Everyone knows his music. You do not have to be a jazz aficionado to instantly recognize Dave Brubeck. Along with the Miles Davis Quintet’s “So What,” the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” is the most recognizable jazz tune from the post-1945 era. It is also the bestselling jazz single of all time. “Take Five,” “The Duke,” “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Strange Meadow Lark,” or, my favorite, “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” are essential listening. The group Brubeck led in the late 1950s and 1960s which produced much of this music, drummer Joe Morello, bassist Eugene Wright, and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, helped define the super-popular and lucrative “West Coast” sound for generations.
World War II shaped the kind of person, musician, and composer Dave Brubeck became. The son of Howard Peter and Elizabeth Brubeck, David Warren Brubeck was born in Concord, California in December 1920. Growing up in a musical family, he began studying piano with his mother when he was only four. During his teenage years, ranching (his father owned a 45,000-acre ranch in northern California) competed with music for his time. After performing in dance groups in high school, Brubeck enrolled in 1938 in the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, hoping to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine. Music—jazz music—captured his imagination, however. Coming to idolize the great Duke Ellington, he so enjoyed playing jazz piano in night clubs that he changed his major to music.
Graduating from College of the Pacific in 1942, world history intervened in Brubeck’s plans for a career. He had already registered for the draft two months after Pearl Harbor. In August 1942 Brubeck was conscripted into the United States Army. Training required him to relocate to Camp Haan, an 8,000-acre base in Riverside, California. There he joined the band, meeting his future bandmate, Paul Desmond, in the process. My colleague here at the Museum, Collin Makamson, found out that Brubeck qualified as a sharpshooter during this period. Once training was completed, Private Brubeck departed for the European theater of operations aboard the troopship SS George Washington, a vessel that had been transporting American service members to Britain since January 1944. As he remembered, Brubeck never really had the chance to even touch British soil, though, before heading on to France. He stepped foot on Omaha Beach almost three months after the bloodshed and carnage of D-Day.
From Normandy Brubeck traveled to Verdun in a cattle car. A stop with the 17th Replacement Depot was only to be temporary. As a replacement soldier, he was to join General George Patton’s 3rd Amy. Brubeck knew that, with his background as a sharpshooter, real combat was not far away. In September 1944, in a place in north-central France called the “Mudhole,” with his thoughts turning to battle, everything changed, however, for Dave Brubeck. When a group of women from the Red Cross visited the site, entertainment was needed. Brubeck responded to a call for a piano player. He impressed the commander of the 17th, Colonel Leslie Brown, who selected Brubeck and two others to stay. No stranger to talent—he hosted Bing Crosby at the 17th that same month—Brown had different plans for the young California pianist. He and the other two men would entertain the troops. “I was so lucky that that happened,” Brubeck stated. “I remained just behind the frontline for the rest of the war.”
Tasked with forming a band, Brubeck recruited men sent back to the Depot for rest. If they had backgrounds as musicians, he gave them an opportunity to show their chops. Although Brubeck was only a Private First Class, he later related the Army assigned him the rank 020 (Band Leader.) While working with men who clearly outranked him, Brubeck, under Brown’s authority, led the group. Later he turned down the chance to become a Warrant Officer. The promotion would have taken him away from his bandmates. A good band requires a memorable name, something with strong associations. Brubeck and his friends called themselves the Wolf Pack Band.
Jazz musicians are known for improvisation. And Brubeck had to improvise to obtain instruments and sheet music for the group. Since trumpets and the like were not exactly easy to come by, he had to barter. Adapting to his situation, Brubeck also gathered scraps of paper to write down his own compositions. When interviewed for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, he said the Wolf Pack Band never actually played military music. They did covers of popular songs and originals. One of the originals Brubeck wrote was “We Crossed the Rhine.” He composed it in March 1945, after American forces secured a bridgehead over the Rhine at Remagen. Seeing all the traffic on a pontoon bridge, Brubeck tried to capture the rhythm of the trucks and tanks streaming over the mighty river.
