Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Brubeck at Oberlin [From the Archives]

 © -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

*****... This is incredible music, jazz or whatever, and you should buy it.
— Neil Tesser Down Beat

Jazz At Oberlin was an enormous success on its first release and is still durable nearly 50 years later, with some of Brubeck's and Desmond's finest interaction; one of the pianist's innovations was in getting two musicians to improvise at the same time, and there are good examples of that on the Oberlin College set. It's all standard material, and there are excellent performances of ‘Perdido', 'Stardust' and 'How High The Moon' which adumbrate Brubeck's later interest in unconventional time-signatures.”
- Richard Cook/Brian Morton - The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th ed.

“It took many years, but jazz has finally become a respected part of the musical landscape at Oberlin College.

For decades, most people believed there was no jazz at Oberlin College until 1953 when some students of the Oberlin Conservatory, world famous for its classical music, organized a jazz concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Finney Chapel.

A recording of that concert became one of the best-selling jazz records of the 1950s. But, years later, Brubeck remembered the classical music-oriented school had refused to let him play one of its better pianos. He recalled, “‘I was given a small, beat-up, barely playable old grand.’”
- Jazzed in Cleveland: a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook, Part 132 - Jazz at Oberlin, Story filed October 28, 2010

“Jazz at Oberlin was one of the early works in the cool jazz stream of jazz that indicated new directions for jazz that didn't slavishly mirror bebop, and even hinted at free-jazz piano techniques still years away from realisation"; he further observed that it "marked Brubeck's eager adoption by America's (predominantly white) youth - a welcome that soon extended around the world ... for a rhythmically intricate instrumental jazz".
- John Fordham, The Guardian

A question I frequently ask myself is where to go in terms of identifying the topic for my next blog feature.

The sources for this inspiration vary from “a bulb going on over my head” - literally, an “inspiration” -  to preparing a piece on a style of music or a musician I’ve had an interest in for some time, to a suggested topic that’s derived from an outside “person, place or thing.”

The latter is how this feature originated when a Facebook friend posted an album cover of the Dave Brubeck’s 1953 Jazz at Oberlin Fantasy LP which resonated in me to such an extent that I decided, after relistening to recording on CD, to go on a quest and gather as much information on the album as possible in order to gain some insights into how it came to be made, what people thought about the music on it, then and now, and what its overall significance is in the Brubeck Canon.

Extending from the opening italicized remarks, what follows in an unedited compilation of commentary including the albums original liner notes [presumably written by Dave in conjunction with the staff at Fantasy records], James Newman writing on behalf of Oberlin College about the album, Scott Yanow’s annotation in www.allmusic.com, excerpts from The Guardian 50 Great Moments in Jazz Series, the explanation of the album’s importance in Thomas Cunliffe’s “Jazz History Online,” the relevant excerpts from Doug Ramsey’s biography of Paul Desmond [Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, Parkside Publications, Seattle, 2005.] which also include the noted West Coast Jazz scholar Ted Gioia’s reflections on the album, the relevant excerpts from Dave and Iola Brubeck’s interview in the University of the Pacific’s “Brubeck Oral History Project,” and a closing link to James Harrod’s extensively researched piece on the subject.

College jazz concerts have long been a commonplace, but in 1953 they were a rarity. It was the Dave Brubeck Quartet that pioneered in the genre, and this was their first on record. Oberlin, with its famous conservatory, was an appropriate setting, and the foursome came up with a program of five great jazz standards in long and often surprisingly free performances that found Dave and Paul Desmond at the top of their game. Dave's intense solo on "These Foolish Things" is one of his most inspired early improvisations, and Paul shines on "The Way You Look Tonight." Throughout, the interplay between them is fresh and often astonishing. Caught at the brink of fame, the quartet shows why it got there.

