“Time Out”@50: the Liberal-Conservative Legacy of Dave Brubeck


Dave Brubeck’s 1959 album Time Out is one of the landmark recordings in jazz history. For that reason alone, the 50th anniversary of its release merits celebration. But, on a larger scale, Time Out represents a major development within American culture, one that was crucial to inducing the seismic shifts to occur in our country during the tumultuous 1960s that followed. While it is likely that such shifts would have occurred anyway, with or without Brubeck’s contributions, a strong case can be made that his group, and its most important work, helped accelerate progress on several fronts, advancing the cause of racial harmony while opening the door for later musical innovations.

It is further worth noting that Brubeck’s achievements represent, to a surprising degree, a triumph of conservative values: faith, family, hard work and self-reliance. His ideological compass has always remained pointed toward the California ranchlands of his youth—the kind of environment that was later famously embraced by President Reagan, who fully understood the symbolic value of his years of public brush-clearing and horse-riding. Reagan’s retreats to the ranch implied a desire to escape the Beltway’s rarefied air and reorient himself to the pioneer spirit which drove America’s development in its first century of existence. The simple beauty of such areas communicates an austere dignity that would surely impart perspective on the serious issues all Presidents must grapple with, and so it is make perfect sense that men as different in personality as George W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt would embrace them.

For most of his early life—from childhood, through his years in the US Army and as a music student at Oberlin College—Brubeck existed firmly within the Tradition. Had he not caught the jazz bug early on, he might have ended up as a concert pianist working with symphony orchestras, or a composer of string quartets. He did eventually do a lot of work in these areas, but it was the worldwide acclaim earned as a jazzman that gave him the freedom to expand his musical horizons. Indeed, if his legacy could be summed up in one word, despite all his formalistic trappings, it would be “freedom”.

This legacy of freedom is being celebrated by Columbia Records, which recently reissued Time Out in a special three-disc package, on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the album’s original release. Suffice to say that, if you have never heard this music, then you owe yourself the pleasure of doing so; likewise, people for whom this music is old hat will still find value in its enhanced sound quality and the wealth of bonus material, including photos, performance footage and eight songs recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival between 1961-64. The highlight is an interactive tutorial in which Brubeck, now 89 years old, talks viewers through the melodies as he plays them.

The point of Time Out was to break out of the creative restrictions imposed on the jazz musician by strict adherence to the steady 4/4 beat that had characterized jazz since it first emerged from turn-of-century New Orleans. For the first 30 years of recorded jazz, that beat was maintained by the bass drum, replicating its role in the standard marching band, whose cadences and instrumentation were the basis of jazz early bands. Drummers of the 1940s New York scene, led by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, shifted the burden of time-keeping from bass drum to the ride cymbal, which opened up the sound and set the standard for what modern jazz would sound like. (The upright bass, adapted from symphonic orchestras, evolved to replace the tuba as a rhythm instrument early on, and typically reinforced the 4/4 beat; its time-keeping role expanded in modern jazz, as the drummers went further beyond the beat, leaving its reiteration to the bassist.) By the early 1950s, all instrumentalists had unprecedented creative freedom in jazz, and the race to find the next great innovation was as competitive as the Space Race.

The introduction of long-playing (LP) records in 1948 quadrupled the amount of time available on an individual record, opened up song structures and brought a vaster range of material to the marketplace. Traditional American musical forms—jazz, blues, gospel, folk—predominated; rock was growing commercially, but did not become a creative force to rival the others until 1964.

The singer Ian Svenonius noted years back that the largest jazz groups are only a quarter the size of symphony orchestras, which are roughly 100 people; Swing Era bands could be half that size, while modern jazz groups of the ‘40s and beyond are usually between three and six people. Today, many artists do huge business as solo acts. Prince, for example, played all 27 instruments on his debut album and for years only used his bands for performances. Computers allow many pop singers and rappers to make albums without using any actual instruments at all.

