“Forty Days” (1965) Dave Brubeck Quartet

“Forty Days”

Composed by Dave Brubeck. Head arrangement by Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet for Columbia Records in New York between September 20 and October 13, 1965.

Dave Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, alto saxophone; Eugene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums.

November 8, 1954 cover of Time magazine

The story:

The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the most popular groups in jazz from the mid-1950s into the late 1960s. The two most prominently featured musicians in the quartet then were Brubeck on piano, and Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. Brubeck was a composer of great ability, and an excellent pianist. He was particularly talented in playing ballads, and providing fitting and inspiring accompaniment for Desmond, who was one of the greatest lyrical players in jazz history.

Both Brubeck and Desmond could also swing, though Dave often became so fervid in his playing that he tended to pound the piano keys with his fingers. (He was a big guy, standing about 6 feet 2, so he could generate a lot of force.) Brubeck was well aware that he was criticized for this, and always defended himself in a most charming, non-defensive way. His position on this was that yes, he could have heavy hands at times at the keyboard, but when he had them, they were called for. That of course was open to debate.

Nevertheless, his forceful playing could be most appropriate, indeed thrilling. I saw him perform a number of times (never, alas, with Desmond), but one performance is indelibly etched in my memory. That was during the time when after Desmond left, Gerry Mulligan was working with the quartet. Mulligan’s baritone saxophone gave the quartet’s music a very different sound than had Desmond’s chrystalline alto sax, even though I always thought Mulligan had a light sound. On this occasion, they were performing at the lovely outdoor summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, Blossom Music Center. Tuxedo-clad, they occupied the center of a spacious stage, with Brubeck playing a large Steinway concert grand piano. Mulligan played from a seated position, with his bulky baritone resting on a small four-legged stool.Their concert was very well-done, with a wide variety of music being played. Jack Six was playing bass, and Alan Dawson drums. Everything was done beautifully. There was almost a drawing-room feeling to the concert. But for whatever reason, the music had not caught fire at any point during the evening.

As the quartet finished the final number, there was applause from the audience, and bows from the musicians. For a reason I am not sure I can explain, I then shouted out from my fifth row seat, “why don’t you play a blues”? Brubeck clearly heard me, because he looked at me and smiled. He then resumed his seat on the piano bench, and started playing very quietly. The other three musicians were not playing, only looking at him as he played. Mulligan was seated. Brubeck’s playing was barely audible, but he was getting into a churchy out-of-tempo blues. This went on for a minute or so, and when Brubeck was certain that he had everybody’s attention, he shifted to a gently swaying boogie woogie. The bass and drums fell in behind him, getting that good-time boogie feeling going. He then played maybe five 12-bar choruses, increasing the volume with each new chorus. By the time he was at the fifth chorus, he was standing, and pounding on the piano keys. Mulligan then, for the first time all evening, stood, lifted his baritone saxophone off its stool, and played a half-dozen of the most smoking blues choruses I have ever heard. By this time, the audience was not only on its feet, but people had left their seats and were now standing around the rim of the stage, which is about four feet higher than the floor where the seats are. Some were pounding on the stage in time with the rhythm of the music, and shouting with joy.

When the music was finished, the members of the quartet, now sweat-soaked and beaming, bowed to the screaming audience, Brubeck closed the cover over the piano keys, and they left the stage.

Iola and Dave Brubeck – their partnership was complete.

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) was a wonderful human being, a genuinely nice guy. He was married to one woman (the equally wonderful Iola Whitlock), for seventy years. They had six children, and a great relationship. Paul Desmond (1924-1977) was in many ways the opposite of Brubeck. Although he was briefly married once, he preferred having relationships with a succession of beautiful women (including Gloria Steinem). He teased Brubeck about how devoted he was to Iola. (Desmond and Iola nevertheless had a very friendly relationship which started in the 1940s and lasted until Desmond’s death. He was a frequent visitor to the Brubeck home, and was “Uncle Paul” to the Brubeck kids, despite the fact that Desmond on more than one occasion brought grief to Dave Brubeck.)

Paul Desmond – mid-1950s

Dave Brubeck was born in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Concord, California, and grew up in a nearby town located in the Mother Lode called Ione. His father, Peter Howard “Pete” Brubeck, was a cattle rancher, and his mother, Elizabeth (née Ivey), who had studied piano in England under Myra Hess and intended to become a concert pianist, taught piano for extra money. Dave began playing piano at age four, cello at nine. He began playing piano with local bands at age 13. His two brothers, Howard and Henry, were music teachers. Dave initially intended to work with his father on their ranch, and he entered the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California (now the University of the Pacific), pursuing studies in veterinary science. He changed to music at the urging of the head of zoology, who told him: “Brubeck, your mind’s not here. It’s across the lawn in the conservatory. Please go there. Stop wasting my time and yours.”  He led a 12-piece swing band while in college in 1941 and 1942. Brubeck was nearly expelled when one of his professors discovered that he could not quickly read music at sight. But several of his professors came forward, arguing that his ability to write counterpoint and harmony more than compensated, and demonstrated his familiarity with music notation. They were afraid that it would cause a scandal, and agreed to let Brubeck graduate only after he had promised never to teach piano.