“As essential in the Brubeck canon as The Duets is Brubeck's 1953, self-taped breakthrough album, Jazz at Oberlin. The roughness of his thunderous chords spilling over and building harmonically as Desmond picks up the melody of "These Foolish Things" is early evidence of how perfectly they complemented each other. Exuding high energy, their simultaneous improvising at breakneck pace completely detonates "Perdido." Brubeck's playing evolved into something more nuanced in later years, but here it's his raw energy that repeatedly evokes roars and applause throughout. (At the time it was another Brubeck innovation to bring live jazz to a college audience setting.) Desmond's riffing on "Stardust" is especially gorgeous as Brubeck simmers down, albeit while exploring odd time signatures. Those, such as five, seven or nine beats per bar, were to become an enduring musical signature. On "The Way You Look Tonight," Desmond's swinging inventiveness provides the launching pad from which Brubeck gets into myriad changes that may leave you breathless. Of this seminal album Brubeck simply said, "I like this recording and so did Paul." You will too.”
- Andrew Velez - allaboutjazz

Original Liner notes:

DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET — Dave Brubeck,  piano; Paul Desmond. alto sax; Lloyd Davis, drums; Ron Crotty, bass. Recorded in Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, March 2, 1953.

“Oberlin College in northern Ohio has always been the scene for a great deal of musical activity, mainly because of its highly regarded Conservatory of Music. Through the years the Conservatory has considered it its duty to maintain a policy of adhering rather closely to the mainstream of established classical literature in its instruction and its students' performances, never having seen fit to include jazz in its curriculum. Generally, jazz found little enthusiastic support on the Oberlin campus.

Toward the beginning of 1953 the few jazz enthusiasts at Oberlin, having grown extremely tired of the situation, decided to do something, to present, at Oberlin, jazz on an organized concert level. On March 2, 1953, in Oberlin's Finney Chapel they presented in concert the Dave Brubeck Quartet. In spite of early doubt, apprehension, and lack of encouragement, the concert was a huge success, the Quartet holding completely under its control for almost two hours a large and varied audience, many of which were Conservatory students almost entirely uneducated in jazz. When the group finally left the stage, the starving crowd, whose appetite had been only partially satisfied, were crying for more.

The success of the concert had an immediate effect. Students organized the Oberlin College Jazz Club, with plans for three concerts during the following year, including a return performance by the Quartet. Jazz had found itself firmly and comfortably at home in surroundings, where, in the past, it had been met only with apathy and misunderstanding.

These sides from the Oberlin concert represent the Quartet in their most free, uninhibited, yet relaxed manner. They swing constantly, but, as is innate in Brubeck's music, they never cease to emphasize structure — structure growing out of free improvisation.

STARDUST shows off Paul Desmond at his lyrical best, maintaining throughout a feeling of jazz time less ness. Dave constructs his solo on clear, classical lines — restrained, beautiful in their simplicity.
In PERDIDO the Quartet as a unit swings mightily, with Paul's and Dave's solos underlined firmly by ihe beat set by Ron Crotty and Lloyd Davis.
FOOLISH THINGS, probably the best on the program, again finds Paul at his high expressive peak, but on this side it is Dave who amazes. This is Brubeck at his best, constructing form chat builds from "old country" style blues through ihe more sophisticated Gershwin-type jazz, the rhythmic vitality meanwhile increasing to Bartokian proportions. It all resolves in a quiet, relaxed coda provided by Paul and Dave together. An ingratiating jazz experience — in Dave's words, "the best thing we've ever done."
WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT, the last number on the concert, finds more intense swinging by the group, superb solos by Dave and Paul, and some interesting contrapuntal inventions by the two. The very unique drum figurations in the background are provided by Lloyd Davis who had played the entire concert with the flu and a 103 degree temperature.”

The following is James Newman of Oberlin College addendum to the original insert notes.