Traditional European and early American music is labeled with the catch-all term of “classical” largely because of our nation’s record stores. It doesn’t seem to rankle so badly as certain artists who reject the idea of “jazz” as an organizational concept, maybe because the LP ensured that such music would remain in circulation as the country went more toward smaller (and logistically cheaper) groups. Most Americans today would know nothing of classical music if not for LPs and their CD reissues, particularly of the versions recorded in the 1950s and ‘60s. Likewise, although one can see top-notch jazz music anywhere in the world most nights, the closest that most jazz fans can usually get to experiencing serious big-band stuff is CD, or the occasional festival.

Brubeck, who studied with Darius Milhaud at Oberlin, did the industry a favor by wearing his classical affinities on his cuff-linked sleeve. His grounding in that tradition was the impetus to bust out of the 4/4. Max Roach had recorded an entire album, Jazz In ¾ Time, in 1957, and several songs on Time Out are rooted in ¾, as well as the standard 4/4. “Three to Get Ready” is in 3/4 and 4/4. “Kathy’s Waltz” starts in 4/4, then goes into 3/8, while “Blue Rondo ala Turk” starts in 9/8, with Desmond’s solo in 4/4.

Other tracks switch-up the rhythms more explicitly. “Everybody’s Jumpin’” and “Pick Up Sticks” are in 6/4. “Take Five” stays in 5/4 over its five-plus minutes, with Morello’s drum solo the definitive explication of that beat. “Strange Meadowlark” opens with a Brubeck solo running over two minutes with no set time whatsoever—a nod, perhaps, to the nascent free-jazz scene, or to Lennie Tristano, whose solo recordings “Spontaneous Combustion”, “Requiem” and “Turkish Mambo” anticipated much of this.

Take Five has no shortage of highlights, staring with “Take Five”, which is simply one of the greatest songs ever recorded. A masterpiece of dramatic tension, it was an instant classic when released as a single, becoming the first million-seller in jazz history; the album itself would soon follow. To this day, media references “Take Five” to invoke feelings of class and sophistication; it was famously used to launch Infiniti automobiles in America, with cool narration by British actor Jonathan Pryce.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet functioned as a unified whole, working together 16 years, yet each member has distinguished himself as a master of his own instrument. Bassist Eugene Wright is easily overlooked, as he played with little flash and almost no solos, but a close listen reveals how crucial his work was. He kept the group’s forward-reaching sound rooted in the fundamentals, which he learned from the best in hot spots like Kansas City and his native Chicago. Together, Wright and drummer Joe Morello comprised one of the all-time greatest rhythmic tandems, easily ranking up there with such towering twins as Walter Page and Jo Jones (Count Basie); Jimmy Blanton and Sonny Greer (Duke Ellington); Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones (Miles) Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones (Coltrane); Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins (Coleman); Mingus and Dannie Richmond; Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian (Bill Evans).

Naturally, a record built around rhythmic complexity puts special pressure on the drummer, and Morello attained legend status with his work on Time Out. His brush-work on “Everybody’s Jumpin’” anchors a brilliant piece that holds up just fine against its adjacents. “Take Five” is one of the rare examples of a major pop hit built around a drum solo; the other notable case would be “Sing Sing Sing”, an epochal Swing Era anthem by Benny Goodman (and a star-making vehicle for drummer Gene Krupa), recorded in 1937. Like Desmond’s earlier on the same track, musicians and students know their solos better than some know their best friends.

As for the leader himself, Brubeck’s playing is spare but efficient, each note pressed for maximum resonance. His solo on “Kathy’s Waltz” is strictly old-school, with hints of Ragtime, while those on “Three to Get Ready” and “Everybody’s Jumpin’” sound downright modernistic, with overt references to future label-mate Monk.

