“Autumn in Washington Square” (1964) The Dave Brubeck Quartet

“Autumn in Washington Square”

Composed by Dave Brubeck.

Recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet for Columbia on July 15, 1964 in New York.

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

NOTE: with this post, we inaugurate a new category at swingandbeyond.com, Well-Chosen Waltzes. Although waltzes, that is music written in 3/4 meter, have always existed around the edges of the world of swing and jazz, it seems that dance band musicians, who were often required to play unswinging, old-fashioned waltzes for dance audiences in the 1920s and 1930s, developed a curiously strong aversion to them during the swing era. That is unfortunate, because many surpassingly beautiful melodies were composed as waltzes. Since we celebrate beautiful melodies here at swingandbeyond.com, I will be in charge of doing the choosing among them for future posts. I hope that you will agree that the ones I choose are indeed well-chosen.

The story: Dave Brubeck is not thought of as a composer of music for television. However, he did dip his toe into that musical pool on at least one occasion, and the results are music that is both memorable and lovely. In 1964, Brubeck was approached by the producers of an in-development TV drama to be called Mr. Broadway. The show would star Craig Stevens as a Manhattan public relations specialist named Mike Bell. The supporting cast included Lani Miyazaki, who portrayed Bell’s assistant, Toki, and veteran character actor Horace McMahon as Bell’s police contact, Hank McClure. The series also employed many high-profile actors in specific shows, including Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards, Tuesday Weld, Jill St. John, Liza Minelli, Martin Balsam, Nina Foch and David Wayne. This was a top-grade production that employed first-rate talent.

Mr. Broadway, was created by writer/director Garson Kanin, and produced by David Susskind and Daniel Melnick. It was shot on location in New York City. It appears to me that the producers attempted to replicate what had been the earlier CBS television series Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, except that the locale for this drama would be Manhattan, instead of Los Angeles, and the main character would have a different vocation that led him to interesting people. Both of those earlier TV dramas had a decidedly mid-century modern American elegance and hipness to them, especially in the music created for them by Henry Mancini. The Mr. Broadway series debuted at 9 p.m. eastern time Saturdays from September 26 to December 26, 1964. There were thirteen episodes. After the last of them, unfortunately, the show was cancelled. (1) But Brubeck’s music remains, at least in part.

When Dave Brubeck was first approached to write the music for this television series, he later recalled: “…I was reluctant to become involved in a medium unfamiliar to me. (Also), I did not want to write fragmented themes and hours of cues which did not develop into tunes. (The musical producer for the series), Robert Israel assured me that I …should feel free to write full-length tunes from which cues and other background material could be developed. Once involved, I got carried away with the project and wrote enough material for several record albums. For (the Columbia LP entitled) Jazz Impressions of New York, we have selected those themes which we consider best suited for development by the Quartet.” (2) 

The music: The term “program music,” is defined as: “instrumental music that carries some extramusical meaning, a ‘program’ suggesting a literary idea, legend, scenic description, or personal drama. It is contrasted with so-called ‘absolute, or abstract, music,’ in which artistic interest is supposedly confined to abstract constructions in sound.” Or: “program music is a type of instrumental art music that attempts to render an extra-musical narrative musically. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience through the piece’s title, or in the form of program notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music.” (3) I have always been skeptical of the term “program music,” for the simple reason that one person’s “description” of certain music, or “imaginative correlation with the music,” may be totally meaningless to another person. Consequently, I have come to accept the term “program music” to mean that the title or other description of the music is actually the composer’s inspiration for the music he/she wrote. If the listener “buys into” the composer’s program, then perhaps the title or description of the music will successfully evoke in the listener what the composer used as inspiration.

Where music is concerned, I am easily led, so I am completely in-tune with Dave Brubeck’s evocation of “Autumn in Washington Square.”  This Brubeck melody, which is languid and beautiful (and in the key of F-minor), like so many autumnal days in Manhattan’s Washington Square, creates in me the mood of summer gone, the gradual turning of colors and dropping of leaves, and of cooler temperatures. In a metaphorical sense, autumn reminds me of the inexorable passing of time, and of the inescapable fact that all living things have a finite life-span. The flip-side of that is that we are very lucky to live in the time and place we do, with so much incredible music available to us.

This tune is one of many that indicates that Dave Brubeck had the gift of melody. It also indicates that he was a pianist who knew how to play a beautiful melody effectively. In the piano solo with which he begins this performance and introduces the melody, notice his use of rubato or tempo rubato, a musical term that comes from the Italian verb rubare, meaning to rob or steal. In musical performance, rubato means the intermittent deviation from strict time, when what is “robbed” from some note or notes is “paid back” later. Well-done rubato imparts a floating character to the music. Brubeck also varies the dynamics of his playing, emphasizing certain phrases with a bit more loudness.

Brubeck is followed by Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. Desmond was also a masterful player of ballads, and here he gently and beguilingly unspools one of his most poetic and creative improvised solos. The support he gets from Brubeck, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello, is perfection.

After Desmond completes his solo with hushed tones, Brubeck returns, now improvising with inspiration. He builds intensity in his solo to a climax, then releases the dramatic tension, and finishes with simplicity. Joe Morello’s swish across his ride cymbal with the metal loop at the base of one of his brushes suggests that the reverie created has disappeared suddenly, as if by magic.

“Autumn in Washington Square” is one of four waltzes Brubeck wrote for Mr. Broadway. The other three are: “Winter Ballad,” “Spring in Central Park,” and “Summer on the Sound.” Taken together, they comprise a four seasons jazz suite that is highly rewarding music.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) The basic information on the TV series Mr. Broadway comes from the Wikipedia post for it.

(3) Liner notes for the Columbia LP entitled: The Dave Brubeck Quartet …Jazz Impressions of New York, CS-9075.

(3) These definitions come from Google and Wikipedia.

Here are some other musical evocations of autumn that you will enjoy:




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