“We sincerely feel that this record contains the best of that which happened in Finney Chapel that Monday evening and chat it fully captures the enthusiastic and entirely unanticipated response of the audience. The concert was the force which gave birth to jazz at Oberlin. We hope the record retains enough of that quality to do the same elsewhere.
[James Newman, OBERLIN COLLEGE]”

“Although a touch underrated, Jazz at Oberlin is one of the early Dave Brubeck classic recordings. The interplay between the pianist-leader and altoist Paul Desmond on "Perdido" borders on the miraculous, and their renditions of "The Way You Look Tonight," "How High the Moon" and "Stardust" are quite memorable. Brubeck's piano playing on "These Foolish Things" is so percussive and atonal in one spot as to sound like Cecil Taylor, who would not emerge for another two years. With bassist Ron Crotty and drummer Lloyd Davis giving the Quartet quiet and steady support, Brubeck and Desmond were free to play at their most adventurous. Highly recommended.”
- Scott Yanow all music

The Guardian 50 Great Moments in Jazz Series

“The pianist and composer Dave Brubeck had more than his share of Great Moments: he was the first to sell a million copies of a jazz instrumental; he was one of Time magazine's rare jazz cover subjects; he has played for presidents and popes; composed everything from classic jazz themes to symphonies; and the tune of his most famous hit, Take Five, is familiar to music lovers, from eight-year-olds to octogenarians.

Brubeck's first Great Jazz Moment is one that has been overlooked though – the making of his quartet's 1953 live album, Jazz at Oberlin. Not only did this dynamic gig reveal Brubeck's vivacious creative relationship with west coast alto saxophonist Paul Desmond to a new and youthful audience, confirming the then 29-year-old Desmond as a sensational sax improviser, it also indicated new directions for jazz that didn't slavishly mirror bebop, and even hinted at free-jazz piano techniques still years away from realisation.

The significance of Jazz at Oberlin didn't stop with the music either. The enthusiasm of the college audience, audible throughout the album, marked Brubeck's eager adoption by America's (predominantly white) youth – a welcome that soon extended around the world, and brought the pianist chart hits for a rhythmically intricate instrumental jazz in a period in which the newly emerged rock 'n roll was carrying all before it.

Growing up on a California ranch, Brubeck learned classical piano from his mother and switched from veterinarian studies to music after his first college year. A conscientious objector in the second world war, he was given an army band to run instead, studied with the classical composer Darius Milhaud and founded his first quartet with Paul Desmond in 1951.

What came to be known as Brubeck's "classic quartet" (comprising of Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and the astonishing polyrhythmic drummer Joe Morello) was still three years away when the Oberlin concert was recorded, though drummer Ron Crotty and bassist Lloyd Davis played the show with brisk empathy.

At the same time the repertoire – variations on standard songs or bop anthems – gave no hint as to Brubeck's subsequent fascination with adventurous but very catchy time-signatures like 5/4 and 9/8, not to mention his adaptations of classical forms like rondos and fugues. Oberlin did, however, open a window on the core creative relationship that would soon ignite all those elements (Take Five was a collaboration, developed by Brubeck from a Paul Desmond theme), and revealed a wealth of harmonic and rhythmic references in the leader's own playing that would change the language of jazz.

In the 1950s, some hardcore jazz fans disliked Brubeck's music, seeing it as Europeanised and overly formal, something that flattered middle-class audiences but sold out its more fundamental virtues of soul, swing and blues. But from the late 1960s on, as jazz opened up to influences from other genres and cultures, sectarianism receded, and Brubeck began to be credited as a visionary. He was seen as an artist who took jazz into stimulating new contexts without destroying its essence.”

The following is from Jazz History Online Dave Brubeck Quartet: "Jazz At Oberlin" (OJC 46) by Thomas Cunniffe.

