If one believes in fate, it's easy to conclude, in retrospect, that Dave Brubeck was destined to become a jazz musician.
"I can't remember when I didn't want to be a piano player and composer," says Brubeck from his home in Wilton, Conn. "It started that young. When things start when you're young, I think you have an advantage in seeing it through. Maybe. I'm still trying."
Indeed. Brubeck, 81, who performs Saturday at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, is a seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of musical ideas and inspiration. He's recorded more than 130 albums, worked with many of the greatest artists in jazz and won almost every award imaginable. And, at an age when many performers are content to rest on past laurels, Brubeck tours constantly, both domestically and in Europe. He continues to create original material for his quartet -- as evidenced by his compelling 2001 CD, The Crossing -- and for symphonies and choral groups. One may wonder: What does he have left to prove? Why not relax a little?
"I've got a great group," Brubeck says of his current quartet, which includes alto saxophonist/flutist Bobby Militello, drummer Randy Jones and bassist Michael Moore. "It's a lot of fun and very satisfying and creative. What else is there in life?"
Brubeck recently appeared at Carnegie Hall, performing both jazz and sacred material. Later this month, he'll record with the London Symphony Orchestra. In July, he'll cut a new quartet CD. In September, he'll play with his sons at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he'll also recreate a portion of his theatrical production, The Real Ambassadors, first performed at Monterey with Louis Armstrong in 1962.
Brubeck was (and remains) an innovator who redefined the boundaries of rhythm and harmony in American music. His landmark work, Time Out, recorded in 1959, was an experimental collection of songs set in unconventional time signatures. Prior to Time Out, most popular music, including jazz, was written and performed in 4/4 time, or perhaps 3/4 time. Time Out featured such tunes as the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond's "Take Five" (in 5/4) and Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (9/8) and "Pick Up Sticks" (6/4).
Today, such diverse time signatures are ubiquitous in jazz. High school marching bands play "Take Five." Brubeck notes with pleasure that crowds in Vienna, Austria, clap effortlessly with the 7/4 rhythm of his "Unsquare Dance," the theme song of a television program there. TV viewers in Paris hear "Blue Rondo" during the nightly weather report, while French vocalist Claude Nougaro registered hits with vocal versions of "Blue Rondo" and Brubeck's "Three to Get Ready."
Time Out was a milestone in Brubeck's quest to infuse jazz with daring tonal and rhythmic devices, an objective he outlined in an early '50s Downbeat article. "It's time that the jazz musicians take up their original role of leading the public into more adventurous rhythms," Brubeck reiterated, in a 1961 appearance on Ralph Gleason's television program "Jazz Casual."
Brubeck's innate rhythmic sense was nurtured on a 45,000-acre cattle ranch in California, where he was raised. While riding on horseback, young Brubeck would invent polyrhythms (two or more simultaneous, distinct rhythms) to complement his horse's hoof beats. His father, Pete, was a champion roper in the rodeo ("roe-day-oh," as Brubeck pronounces it). Brubeck's mother, Bessie, was a classical pianist and music teacher who wanted her children to be musicians.
His parents' differing perspectives might have been difficult for young Brubeck to reconcile but for the fact that Pete Brubeck loved to hear his wife play piano. Also, he whistled during the day, Brubeck says, and unknowingly "would whistle a lot of Chopin and Beethoven. I think if somebody told him what he was doing, he would have been disgusted, but he was always going around whistling pieces that my mother played."
After a stint as a pre-med veterinary student, with plans of joining his father on the ranch, Brubeck switched over to the music conservatory at College (now University) of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. While there, Brubeck met his future wife, Iola. They married after their 1942 graduation, while Brubeck was on leave from the Army. Both explicitly understood his commitment to music.
"I made one promise to her before we got married that she'd never be bored. She hasn't had time," he says. Iola Brubeck has collaborated with her husband as lyricist on many of his compositions. Together they've raised six children, four of whom are musicians.
After getting out of the Army in 1946, Brubeck studied with classical composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, fine-tuning his approach to polytonality, in which a musician or musicians play in more than one key simultaneously, and polyrhythms. However, attempts to commercialize his progressive ideas, via his Dave Brubeck Octet, failed. Times were lean: At one point the Brubecks lived in a corrugated tin shack. By 1950, however, Brubeck, leading a trio, found an audience. In 1951, he and Desmond formed a quartet.