Ultimately, the real star of the album is alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (1924-1977), a fellow Californian whose musical partnership with Brubeck lasted over 30 years. His sound, which typically enters after a few bars’ introduction by Brubeck, dominates the quartet’s output. Desmond is often dismissed by purists for a coolness of tone that can sometimes border on the antiseptic, but the quiet intensity of his playing can be lost on ears trained to listen for strain, sweat and other signifiers of serious effect. If Desmond’s style sounds effortless, it is only because of rigorous practice. After his death, the author of “Take Five” left his split of royalties to the American Red Cross, which receives annual royalties in the low six figures.

1959 was a year of explosive growth in jazz, and Time Out was just one of at least three major events that year. Columbia also issued Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue, which marked the emergence of a new approach to harmony based on modal scales; this gave the soloist—Davis himself, most notably, as well as collaborator Bill Evans—access to unprecedented emotional range, a major factor in the current perception of jazz as a “romantic” music. Due to the constant reissues over the decades, the prevalence of bootlegging and the pervasiveness of digital downloading, it may be impossible to determine which of these is, in fact, the most successful jazz album of all time; yet both helped shift the business model firmly toward the LP, which had only been around for about a decade at that point.

John Coltrane, who spent five years in Davis’ group, played on Kind of Blue, but his sideman work was soon eclipsed by the Atlantic Records release Giant Steps. After years of rigorous experimentation, 1959 saw the emergence of Coltrane’s mature sound, and he would go on to be, arguably, the last true giant of jazz music, a figure whose very name still inspires devotion that borders on the religious, over 40 years after his death. On the surface, it would be impossible to find two more different men, in terms of tone, technique and temperament, than Coltrane and Paul Desmond—but at the intersection of their styles, as heard on these three albums, one hears the future.

1959 also included major works by Ornette Coleman, who along with Coltrane helped bring Free Jazz to fruition, and Charles Mingus, who recorded three brilliant albums for Atlantic that year. Max Roach had already been first to record pianoless groups, and among the first to openly lobby for civil rights through his music; and Thelonious Monk, whose rhythmic and harmonic innovations made him, in essence, the father of modern jazz. The fact that all these men, with volatile personalities and deep-set musical tastes, all gave respect to Brubeck speaks to his chops and credibility.

Brubeck is rightfully lionized by the left for his role in helping to shape a world defined by JFK’s “New Frontier” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. In generational terms, the Baby Boomers’ collective self-definition is rooted in the 1960s, for better and for worse, and jazz artists like Brubeck, Coltrane and Davis are thus regarded almost as highly as the rock bands that would ultimately dominate the American music scene.

 The primary beneficiary of the commercial growth of jazz music was the African-American community, which got its first taste of the free market and was soon able to alter the widespread perceptions of the white majority, and ultimately obliterate many vestiges of racial prejudice in this country. Jazz was the wedge that forced integration; as more and more of the top draws—Goodman, Krupa, Artie Shaw—integrated, and others insisted on playing for integrated audiences, bigotry took a backseat to box-office. By the time of Time Out, integrated bands weren’t exactly commonplace in the US, but they were hardly unusual. Norman Granz’ “Jazz At the Philharmonic”, for example, toured the country with all-stars of all races.

The other major beneficiary of jazz music’s global presence was the United States government, which quickly recognized the value of a uniquely American cultural export. Brubeck, who served briefly under Patton in the Army, would become a front-line soldier in a war of ideas, spreading his vision of musical and personal freedom around the world, often directly in collaboration with the State Department.

The arrival of Louis Armstrong in Europe in 1927 basically introduced jazz to the world; a handful of devoted critics and musicians had imported stacks of jazz records from New York for distribution in London and Paris. By the time Duke Ellington’s band made the same trip, in 1932, jazz had become its own cottage industry, with magazine and radio shows catering to the market, as well as the first generation of European jazz musicians. For the first time, America had a cultural product to compete with Europe, and in this realm we remained well ahead.