Brubeck with his Army band, “the Wolfpack.”

After graduating in 1942, Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in Europe in the Third Army. He volunteered to play piano at a Red Cross show and was such a hit that he was spared from combat service and ordered to form a band. He created one of the U.S. armed forces’ first racially integrated bands, “The Wolfpack” in 1944. While serving in the military, Brubeck met Paul Desmond in early 1944.

He returned to college after serving nearly four years in the Army, this time attending Mills College in Oakland, California. He studied there under the distinguished composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged him to learn about fugue and orchestration, but not classical piano. Previously, he received two lessons from Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA in an attempt to gain an understanding of twelve-tone music. The lessons did not result in Brubeck embracing twelve-tone music. In fact, they left him feeling more strongly about tonality and the beauty of music shifting from one key to another.

Darius Milhaud.

I have always appreciated these changes of key, but for a long time did not really understand why they were so valuable a musical device. Then I stumbled upon this startlingly brilliant explanation given by Milhaud to Dave Brubeck while he was studying with Milhaud: “At my lessons with Milhaud, he would play through my compositions and make suggestions. One piece was a sonata. I thought the second theme was fine. But he said, ‘put a flat in front of every note in that theme.’ I did, and it was transformed, so that when the piece returned to the first theme there was a modulation. He always said that modulation was the greatest thing in music—that it could lift your spirit…or bring it down. Then he said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘The reason I don’t like twelve-tone music is that you’re never someplace. Therefore you can never go someplace. Beethoven loved modulation. So did Brahms. They’re always taking us to a new place.” [i]

From the time Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in late 1954, to the end of the 1950s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet worked steadily at ever higher-level engagements. In 1959, the Quartet recorded the album Time Out for Columbia Records. This album contained all original compositions, most of which were in time signatures unusual for jazz, some of which were inspired by the Eurasian folk music the Quartet members experienced during their 1958 Department of State sponsored tour. It featured the cover art of S. Neil Fujita. Surprisingly, the album quickly became a best-seller. Its most popular tune was “Take Five,” in 5/4 meter. Time Out was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. From that time on, the Dave Brubeck Quartet became a permanent part of the fabric of American music.

The music:

“Forty Days” was Initially recorded as an instrumental selection included in the Time In album in the autumn of 1965. It is a strong melody built on harmonies that are perfect for jazz improvisation, and it is in 5/4 time. The title is a reference to the season of Lent, and its scriptural and religious significance. This theme was later incorporated into Brubeck’s oratorio entitled: The Light in the Wilderness: An Oratorio for Today.

This performance demonstrates that Brubeck was a fine pianist, who like the best musicians in the jazz tradition, knew how to play a melody effectively, embellish it, and then depart from it to improvise new variations on it. The strong, rhythmic and harmonic base provided by bassist Eugene Wright allows drummer Joe Morello to add subtle coloration.

But as fine as the contributions of the other three members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet to “Forty Days” are, the highlight of this recording is the magnificent alto saxophone playing of Paul Desmond. His improvised solo here, which begins in a key different from that in which Brubeck ended his introductory solo, without any modulation, is one of his best. It is passionate, yet cool; intense, yet relaxed. His unique and memorable sound is on display here in all its glory. And he swings. Brubeck learned Milhaud’s lesson about modulation very well.This piece has a number of them, including a couple of dandies within Desmond’s solo.

Post script:

Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck – 1955.

In 1980, Dave Brubeck converted to Roman Catholicism. Prior to that, he was an unbaptized Presbyterian. “I never belonged to any church. I was never baptized (before becoming a Catholic). I was the only son in the family who wasn’t baptized a Presbyterian. It was an oversight.” [ii] Nevertheless, Brubeck grew up in a family where there was religious faith. His experiences in combat conditions in World War II affected him deeply. Later, when he toured the world as the celebrated leader of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, he saw conditions of poverty and human suffering that eventually led him to have strong religious convictions. These convictions also led him to compose and perform much religious music later in his career.

But the religious part of Brubeck’s persona rested on his basic attitudes of tolerance and kindness. Late in his life, a journalist who was interviewing him asked him who he wanted to see again if he went to heaven after he died. Brubeck paused, closed his eyes momentarily, …and said… Paul Desmond.

[i] Take Five—The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, by Doug Ramsey, Parkside Publications Inc. (2005), 89.

[ii] It’s About Time…The Dave Brubeck Story, by Fred Hall, University of Arkansas Press (1996), 126-127.

This post is based on information contained in the Wikipedia article on Dave Brubeck.

The recording posted here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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4 Comments

  1. As a Brubeck/Desmond fan from the Octet forward, I’ve always wondered at the (sometimes almost glaring) key changes within the solos. I had long ago almost expected to hear them. Nice to now know why. The Quartet is what got me into jazz, and I’ve broadened my reach considerably over the years no doubt because of what I heard listening to them.

    Thanks for the article..

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