The Excellent Paradox of Dave Brubeck

He reinvented jazz rhythms while also remaining true to tradition.

Dave Brubeck plays at the 1981 Newport Jazz Festival. (Paul Mello/Associated Press)

Many remembrances of Dave Brubeck, who died on Wednesday one day short of his 92nd birthday, will be dominated by his passion for unusual rhythms. Brubeck's 1959 classic "Take Five" is deservedly one of the best-known and best-loved jazz recordings of all time. At a time when almost every jazz and rhythm and blues recording used standard 4/4 time, and the waltz (which he also mastered) constituted an exotic beat, Brubeck opened the record with a syncopated, almost ominous piano riff with five beats to a bar. A bit later, Paul Desmond floated in on top with a mysterious saxophone line, and then the whole quartet launched into a joyous, corkscrewing second theme.

It's infectious, it's toe-tapping in spite of its odd time signature, and it pushed the musical envelope—everything one could want from a jazz recording. Deeper in the record, Brubeck delivered the even stranger "Blue Rondo a la Turk," (9/8 and 4/4 time). Those odd time signatures opened the door to more aggressive rhythms in jazz and beyond. When prog rockers proclaimed the influence of jazz, they weren't cribbing gutbucket bop from Art Blakey—they were thinking Brubeck time. And "Take Five," with its unprecedented million copies sold, reached much farther than bebop did.

But the focus on Brubeck's compositional creativity, expansive if occasionally cloyingly overclever, runs the risk of minimizing his true greatness. In some ways, in fact, he was a traditionalist par excellence—in all the best senses of the word. He was no moldy fig, to borrow the pejorative term beboppers used for adherents of trad-jazz. Rather, Brubeck had a deep connection with and understanding of the best of jazz history and the standards. Throughout his life, he paid tribute to Duke Ellington, who was a forerunner in the school of courtly pianists and also had a talent for quietly shaking compositional predecent.

Brubeck was a major exponent of West Coast or "cool" jazz, a style that was (and is) often accused of being a whitewashed version of jazz, played by and for white guys, a lite-swing alternative to the knottier and greasier styles being practiced by hard-bop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, and Miles Davis on the East Coast. Brubeck didn't fit the mold, musically or socially. Extremely conscious of color, he refused to tour apartheid South Africa and collaborated with Louis Armstrong on a musical about race relations and jazz. And while he could do "pretty," he could also attack the piano aggressively.

This all meant he was taken seriously by black musicians, too—especially the famously uncompromising Miles Davis. Take, for example, Davis's rendition of a Brubeck composition from his Cookin' (released in 1959, recorded three years earlier). Not an oddly timed novelty, "In Your Own Sweet Way" is a tautly written mid-tempo number, the kind of song that has formed the backbone of the genre since the 1940s.

There's much else to praise about the late pianist. For example, his practice of touring college campuses helped to introduce jazz to a generation increasingly devoted to guitar-driven rock and roll. With record sales shriveled to practically nothing and few jazz clubs surviving, the campus circuit he pioneered also remains an essential lifeline for America's classical music today.

But Brubeck, like all musicians, should ultimately be judged on his music. In particular, and as a counter to the time-signature-focused praise, I want to close with his top-notch ballad playing. Sadly, I only saw Brubeck once, in Edinburgh in 2003. Even then, at 82, he looked frail and wan; his walk to the piano bench seemed to take forever. As soon as he sat down and started playing, however, the decades fell off. (Brubeck continued to tour extensively almost to the end of his life).

One of the songs he performed that night was one that he brought into the jazz repertoire in 1957. As Ben Schwartz wrote in the November issue of The Atlantic, the repertoire was built on taking Tin-Pan Alley songs and repurposing them. Brubeck, recognizing the need to continue adding songs from unusual sources, plucked the saccharine "Someday My Prince Will Come" from the soundtrack to Disney's Snow White, rescuing its lilting waltz and unusual intervals.* His reinvention has made the song a standard. Miles Davis (again!) even used the song as the title track of a record four years later, proving himself one of Brubeck's most important disciples.

It's a tour de force. First, there's a consciously pretty piano cadenza, an almost classical sound with a generous salting of stride piano. Then, Desmond's dry martini alto sax hits the melody. And then, from the leader, Brubeck plays a knotty, challenging, wonderful piano solo. There's no easy listening here, just insistently swinging and understated jazz. Fifty-five years later, it still sounds fresh—a rich inheritance from the departed master.

*This post originally said that "Someday My Prince Will Come" was from the soundtrack of a film by that name. We regret the error.