“I have vivid memories of the first time I heard Dave Brubeck’s “Jazz at Oberlin”.  I was attending high school, playing alto sax in the concert and stage bands, and just starting to learn about jazz. A friend lent me a 2-record set on Atlantic called “The Art of Dave Brubeck—The Fantasy Years”. Around 2 AM, while everyone in the house was fast asleep except for me, I gave up trying. I slapped on a pair of enormous Koss headphones, loaded a blank cassette into my tape deck and placed the first record on the turntable. Sitting there in the dark, I felt my jaw drop as the Brubeck Quartet launched into a blisteringly fast version of “The Way You Look Tonight” and Paul Desmond played a solo with more fire than I had ever heard from his alto.  

To be sure, I had heard recordings of the Brubeck Quartet, but none like this. To say Desmond had “Petrushka” on the brain during his “Way You Look Tonight” solo would be an understatement, but I didn’t recognize the recurring Stravinsky quote until later. What I did notice was how Desmond was taking that idea and turning it every which way as an integral part of his solo. The Columbia studio recordings I had heard prior to this left me rather unmoved by Desmond’s cool, pure tone and ideas, but “Jazz at Oberlin” made me a believer! Brubeck was no less impressive, matching Desmond’s fire with inspired solos throughout.  I was especially moved by his wonderful lyric solo on “These Foolish Things” where Brubeck echoed the styles of country blues, Gershwin and Bartok and finished off the solo with an emotionally overwhelming statement in block chords. The bass and drum team of Ron Crotty and Lloyd Davis played with more energy than I had heard with Brubeck’s later pairing of Eugene Wright and Joe Morello (my appreciation of the Wright/Morello team came with further listening). Then came the final tune, a nearly themeless version of “Stardust”. I was carried away by Desmond’s beautifully sculpted solo variation as the album came to a close. It was the perfect nightcap. I slept late into the morning.

This was the first college concert that Brubeck had recorded and issued. Brubeck had been warned by the college administrators that the students might not warm to his music, but the students proved them wrong, hanging onto every note and cheering madly at every solo. According to the liner notes, the Quartet played a two-hour concert, but only the 38 minutes of the original LP survives. In contrast, the other half of that Atlantic set was the Quartet’s concert at Brubeck’s alma mater, College of Pacific, and another hour of music from that concert has been issued in the last decade, including a version of “Stardust” even better than the one from Oberlin.

In the 1980s, when Fantasy started the Original Jazz Classics series, I grabbed copies of “Oberlin” and “College of Pacific” as soon as they came out, and finally retired my well-loved and much-played cassette copy. It was then that I discovered that the Atlantic LP had reversed the sides of the original Oberlin album (no matter—I still play side 2 first, as “Way You Look Tonight” and “Stardust” made such great bookends. Ironically, “Way You Look Tonight” was the closing number on the concert!). Paul Desmond had already passed away by the time I heard “Jazz at Oberlin”, but I’ve met Brubeck several times and he accompanied my college choir when we  sang a couple of his compositions in a concert. My current copy of “Oberlin” is the OJC CD which Brubeck autographed for me. For several reasons, including his age and the thin air in my home state of Colorado, I haven’t seen him in person for several years, but as he reaches his 91st birthday, he is still a superb pianist and I love to see him when he appears on television. He still inspires me, just as he and Desmond did on that early morning several years ago.”

Doug Ramsey also wrote about the events surrounding the Oberlin Concert in his biography of Paul Desmond, Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, Parkside Publications, Seattle, 2005.

    “A more significant development in the life of the Dave Brubeck Quartet—and the recorded legacy of Paul Desmond—came in 1953. In her role as manager, booker and publicist in the lean days before Brubeck signed with Joe Glaser's Associated Booking Corporation, Iola Brubeck acted on an idea that led not only to more work for the Quartet, but also to a major change in the relationship of jazz to its audience. As far back as the 1920s, jazz musicians played on college campuses, but almost always for restricted fraternity and sorority dances. The Brubecks' pioneering opened the college market as a source of work for jazz artists and helped open society's ears to wide acceptance of jazz as a mature cultural element.

