While serving in General George Patton’s Third Army he volunteered to play piano at a Red Cross show…and missed the Battle of the Bulge as a result. The show was such a hit that he was ordered to form a band. And so, in 1944 he created The Wolfpack, one of the U.S. Armed Forces’ first racially integrated musical groups.
Born in Concord, California in 1920, David Warren Brubeck has long been seen as an icon of the “West Coast/Cool Jazz” style (ranging from “refined to bombastic”) reflecting his incredible improvisational skills, as well as his musician mother’s brave attempts to provide him with classical training as a boy…only years later did he admit that he could not read sheet music.
In 1951, having landed a gig in Honolulu, Brubeck brought his young family to Hawaii and nearly lost his life. “I was swimming with my kids on Waikiki Beach and my last famous words were, ‘watch daddy,'” he later said. “And I dove into a wave and there was a sandbar right in front of me. And rather than hit it with my face, I turned my head and it almost broke my neck, and I thought I was gonna’ be paralyzed. I had to go to the Army hospital and stayed there for twenty-one days in traction and they were able to pull my neck back.”
Having lost the gig Brubeck was in a financial bind and reached out to some old friends (including saxophonist Paul Desmond who was a member of The Wolfpack) and formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet. After becoming regulars at the Black Hawk nightclub in San Francisco and joining the college campus performance circuit the quartet began to record a series of popular albums.
By 1954 Dave Brubeck was on the cover of Time Magazine, after Louis Armstrong only the second jazz musician to receive such an honor, although he found it embarrassing as he thought that Duke Ellington was more deserving and suspected that race was a factor in selection. As with The Wolfpack, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was racially integrated and right into the ‘60s Brubeck regularly battled with club owners and concert promoters who opposed the idea, and canceled a number of appearances as a result.
By then the quartet was releasing up to four albums a year, many of them notable for the use of contemporary paintings as cover art and more significantly for their contrasting meters and rhythms. In 1959 came “Time Out”, an album with original compositions that contained truly unusual time signatures (eg. 5/4, 3/4, 9/8, etc.). With such tracks as “Take Five”, “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Pick Up Sticks” the album went platinum.
A number of other albums soon followed that also explored uncommon time signatures, including “Time Further Out” in 1961, which contains today’s selection, a hit single that reached Number 74 (not bad for a Jazz number) on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Written and recorded during a single day trip to the recording studio, according to Brubeck’s liner notes, “Unsquare Dance”, in 7/4 time, is a challenge to the foot-tappers, finger-snappers and hand-clappers. Deceitfully simple, it refuses to be squared. And the laugh you hear at the end is Joe Morello’s guffaw of surprise and relief that we had managed to get through the difficult last chorus”.
As you can see here, Carlu Carter and her husband Bill McGrath, a couple of Canadians who had danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet prior to migrating to Australia, actually tried to perform a version of the “Unsquare Dance”. The YouTube footage comes from “Review 61” an Australian television show hosted by Digby Wolfe.