The assault on jazz by totalitarian regimes—first the Nazis, then the Soviet Union—only enhanced its appeal to youth across Europe, many of whom risked death to continue playing such music. By this point, the old world had produced its own masters like guitarist Django Reinhardt, while American musicians like Benny Carter and Sidney Bechet had emigrated (not unlike the Japanese who brought judo to the west). World War II brought hundreds of current and future jazzmen into Europe and Asia, either as combat troops or in some musical capacity. The music of the war years deserves its own category in the lineage, but by decade’s end American jazz had become the new music of choice not only throughout Europe, but also in Japan.

Like rock and rap, which came along later, jazz began as an indigenous form of expression within the minority community, then “crossed-over” to become the primary vehicle of white rebellion—a means of drawing cultural lines between generations. Jazz was viciously attacked by the mainstream in the 1920s and ‘30s; such criticisms read now as time-capsule pieces of hyperbolic calumny. By the 1950s, the US State Department saw fit to give jazz its ultimate stamp of legitimacy by backing some leading musicians on international tours conceived as propaganda for post-war America. It was a textbook example of how “soft power” worked in the nascent Cold War.

Penny Von Eschen’s excellent 2002 book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press) offers a definitive look at the program, organized in 1955 by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and US Rep Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), whose district encompassed the epicenter of modern jazz. Dizzy Gillespie’s second great big band took the first trip in March 1956, covering parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. According to the program’s website: “In 1956, 1960 and 1961, Louis Armstrong [toured] Ghana (then the British Gold Coast), Congo, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, and the United Arab Republic. In 1963, 1970 and 1972, Duke Ellington toured the Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, and Africa.”

These musicians and others—including Carter, Coleman, Davis, Goodman, Mingus, Charlie Byrd, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Quincy Jones, Roland Kirk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughn and Randy Weston—traveled to the far corners of the musical world before the program ended in 1978. Many such areas were suspicious of western interests, and sometimes openly hostile. George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz Festival, was enlisted for logistical support. Brubeck was, of course, a major attraction.

In 1958, his quartet toured Sweden, Turkey, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Brubeck’s gigs in Poland that year, repeated in 1970, are considered key moments in the spreading of jazz into the Soviet Bloc. Cadres devoted to “improvised music” began sprouting in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and Hungary soon after, while at least one major group (the Ganelin Trio) made great jazz in Russia itself. He and Armstrong later collaborated on The Real Ambassadors, a musical and recording based on their experiences, in 1961-62.

The musicians and artists in Eastern Europe (with support from sympathetic parties in the west) drove the engine of progress away from Communism and became totems in the way Charlie Parker was for the Beatniks, or Coltrane was for the Black Power movement. Their records were being smuggled into the West long before the Iron Curtain finally fell, at which point those scenes exploded into the creative powerhouses they are today. When Brubeck and other older jazzmen appear in Europe today, they are held to a similar status as their own native masters.

Japan got its introduction to jazz from occupying American soldiers, and has never lost its taste. As domestic sales of jazz records slumped hard in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Japanese (typically) provided a vital commercial lifeline, helping to keep it vital long enough for the resurgence driven by CD technology. CDs, of course, were invented by the Japanese, while companies like JVC, Polygram and especially Sony bought up all the major jazz catalogs (Verve, Mercury, Blue Note/Capitol, Columbia) to be reissued in their new format. Every American who values their native culture owes a debt of thanks to those Japanese who rescued all that music from likely extinction.

Leading the way among the reissues that began flooding the market, well past the point of cultural saturation, were Columbia’s valedictorians from the class on ’59, Kind of Blue and Time Out, each of which has been re-released in increasingly completist form at least a half-dozen times (including box sets), while their lead singles, “So What” and “Take Five” have become standards. Both retain almost all of its original freshness and potency, despite three generations of innovation that followed its release. In the case of Time Out, time itself has only burnished the luster of an album dismissed by many top critics upon its release; very few would bother to raise any objection now.


October 9, 2009


2 responses »

  1. Thorough chronicle. Thanks for sharing your observations. Gives me a new perspective on this forgotten favorite. I tend to take this album for granted because it was one of the few “authentic” jazz LPs in my mother’s collection. However, that underscores the historical broadening of the market by Brubeck.

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