    Mrs. Brubeck wrote more than one hundred colleges and universities, enclosing reviews of the Quartet's recordings and live appearances. She suggested that The Dave Brubeck Quartet would be ideal for campus concerts and offered a deal that appealed to student associations—a low fee for the band and a split of profits. A few bookings developed. Early on, the band often played in lecture rooms or cafeterias doubling as concert halls, with students wandering in and out during the performances. By the time Joe Glaser 's office took over the Quartets management, the system was working. The young agent Larry Bennett, lola said, "took the idea and ran with it."

    For their March, 1953, appearance at Oberlin College in Ohio, the Quartet found itself in the acoustically blessed chapel of an institution known for the quality of its music department. The audience knew what it was hearing and responded with enthusiastic appreciation. In a canny business move, exchanging broadcast rights for ownership of the master recording, Brubeck allowed the Oberlin campus radio station to tape and later air the concert. When Fantasy issued the performance as a long-playing record, a phenomenon was established: Jazz kept on going to college and Brubeck created an audience that has been loyal to him for decades.

    From his first chorus of improvisation on "These Foolish Things" in Jazz at Oberlin, Desmond sets the bar high for himself and the group. His flow of ideas through faultlessly executed double-time passages is fueled by rhythm that jets from somewhere inside him to contrast with the stately accompaniment of the rhythm section. His energy sets up Brubeck to glide into a solo of extraordinary melodic and rhythmic invention. In his 32 bars, Brubeck covers a dynamic range so broad that it brings to mind Joe Dodge's observation, "Dave's emotion; that's what I loved about his playing. He could go from double-piano to so loud he almost didn't have enough fingers."

    Ted Gioia has written of Desmond's playing at Oberlin, "He spits out rapid-fire lines like a tried-and-true bebopper, to the astonishment of all (not least the audience, which responds with rapturous applause). Rapid-fire, yes, but Desmond is no bopper here and not like one. Nor is he playing strictly in any other identifiable jazz idiom. At twenty-nine, he has reached what he was agonizing over four years earlier in his memos to himself and that long, painful letter to Duane, "beauty, simplicity, originality, discrimination, and sincerity." He has come through his apprenticeship to reach Whitney Balliett’s ideal; he has borrowed from his masters the bones on which to hang his own vision. He is the furthest thing from a mimic. "The Way You Look Tonight" is his masterpiece of the album, one of the great accomplishments of Desmond's career. The brilliance with which he creates the melodic content of his solo is breathtaking! He weaves a phrase from Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" through the fabric of the improvisation, but, like the quotes from a variety of songs that comprise other threads, it is just one element in a construction of musical thought so unified that the whole hangs entire before the listener like a picture in a gallery.

    Component parts aside, what drives this performance and invests it with much of its character is rhythm. Desmond's internal time sense to cranked up so high that by the end of his second chorus, he is swinging the band even harder than it was already swinging. Together, they belie the claim of Miles Davis and others who enjoyed sniping at the Brubeck group with allegations that it didn't swing. Following Brubeck's solo, he and Desmond have an intense round of counterpoint before ending with the tight unison line of the arrangement

    In the fast "How High the Moon" that ends the concert, Desmond laces his solo with phrases echoed in octave drops, so that he sounds like two halves of a duet. It was a device that he used extensively, often to humorous effect in the early Quartet but less frequently as the years went by. Fifty years later, Brubeck still marveled at his partner's abilities, and his idiosyncrasies.”

© Doug Ramsey, 2005

Brubeck Oral History Project

Dave and Iola Brubeck were interviewed for this oral history project on January 30 and 31, 2007. During the interviews, the Brubecks discussed a broad range of topics from throughout their lives. Some of the stories cover well-known episodes in their career, others are related here for the first time. The interviews were filmed at Ellington's Jazz Bar and Restaurant on Sanibel Island, Florida. The interviewers were Shan Sutton, Head of Special Collections at the University of the Pacific Library, and Keith Hatschek, Director of the Music Management Program in the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music.

