December 6, 2010, - 11:31 pm

Happy 90th, Jazz Great Dave Brubeck (But Vietnam Protest Mars Record)

By Debbie Schlussel

I’ve been at Detroit Film Critics Society movie screenings all day (more on that later), but I can’t let the day go by without marking the milestone birthday of a great American musician, jazz superman Dave Brubeck.  Today, this ultra-talent turns 90.  And over his nine decades he’s contributed a lot to American music, for the better (though I definitely don’t agree with his musical protests during the Vietnam War, a noticeable hole in his otherwise positive contributions to America).  Brubeck’s sense of rhythm, tempo, and melody–and the ability to arrange them into great sound–is incredible.  And he’s a great jazz pianist, in addition.  As a composer, he wrote for orchestras and even TV soundtracks, including the “Charlie Brown” specials.

Dave Brubeck, Kennedy Center Honoree, 2009

As a kid, my father–a huge fan of music of all kinds, but especially jazz–passed on to me his love of jazz, taking me to concerts for all kinds of jazz musicians, from Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock to the Georges (Benson and Winston) to the Detroit Kool Jazz Festival.  He bought me some very cool CDs (and before that, cassettes) of his favorites.  And my dad’s favorite jazz musician, above all, was Dave Brubeck, individually, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet, as a group.  I have a great deal of Brubeck’s music that I inherited from my dad.  And my favorite is the very well-known “Take Five,” which Brubeck, himself, did not write.  His partner, Paul Desmond, wrote it for the Quartet, and it’s long since become a classic.

In addition to enjoying the sounds of Brubeck and his Quartet, I love his story–a quintessentially American one. Born to a cattle rancher, he became a musical prodigy despite poor eyesight and had such a great ear for music, he could fake his way, even though he could not read the notes on the sheet music. He was drafted during World War II but his musical performance for soldiers was such a hit, he was ordered to form a band, which performed for the U.S. Armed Forces.

The one thing I detest about this great musical talent–and it is a huge black mark–is Brubeck’s protest of the Vietnam War, having written compositions against it and in memory of Vietnam War protesters who were shot on college campuses. That especially bothers me, since Brubeck, himself, got out of truly serving during World War II by playing in his band. Despite his actions during Vietnam, I still love his music. I just wish the boys who served in Vietnam and World War II, while Dave Brubeck played and composed, all got to live as long as he has. As we know, many did not, while protecting his right to compose, play, and protest.  I wonder if my late father, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and rightly despised the Vietnam War protesters, was aware of this.  I wasn’t, but suspected it and looked it up because we know that most musicians tend to be lefties, especially during the ’60s.  It’s not like Brubeck did Jane Fonda-type stuff.  Not even close.  But still . . . .

What is your favorite Dave Brubeck piece and why? Does his Vietnam War protest music take away from his talent?

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17 Responses

“Blue Rondo a la Turk”: a smooth fusion of classical and jazz. It’s the first track from “Take Five”.

As disclosure, I learned to play “Take Five” at high school. It was good for a while. Now when I listen to it, it’s just plain boring – just like when someone plays “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Stairway to Heaven” so much that the magic would eventually get killed off.

As for his Vietnam Era transgressions, I don’t care that much. Now if he were KGB… Meh.

Happy 90th, Dave.

The Reverend Jacques on December 7, 2010 at 2:03 am

Actually, he was only involved with one of the Peanuts specials, “This Is America Charlie Brown” (1988), contributing this jazzy arrangement of “A Bicycle Built For Two”

All of those Charlie Brown specials up through the early 70s were scored by the late Vince Guaraldi, who was a friend of Brubeck’s.

Irving on December 7, 2010 at 2:06 am

Clint Eastwood has a documentary about Brubeck, airing on TCM. It’s pretty decent, if anyone’s interested.

Mark on December 7, 2010 at 2:26 am

It should be noted that the 45 version of “Take Five” (Columbia 4-41479, originally released 1959 but did not chart until 1961) was a different performance/take (ha, ha) from that on the LP. I’ve long preferred the 45 version, myself.

ConcernedPatriot on December 7, 2010 at 2:46 am

If you only listen to patriotic musicians, you’re not going to listen to much music.
My father, of blessed memory, loved jazz and Dave Brubeck. I don’t care for him, all that much. I LOVE Louis Armstrong, may he rest in peace.

