A year ago today Dave Brubeck died. In reading about his life—his disabilities, setbacks, missteps—it became clear that all the events in his life led him to the creation of the jazz masterpieces, which flowed from his collaboration with like-minded musicians, and potentially changed the course of human history.
Here’s something you may not know about Brubeck: poor eyesight kept him from reading music, so he became skilled at improvising and playing by ear. Originally intending to become a veterinarian, he switched majors at the urging of a zoology professor, but even in the music department, he had problems due to his poor sightreading skills. A music professor had to plead with the dean of the school of music to allow him to continue, insisting that they had a potential genius on their hands.
He grew up on a huge California ranch, and said the complex rhythmic patterns of his compositions were inspired by the syncopated hoofbeats he listened to while riding his horse.
Here’s another cool fact: jazz probably saved his life. He was in the infantry during World War II, but an Army colonel whisked him out of his unit to start a jazz band to entertain the troops—forming possibly the only integrated military musical unit of WWII.
Once home, he injured himself in a surfing accident, causing lingering pain in his hands that lasted for years and led to him hiring Paul Desmond to help lead his jazz combo. Paul Desmond wrote the beyond-classic Take 5 but Brubeck had a heavy hand in arranging it. This song became an unlikely hit song, and helped elevate Brubeck to the level of status that might allow him to perform at state events, such as this one described by the Washington Post:
In 1988, Mr. Brubeck and his quartet performed at a gala dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow during a summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. During “Take Five,” observers noticed that Gorbachev was tapping his fingers along with the music. “I can’t understand Russian,” Mr. Brubeck said at the time, “but I can understand body language.”
A diplomatic stalemate soon dissolved, and the two leaders signed a historic treaty to dismantle nuclear weapons.
“The next day,” Gloyd recalled to The Post 20 years later, Secretary of State George P. Shultz “broke through the ranks, gave Dave a big hug and said, ‘Dave, you made the summit. No one was talking after three days. You made the breakthrough.’ ”