The Brubeck oral history project is a collaborative effort supported by the University of the Pacific Library, Brubeck Institute, and the Experience Music Project of Seattle. The excerpts presented here were selected from over five hours of interview footage. Access to the entire interviews and their transcripts is available at the University of the Pacific Library's Special Collections department, and the Experience Music Project.

Dave and Iola Brubeck on the legendary concert at Oberlin College in 1953

SS (Interviewer) = Shan Sutton
DB = Dave Brubeck
IB = Iola Brubeck

SS: Getting back to the early and mid '50s, I want to talk a little bit about a couple of albums, Jazz at Oberlin recorded 1953 at Oberlin College in Ohio really proved to be a landmark album that is still widely considered one of the more vital live jazz recordings in history. What made that performance so special? What was going on that night that was captured and still remains 55 years later so compelling? What was happening at Oberlin that night?

DB: You're right. The quartet was playing at its peak. I think it's the best live performance, or maybe performance, I've ever heard of Paul Desmond. He was just perfection on fire that night .

And, I was probably a little disappointed in that they wouldn't give me a good piano, and I had an old grand, but it was in terrible shape. And, I remember that so much thinking that they said, you know, "The jazz musician can't play the good piano."

SS: They gave you the second rate piano .

Russell Gloyd: Tell them what Dean said to you before you went on, that you weren't welcome here, and be prepared for a very negative reaction from the students .

SS: So, the Dean of the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin had to talk to you ahead of time to kind of prepare you for what might transpire ?

DB: Yeah, that we weren't welcome. And, you know, it's hard to believe because now almost every good conservatory has a great jazz department. But, in those days, they were still thinking that jazz was terrible music, and not to be associated with the conservatories .

One time I was told, "You're playing at this school. It's a Catholic school to train nuns and organists. And, I don't think you're going to have a good audience at all." So, we went out and started to play, and I remember the nun came out on stage to announce us, and was trying to soften up the situation .

After the first tune, that audience went crazy for us. And, it was because they were all studying Bach and counterpoint. So, we really laid on some Bach and counterpoint (laughter), the influence of Bach .

IB: And Paul's saying they were out there shaking their habits. (laughter)

DB: Yeah, that's what Paul said (laughter). They're out there shaking their habits .

SS: Was it a similar dynamic with the audience at Oberlin then, where --

DB: Oh, you have to listen to the recording. You hear that audience at Oberlin .

SS: So, despite the fact that you were prepped by the dean saying that you were going to face at least skeptical and perhaps hostile audience, do you think your classical references and influences that won them over? Was it just the sheer power of your improvisations that night? What was the catalyst behind that being such a dynamic performance ?

DB: Well, it's hard to know how things will just turn in the right direction for you. But, that night shouldn't have been a good night. But, my drummer had a fever of 102, and was not feeling well at all. But, he came alive right from the beginning, and started really playing. He was quite ill. I was worried about him before going on, you know, "Would he be able to play?" He played great .

IB: There was another factor in it, too, I think in that it was the students' Jazz Club who sponsored this concert. It didn't come from Oberlin College or from the conservatory. So, I think there was probably in the audience from the students, a little bit of this, "Boy, this has to work" you know, or else our idea of having a series of jazz artists come in is just going to go down the drain. And so, I'm sure there were some enthusiastic people in the audience spurring everybody on. But, there were a lot of faculty in the audience too from what I understand. And so, everyone sort of got swept up into it.

Shan Sutton

© University of the Pacific Library, Brubeck Institute

Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Lloyd Davis and Ron Crotty were featured on the cover of the February 1954 issue of Metronome magazine.  The Dave Brubeck Quartet had been selected as the Small Band Winner in the All Star Poll. The quartet had also garnered first place positions recently in reader’s and critic’s polls at Down Beat magazine.  



To be redirected to James Harrod’s extensively researched piece on the DBQ-Jazz at Oberlin LP click here.

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