Due to Brubeck’s diligence, the Wolf Pack Band eventually grew to 18 members. Many of them had seen combat first-hand and had the Purple Hearts to prove it. In an October 2009 interview, Brubeck remembered the audiences the group performed for in 1944-45. “Playing for frontline soldiers is the toughest audience you’re ever gonna have,” he told his bandmates. Brubeck urged them to wear their Purple Hearts to the shows. This made it easier to win the attention and, most importantly, the respect of the men.
Brubeck and the Wolf Pack Band also demanded a very different type of respect. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis despised jazz as a “degenerate” form of music created by “inferior” blacks and Jews. Despite the official rhetoric that this was a war for democracy against fascism, the United States was fighting it with a segregated military. Brubeck did not accept this kind of racism. With the full support of Colonel Brown, Brubeck chose Gil White, who was African American, to serve as Master of Ceremonies for shows. He also brought in a black trombone player, Jonathan Richard Flowers. These moves directly challenged Jim Crow in the US military. For all his courage, Brubeck emphasized the backing he could expect from Brown. When the Wolf Pack Band played a farewell party for now General Leslie Brown, who was departing for a position in the occupation of Germany, Brubeck related how General Brown embraced Flowers. The act clearly demonstrated where the general stood on the issue of integration.
All of Brubeck’s experiences were not so uplifting. He described one terrifying episode where he and other musicians jumped in a truck and fled upon spotting a German plane. They were stopped at a roadblock by American soldiers. One of them had lost comrades to Germans in American uniforms. He did not hide his suspicion about these guys in the truck. Finally, after passing a series of questions and giving the password, the sentry let them through. Brubeck never forgot this
The experiences he had with the Wolf Pack Band while in Bavaria Brubeck always remembered, too. The group laid eyes on a ruined Nuremberg, once the site of the massive Nazi rallies. Brubeck claimed the band gave the first postwar concert at the city’s old opera house. So good were they that Radio City Music Hall offered them the spot of backing band for the Rockettes in Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. After spending two weeks there, Brubeck’s commanding officer charged him with being AWOL. He had to immediately return to Nuremberg. A prompt telegram to his CO insisted the Wolf Pack Band return to Oberammergau.
Once they were back in Nuremberg, Brubeck and his bandmates witnessed the preparations for the start of the International Military Tribunal in November 1945. While they could not attend any of the sessions, they did see and meet members of the British, French, and Soviet armed forces present for the trial. Brubeck thought the personnel from the Red Army hardened and unfriendly. What they had been through had likely conditioned them that way, he explained. He understood his time in Nuremberg was historic. In 2005, 60 years later, Brubeck played again in the Nuremberg area. The mayor of a nearby town personally thanked him for being part of the army which liberated the region.
The US Army discharged Dave Brubeck in January 1946. Once he returned to the States, he embarked right away on an astonishing career. He and his wife Iola (they had married in 1942) had six children. Four of them went on to become musicians in their own right. In November 1954 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Four years later the US State Department made him a cultural ambassador. He traveled across Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, promoting jazz and democratic institutions. “The Real Ambassadors,” done with Louis Armstrong, showcases some of the ideas and wittiness informing these tours. Thousands of shows and all the albums, many of them with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, including, notably, the classic 1959 Time Out, filled out this life of creativity. Brubeck lived to the ripe old age of 91, passing away in December 2012.
Throughout his long postwar life, the impact of World War II and the struggle against both fascism and Jim Crow remained with him. At Mills College in Oakland, California, he studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud, a Jewish artist who left his homeland when the Germans invaded in 1940. Brubeck also took lessons, briefly, with Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian-born proponent of radical modernism. Schoenberg, living in Germany when Hitler became chancellor, emigrated, ultimately reaching American shores. Through these two men, he connected to lives and art directly confronted with the ultra-reactionary and murderous character of Nazism. Brubeck also championed civil rights for African Americans. He refused to perform in segregated venues, whether in the American South or in South Africa. The resolve Brubeck demonstrated to prevent another world war is captured powerfully in his oratorio, The Light in the Wilderness.
Dave Brubeck’s career was a treasure, not only for Americans but for human beings around the globe. And World War II played no small role in launching it. Listen to the Dave Brubeck playlist on Spotify.
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Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.