Miranda Rose Smith on December 7, 2010 at 6:09 am

Speaking of patriotism, let’s take a moment to remember that it’s Pearl Harbor Day.

Miranda Rose Smith on December 7, 2010 at 6:10 am

Speaking of left wing musicians, I loved, and love Joan Baez’s music, though I totally disagree with her politics now and they kicked me off her fan website when I refused to put on sackcloth and ashes because Sarkozy was elected President of France.
I do think it was admirable of Joan Baez to speak out, in the ’70s, against the Hanoi regime and the genocide in Cambodia. In the knee-jerk anti-American circles she travels in, that took guts.

Miranda Rose Smith on December 7, 2010 at 7:44 am

“Take Five” is one of my jazz favs, right there with “the In
Crowd,” “the Girl from Ipanema,” and “Blues in the Night.”

Dave and many others were wrong about Vietnam, but let’s face
it, it was poorly run effort, run by politicos in the White
House, McNamara and the Whiz Kids. We haven’t let the military
really do what needs to be done since Truman fired MacArthur.

Daniel K on December 7, 2010 at 8:27 am

Daniel K–

Good analysis. Unfortunately, the real traitors on Vietnam were in Congress and the White House. “Poorly run” is extremely kind.

Truman firing MacArthur was the original Revenge of the Nerds–only it was not funny at all.

Red Ryder on December 7, 2010 at 10:24 am

I love “Take 5” — a favorite. Also loved “Les McCann and Eddie Harris, Recorded Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland” 1969…still have the LP.

J.S. on December 7, 2010 at 10:39 am

This vid is more recent, with some lineup changes to the original quartet. See if you can find the old black and white kinescope of “Take 5”, the original with the incredible Joe Morello on skins. The drum solo is one of the best in recorded history!

spiffo on December 7, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I’ve appreciated Brubeck but haven’t really put him as high as some here have. In the jazz world there are so, so many great ones that knock me out. George Benson, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Coltrane… I could go on and on….And yes Miranda: Louis is THE wellspring of most American music that came after.
As for the Vietnam era stuff, I was unaware. I’d like to know about his detailed feelings on the war: was he thinking that the loss of US life was not worth it, was he thinking that the US had no business interfering, or was he onside with the enemy?

Not Ovenready on December 7, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I bet that you dont even know that the US lost the vietnam war

Bob the non political on December 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm

MacArthur wanted to nuke the Korean peninsula, thus drawing China into a world war that would have killed a billion people, if not more, and would have utterly destroyed America. The fact is that MacArthur’s leadership skills never even came close to measuring up with his enormous, arrogant ego, and it would have been irresponsible (to say the least) NOT to fire him. He was a disaster, and he got a lot of our troops killed.

As for Vietnam, the problems consisted of the following:
1. Poor civilian leadership on the part of McNamara, Johnson, Nixon, and their staffs.
2. Poor military leadership in the form of selfish, bickering chiefs who wanted all the glory for themselves and refused to work cooperatively with the other branches.
3. Poor officer leadership skills, with many guys only in it for “ticket-punching” in order to advance their careers.
4. Failure to win the “hearts and minds” of the local populace.
5. Failure to declare war and fully mobilize in the form of calling up the National Guard, thereby failing to get the bulk of the American people behind the war effort.

I could go on, but that should be enough to silence the know-nothings for now. It is much easier to understand history if you actually learn about it first, instead of just impulsively injecting one’s misguided political bias. After Vietnam, it was the talented junior officers like Colin Powell (R) and Barry McCaffrey (D) who rose up through the ranks and worked to fix the many problems with our military.

As for Brubeck, the guy was awesome, and it is idiotic to suggest that it was somehow “un-American” for him to have been against the war in Vietnam. It is just as idiotic – if not even more so – to suggest that any American was “the enemy” just because he or she disagreed with our presence in Vietnam. Noting is more American than freedom of speech and dissent, and anyone who can’t handle that is simply clueless as to what our Constitution actually stands for.

Stephen on January 6, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    One can certainly disagree with our appearance in the Vietnam conflict and not be “un-American,” but then there’s Jane Fonda. She was a traitor, and should have been strung up.

    Occam's Tool on October 21, 2011 at 9:42 pm

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