For a lot of people, jazz is just a stereotype -- a nebulous free-form art that comedians (or any of us, really) will parody without ever knowing what it's really about. Just hit some keys and scat a few syllables: jazz! And there are certainly performers who embrace the improvisational liberties offered by jazz so enthusiastically that they endanger their accessibility to mainstream audiences. However, Dave Brubeck was not only accessible but popular. His defining quartet, which toured and recorded together for 10 years (1958-1967), created the first million-selling jazz album, Time Out, in 1959 -- the same year that Miles Davis released Kind of Blue and Charles Mingus put out Mingus Ah Um (all on the same label, by the way).
Brubeck's accessibility was not the result of catering to the marketplace, but grew out of a confluence of public interest in "difficult" music and artists (Brubeck, Davis, and Mingus among them) who had been working in jazz for decades and had simultaneously matured as recording artists.
Brubeck was born in the East Bay town of Concord and grew up on his father's ranch in Ione, Calif. He began his musical training at the University of the Pacific; fought in World War II, during which time he formed one of the Army's first integrated bands; and continued his education at Mills College under Darius Milhaud. As a performer and recording artist, Brubeck's light touch, his use of complex time signatures, and the buttery alto sax of Paul Desmond all conspired toward his great success through the 1950s and 1960s.
As with most jazz musicians worthy of the genre, Brubeck was constantly experimenting. Concept albums, orchestral arrangements, flat-out symphonic compositions, Japanese and Mexican folk music, and show tunes all found a place in Brubeck's broad, colorful, always evolving conception of what jazz was and could be.
Brubeck's shorter, poppier compositions ("Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Koto Song") would remain his most-performed, but I prefer his longer, more ambitious works. "Blessed are the Poor" is an interpretation of -- what else? -- the Sermon on the Mount, tinged with Middle Eastern rhythms and percussion. "Elementals" is a 1963 16-minute piece for orchestra and quartet that seems to survey all of 20th Century "art music" up to that point. But my favorite Brubeck composition is "Brandenburg Gate," a lush orchestral piece that answers the question, "Can an orchestra swing?" with a very big "Yes."
No matter where you start in the gigantic Brubeck catalog of recorded music, you are opening a door into one of the most accomplished, wide-ranging, and universally adored musical figures of the 20th century. With Brubeck, you can never mistake accessibility for simplicity, nor popularity for mediocrity. He was a composer who traveled the world for most of his life, and whose insatiable curiosity -- musical and otherwise -- is evident in the broad range of his work, his searching nature as an artist, and the lifelong effort he made to reach and connect with audiences. To apply the label "genius" (which we now too-readily award to Realtors and TV journalists) is simply not sufficient.