies as a composer of modernist composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok and Milhaud,' Clark explains. 'All those 1950s critics who tried to critique Brubeck as though he was trying to play bop but failing were on a hiding to nothing; it's like commenting on the chicken korma in a Chinese restaurant. The way Dave put his improvised solos together – layers of different styles commenting on each other; and he wasn't worried about making everything fit – was unique and definitely owed much to his composer mindset.'

Brubeck's influence on jazz is perhaps less obvious than that of peers like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but one of his key innovations is the use of unusual time signatures. 'Nobody really made a consistent case for unorthodox time signatures in jazz until Brubeck, who simply asked the question: Why had jazz not developed metrically to the extent that it had harmonically and melodically? And boy did he make it work! Harmonically, Dave transformed his interest in polytonality into a whole system of complex relationships between keys that not only coloured chords, but that dug deep into the structures of music. I argue in the book that Bill Evans used polytonality to smooth chords over and make neat transitions, while DB used it to disrupt neat harmonic sequences and pull them apart so that he could take a closer look.'

Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck: 'He was a great individual in a music that is supposed to be all about great individuals'

Philip Clark / credit: Nina Hollington

Such innovations bring Brubeck closer to free jazz than his mainstream profile might suggest. Giants of the avant-garde such as Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker have cited him as an influence, and Clark notes that the great pianist Cecil Taylor admired his 'dense harmonies' and the way he used his left hand. 'As an improviser, Dave showed that you didn't need to improvise dogmatically on the chord changes; it was fine to depart from them and find your back to them; even to play entirely freely, then find a way of pulling the chord changes into your world. Even right into his late 80s, when he was physically frail, I heard Dave do things that made me gulp: suddenly rotating rhythm the opposite way, slamming down a cluster in the middle of a solo just to see what would happen, playing chords that seemed utterly incompatible with a tune that somehow he made fit. His attitude was always creative, always jazz in the present tense, never wanting to play routines.'

The wider cultural impact of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, adds Clark, was huge. 'For some people jazz started and ended with Time Out, a pity perhaps, but there it is. But for others it was a gateway into all sorts of other modern jazz from Coltrane and Ornette Coleman to Monk and Taylor. It got people listening to creative and inventive instrumental jazz, making modern jazz a talking point in the mainstream media.'

That impact is reflected in Brubeck's hidden influences on rock and pop. 'Odd time signatures in prog rock: Dave showed the way. Think about the figuration that underpins 'Golden Brown' by The Stranglers – clearly borrowed from 'Take Five'. Think about how Sting gorges on 7/8 and 5/4; or Sandy Denny's song 'Autopsy' for the Fairport Convention in 5/4 … Dave's music reminds us that influence doesn't always work in obvious ways – or how music journalists report it does.'

Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck: 'He was a great individual in a music that is supposed to be all about great individuals'

Brubeck led an interracial band and used his privilege as a white artist to advocate for civil rights. 'Dave's innocence, when he was about six, was shattered when his father introduced him to a (black) friend who had been a slave and Dave was shocked to see a brand on his arm. He was unwavering in his refusal to replace his black bass player – Eugene Wright – when redneck concert promoters insisted on an all white group, which cost him tens of thousands of dollars in lost fees. But Dave recognised racial discrimination as a humanitarian issue and he played benefits for civil rights causes. He later turned his feelings on race into a musical, The Real Ambassadors, written for and performed by Louis Armstrong.'

As befitting its title, A Life In Time follows an unconventional structure. 'Unconventional?' Clark retorts, 'where is it written that biographies have to be chronological? I didn't get that memo! But I simply couldn't have written the book any other way. The book grew out of a series of interviews I recorded with Dave on the road during the quartet's 2003 tour of the UK, and opening the book – in 2003 – with Dave reminiscing, with me sitting next to him, was a way of getting straight to the music. This is a music book, but it's also a piece of writing. I enjoyed playing with structure – putting stories inside one another and using sudden jump cuts/flashbacks – and I was lucky that this happened to mirror Brubeck's own working methods. The line 'Dave Brubeck was born in 1920' doesn't appear until midway through chapter eight (of 10); but then, like watching an episode of Colombo, suddenly lots of loose ends fall into place.'

Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time by Philip Clark is out now via Headline publishing.