Dave Brubeck was one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s, but it was his refusal to play in segregated venues that he should be remembered for.
When he was a child of around six or seven, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s father introduced him to an old African-American man who had, years earlier, been branded on the chest with a hot iron. The experience of seeing such barbarity perpetrated on another human being profoundly disturbed the boy and, for the rest of his life, Brubeck was fiercely opposed to racism and tried in his own way to fight it.
It’s well known that during World War II when he was serving in the U.S. Army under General Patton, he was asked to form a jazz band to entertain his fellow soldiers. The Wolf Pack was the first racially-integrated band in the U.S. armed services. This was at a time when much of the military was segregated, so it was a big deal. They weathered the hostility, Brubeck trusting that the music would help make people forget their differences.
After the war, Brubeck formed a few bands but it was his 1952 establishment of his now famous quartet that brought him fame. Brubeck went on to become one of the most popular jazz artists of the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond, even making the cover of Time magazine in 1954, one of only five American jazz musicians ever to receive this recognition. As a side bar, it should be noted that Brubeck was embarrassed that Duke Ellington—a musician Brubeck deeply admired and respected—had been overlooked in his favor, maintaining he received the accolade because he was caucasian. (Ellington finally made Time’s cover in August 1956.)
The quartet made a number of recordings in those early years, but it was Brubeck’s 1959 album Time Out with its exploration of unusual time signatures that became the most successful. One track, Take Five, written by saxophonist Paul Desmond, was later released as a single and became the biggest-selling jazz single in history and the tune most closely associated with the Dave Brubeck Quartet (Desmond, Joe Morello on drums, and Eugene Wright on bass). Brubeck’s success, however, didn’t mean an easy ride.
He wasn’t the first bandleader with a mixed-race band. During the 1930s, Benny Goodman hired pianist Teddy Wilson and vibes player Lionel Hampton to join his band. In the 1940s, the all-female jazz group the International Sweethearts of Rhythm was made up of white, black, Asian, and Latin musicians. In the late 1950s, Miles Davis asked white pianist Bill Evans to join his sextet. There are other examples of musicians hiring musicians based on their talents, not the color of their skin, but let’s look at what happened to Brubeck.
In 1958, Dave Brubeck had hired African-American bassist Eugene Wright to join his quartet to tour Europe and Asia as part of a goodwill tour organized by the State Department. The band was critically and popularly acclaimed wherever they performed. But that same year, he cancelled a lucrative trip to South Africa because he was told that Wright wouldn’t be allowed to perform on the same stage as whites. Standing up for his principles cost Brubeck quite a significant amount of income. In 1959, the band was booked on a 25-concert tour of the southern American states worth some $40,000, a substantial sum at the time, but Brubeck ended up cancelling 23 of those concerts because university officials told him that having a black musician on stage with whites was unacceptable. The band encountered a great deal of animosity from crowds, were turned away from hotels, and in some areas required a police escort to get them to and from their destinations. In one of the two concerts they did perform, again Brubeck was told Wright would not be permitted on stage, but as the students hollered and stamped their feet in annoyance at having to wait for the show, the college representative made what he thought was a suitable compromise: Wright could play but he had to stand right at the back of the stage where he wouldn’t be obvious. Brubeck agreed but as soon as they started playing, he invited Wright center stage to perform his solos. For the record, the crowd loved the concert.
Venue owners and managers weren’t at all happy about the idea of integrated bands performing at their establishments, telling Brubeck that concerts could go ahead as long as he had a white bass player. Brubeck always refused. Take my band as it is or I quit, he said. He also refused to play in venues where black audience members were expected to sit at the back of the balcony; he wanted them to be able to sit wherever they liked. He cancelled television appearances for the same reason. Brubeck further insisted that Wright share the same entrance and the same facilities as the other band members. He used to say, “Jazz stands for freedom,” a principle he lived by all his life.
At the front of Brubeck’s consciousness was the fact that he was a successful white musician in a genre dominated by black performers. The inequity appalled him and later he and his wife, lyricist Iola Brubeck, wrote The Real Ambassadors, which condemned racism as it celebrated jazz and the fact that artists like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington, who toured internationally, were essentially unofficial ambassadors for the United States, saying they should be lauded for the prestige they brought to their country.
Among Brubeck’s many jazz compositions are “In Your Own Sweet Way” (1955), now a standard and famously covered by such luminaries as Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and Robert Glasper; “Blue Rondo à la Turk” (1959) and “Unsquare Dance” (1961), pieces with unusual time signatures, but he also composed other more classically- and liturgically-based works including a mass (To Hope!), a string quartet, the beautiful “Voice of the Holy Spirit” (1985), oratorios, and a short opera, Cannery Row, based on John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel. He wrote music to champion civil rights and to promote racial harmony. His 1969 cantata The Gates of Justice is a kind of contemplation of the concept of biblical justice, incorporating the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who had recently been assassinated. Another orchestral work, The Light in the Wilderness (1968), is a plea for us to love our enemies.
Dave Brubeck didn’t fit the standard stereotype of a working jazz musician. He didn’t drink or smoke, was a pretty straight-ahead unassuming guy, a man in a happy marriage, a devoted father to a daughter and four musician sons. But one of the most significant things about him was his staunch refusal to succumb to racist pressures to change the makeup of his band. His philosophy was: if you accept the music, then you must, of necessity, accept the musicians. You can’t be clearer than that.
Dave Brubeck died in 2012, just one day before his 92nd birthday.