What we can learn from Legendary Jazz Artist Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck died last week one day prior to his 92nd birthday. The pianist distinguished himself from other jazz musicians by defying conventions and playing unusual time signatures.



Dave Brubeck performs along with his Dave Brubeck Quartet in November 2005.Timm Schamberger /AFP/Getty Images

Here is what we can learn from his life and talent:

Play to your strengths

When Brubeck went to college his zoology teacher told him he should focus on his true love: Music. So Brubeck started taking classes at Mills College in Oakland, California, except there was one huge problem — Brubeck never learned to read music and the dean at the college threatened to not let him graduate.

His teachers went to “bat” for him telling the dean he was making a big mistake because he writes the best counterpoint we’ve ever heard. They convinced the dean to have Brubeck graduate.

Continue to do what you do well– even if you can’t do the thing they expect

“And that’s the way I’ve gotten through life, is having to substitute other things for not being able to read well. But I can write, which is something very few people understand.”

Wait for your time

Brubeck remembers that it took some time for his unique approach to catch on. He explained that much of the earlier European music was in one tonality, and we’d become so used to that. He wanted to stretch that and get it more complicated.  At 22, he wrote music with “polytonalilty” for Stan Kenton who told him to ‘Bring it back in 10 years.’

In the end, the masses embraced Brubeck. His album, “Time Out”, sold more than a million copies and it became the first jazz record to hit gold.

Experiment and be original – embrace your outsiderness

In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinct mixture of experimentation with an accessibility that won over listeners – those who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single.

When Mr. Brubeck experimented with time signatures and polytonality he did not always please the critics. Yet his “very stubbornness and strangeness — the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone — make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.”

Be inspired by the process of improvisation

Brubeck and his quartet delighted in never playing their music the same way twice.

Have strong convictions

It’s written and reported that Mr. Brubeck had and lived his strong convictions. In the 1950s, he stood up to college deans who asked him not to perform with a racially mixed band (his bassist, Gene Wright, was black). He also refused to tour in South Africa in 1958 when asked to sign a contract stipulating that his band would be all white. He wrote a jazz musical that dealt with race relations that had a cast that included Louis Armstrong. It was released on LP in 1962 but staged only once at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

Mr. Brubeck explained what jazz meant to him:

“One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart.

It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”

Dave Brubeck died on the way to his cardiology appointment. He had a lot of heart.