2. Jazz Goes to College

Brubeck1Record: Jazz Goes to College
Artist: The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Released: Columbia Records, 1954

The Dave Brubeck Quartet doesn't have the broader name recognition of Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but in his day, Brubeck was was seen as one of the most influential jazz musicians of his era. This particular album features tracks recorded live at three different colleges in the Midwest -- the University of Michigan, the University of Cincinnati, and Oberlin College. Even today jazz is often referred to as the first true American art form, and while the genre was largely driven by Black Americans, this is an example of white musicians making their mark and, as suggested by the locations of these performances, bringing jazz to a white audience.

There's no doubt that this was one of my father's favorite records. The jacket is worn from handling, with tape on three sides to keep it together, but there's something special on the back. Somehow jazz has developed an aura of academic sophistication that can feel almost exclusionary at times. You don't have to study rock and roll, you just feel it. No one ever says, "I don't get pop music." But no genre of music invites investigation like jazz. 

I noticed this when I was younger and started buying jazz CDs, mostly repackaged titles that my father had owned on vinyl. In addition to the remastered music, these CDs always came along with exhaustive liner notes with recording history and artist biographies. I devoured them. But it turns out this is an old practice. On the back of this album jacket is a 2,000-word essay by producer George Avakian. This isn't something written from an historical perspective, but a contemporary review explaining the strengths of the musicians on the record and giving in-depth analysis of each song. "These recordings bubble with exuberance," he writes; "they swing like mad, they are packed with fantastic ideas, they exhibit an incredible cohesion among four sympathetic musicians of consummate skill." Later he explains the importance of improvisation, not just in general but specifically on this record. "The improvisation on harmony and rhythm, as well as melody, goes well beyond what jazz musicians usually have done." It's a master class.

Again, it isn't hard to imagine my father lounging on a Sunday afternoon, reading and re-reading Avakian's essay with Brubeck's cool jazz playing in the background. Saxophonist Paul Desmond carries the melody, drummer Joe Dodge and bassist Bob Bates keep the rhythm, Brubeck himself jumps back and forth on piano, and my father's toe taps along. It isn't hard to imagine at all. 


Side 1
Balcony Rock
Out of Nowhere
Le Souk

Side 2
Take the "A" Train
The Song Is You
Don't Worry 'Bout Me
I Want to Be Happy