December 6, 2012, would have marked the ninety-second birthday of pianist Dave Brubeck. The nonagenarian was looking forward to performing at the Palace Theater near his home in Waterbury, Connecticut. Sadly, Brubeck died of heart failure just one day shy of the celebratory concert. The concert went on as scheduled, but it was a memorial rather than a birthday party. It is what Brubeck would have wanted. Brubeck was one of the originators of a jazz style that became known as "cool jazz." He was a brilliant pianist who loved to experiment with rhythms and instrumentation in ensemble work. Brubeck never stopped innovating over his long career during which he composed symphonies, classical and religious music, ballets and film scores He valued musical integrity over commercial reward. "You never know what's going to work," he said. "You just go with what you believe in, whether it's a success or not" (Jones 2012).
Jazz emerged as a uniquely American music form. Jazz has been defined as music "rooted in improvisation and characterized by syncopated rhythm" (Kamien 407). Fats Waller supposedly said of jazz, "If you have to ask [what it is] you'll never know" (Schoeberg 1). It may be hard to define but it is instantly recognizable as a musical form. The jazz we know today -- particularly the cool jazz exemplified by Dave Brubeck -- would not be possible without the musical ideas that flowed at the end of the nineteenth century. By the mid-1890s, three new kinds of music caught the public's attention -- ragtime, blues, and the sacred music of the black churches. Without these musical forms, there would have been no jazz. Ragtime was the formal outgrowth of an improvisational style enjoyed by African-American musicians. "Ragging" a tune meant syncopating it and rearranging it to create a livelier, more danceable version (Burns 11). No one knows exactly when or where "the blues" originated and, in the beginning, there was no strict musical form. Soon musicians from New Orleans began to play blues on their instruments and musicians from other parts of the country followed. Commercial possibilities soon became apparent. The blues had a great deal in common with the hymns black Baptists played in their churches. "The distinction would blur still further as the new Holiness churches that had begun to spring up in the black neighborhoods of big cities all over the country started employing tambourines, drums, pianos, corners, and even trombones in order to make their noise still more joyful unto the Lord" (Ward and Burns 16).
In the first decade of the twentieth century, pianist Jelly Roll Morton and cornetist King Oliver, among others, established themselves as key figures in the emerging world of jazz. During the teens, blues and ragtime continued to evolve, helped along, in large measure, by the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, an immensely likeable young man considered a genius even today, one who "sent off enough sparks through the '20s to energize an entire generation of musicians" (Schoenberg 11-12). Jazz spread from is birthplace in New Orleans to Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis. These cities, particularly New Orleans, are still famous today for their jazz clubs. New Orleans remains a popular tourist destination because of its rich musical history and the enduring popularity of jazz. Jazz was heard on the radio, in clubs and theaters, and on recordings. As legions of jazz fans grew, of the music gave rise to a great number of jazz bands.
"Jazz found its ultimate voice in the big bands" (Schoeberg 22) and their heyday lasted from the mid-1920s to the years just after the second world war. In the 20s, arranger Fletcher Henderson set the standard, with Louis Armstrong's innovations serving as a springboard for creativity of other band members, including tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. A Canadian band, the Casa Loma Band, copied Henderson's style but with their own high energy, imaginative arrangements that quickly made them a favorite with audiences and paved the way for swing bands, such as that led by Benny Goodman. The swing bands effectively brought black music to the white youth of America, a fact that was played down by the American media. Swing music became wildly popular and while Benny certainly made his own contributions, he was open in his praise of the black musicians, including Henderson, who did so much for the genre. Audiences could not get enough of swing in its heyday and there were even films in which music was the star, notably The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story, both of which took liberties with the facts but stayed true to the music audiences wanted to hear.
Towards the end of the long run in popularity of swing bands, a new generation of musicians sought to create a fresh sound. Although they were all "musical descendants of Armstrong" (Schoenberg 30), they sought to find their own voices. Saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie formed their own quintet and brought jazz to a new level with a form that became known as bebop, or bop. Providing a contrast to Parker's frenetic style was yet another generation of musician, the trumpeter Miles Davis, an incredibly imaginative musician who became known for his spare and thoughtful phrasing. Davis was part of the birth of cool jazz. Once again, the media tried to focus on white musicians. There was still prejudice against African-Americans among the general public, particularly in the south. In the jazz world, however, practitioners such as tenorman Stan Getz, bari sax player Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker played side by side with the likes of Davis, Gillespie, and saxophonist Lester Young. There were no lines of color among musicians. They learned from each other and continued to push musical boundaries.
"Cool" jazz is the antithesis of bop. Whereas bop is fast paced and high energy, cool jazz is more moderate in tempo and reflective in attitude. The musicians aim for subtlety and nuance; "the overt joy of a Louis Armstrong was considered quite gross by some musicians" (Hentoff 137. As opposed to the big "fat" sound of the large swing bands, practitioners of cool jazz used the least number of instruments necessary to get the tonal colors they wanted, usually trumpet, trombone, alto and baritone saxes, French horn, tuba, piano, bass and drums (Schoenberg 55). Instead of long solos by individual artists, there was an emphasis on ensemble playing, letting all instruments shine. This is not to say that stars did not emerge and that individual instruments and instrumentalists did not characterize certain groups and certain pieces by those groups.
There is perhaps no tune that exemplifies cool jazz more than the classic "Take Five," by Dave Brubeck's quartet. Ironically, it was not Brubeck himself who was the real star in this quintessentially cool number. That distinction goes to the enigmatic, brilliant, and impossibly cool-sounding alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond.
Paul Emil Breitenfeld, later known as Paul Desmond, was born November 25, 1924, in San Francisco. His father was a local working musician, arranging music and playing organ for the Golden Gate Theater. Young Breitenfeld played violin and clarinet when he was in high school, but switched to the alto saxophone in 1943, the same year he was drafted into the U.S. Army (National Public Radio). While playing in an Army band when he was stationed at San Francisco's Presidio, Breitenfeld -- now calling himself Desmond -- met pianist Dave Brubeck. Brubeck wanted very much to join the Army band, but was unsuccessful in his attempt to do so. Perhaps it was because of his ability to play, as Desmond later described it, "fifteen different keys on an out-of-tune piano" (NPR). Desmond was nonetheless impressed with Brubeck's playing and his distinctive sound would later make both men famous as jazz innovators.
A few years later, Desmond was a student at San Francisco State University and once more encountered his old acquaintance, Dave Brubeck, who was then a student at nearby Mills College in Oakland. World War II had ended and two formed an eight-piece band that "placed heavy emphasis on European classical elements in modern jazz (NPR). Their sound failed to generate a significant following and the group disbanded. Brubeck found work with a trio at San Francisco's Geary Center. He and Desmond connected once again as Demond regularly sat in with the band. The pair drew inspiration from one another and found that in the small ensemble there were very free to improvise. Brubeck insisted the two men had "some sort of ESP" (NPR), as they often created musical counterpoint spontaneously, using call and response to the delight of audiences.
Desmond was a ballad player and coaxed a dark sound out of his horn that he likened to a "dry martini" (NPR). Brubeck urged his colleague to explore uptempo tunes such as "Perdido" and "I've Got Rhythm," which Desmond made uniquely his own.