It is the summer of 1959, and jazz enthusiasts are gathered at the Music Inn, a music venue in the heart of the pastoral Berkshires region in Western Massachusetts. The event is the Jazz Roundtable, a series of talks and discussions about music, founded by professor Marshall Stearns in the early 1950s. Dr. Willis James is on the stage, demonstrating an African chant. James is an authority of African folksongs and their connection to the tradition of jazz. At the end of his performance he asks the audience ‘Can any of you tell me what time signature that was in?’ The audience, including notable musicians of that era, is silent. James follows: “That was an American work song. It was in five-four time, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet is on the right track.”
Dave Brubeck was elated when he heard that endorsement. Years later he still cherished that event: “That was my big moment of glory. He explained that if you go back to the field hollers, they go right back to Africa, and why shouldn’t I be doing what I’m doing, that it was in the tradition of Africa to play in complicated time signatures. It didn’t hurt at all to have him defend me in public.” Time signatures of the odd flavor where top of mind for Dave Brubeck and his quartet in 1959. Just before that Roundtable he recorded a number of sessions for his upcoming album and started to perform them before live audiences who found it a challenging listening experience. Columbia, Brubeck’s record label, was giving him a hard time about the material he recorded, miles away from the popular recordings he used to supply them thus far. They were expecting the typical fare of standards and show tunes arranged in a pleasant cool jazz style, not a set of experiments in rhythm. Willis James’ words gave him the confidence that he should persevere and continue what he started. Five years later, with four albums exploring time signatures and millions of albums and singles sold, it is no wonder that he looked back at that moment favorably.
Brubeck’s familiarity with odd time meters was not new. Back in the late 1940s while studying with Darius Milhaud, he was exposed to the concept in the context of classical music. Later that decade he occasionally applied it to his octet recordings, but as the 1950s came around and he adopted a small combo format, he settled into the accepted 4/4 and ¾ rhythms, playing standards and some original music. Together with his musical partner and alto sax player Paul Desmond, they focused on arrangement and mood, excelling in both areas and becoming very popular with jazz audiences. In 1956 they got a major talent boost and a giant leap towards complexity in rhythm when a new drummer joined the group. Enter Joe Morello into the Dave Brubeck universe.
In 1956 Joe Morello, a maestro of drumming with a deep background in classical music studies, was working with pianist Marian McPartland. She recalled first meeting him in the early 1950s: “He was wearing thick glasses and looked less like a drummer than a student of nuclear physics.” But then he started playing and “everyone in the room realized that the guy with the diffident air was a phenomenal drummer. Everyone listened. His precise blending of touch, taste, and an almost unbelievable technique were a joy to listen to.” Morello was familiar with the Dave Brubeck quartet but was not impressed with the role of the rhythm section in it: “I’d seen them at Birdland and you’d just see Dave and Paul with two spotlights. I said, ‘I don’t want to sit in the dark.’ I was friends with Joe Dodge, the previous drummer, and he said, ‘I haven’t played a four-bar break in three years, Paul just wants me to play railroad tracks… straight!’ I said, ‘Good grief, these two clowns were expressing themselves and they got these two guys in the dark.’”
Brubeck understood that his band needed a boost in the rhythm department, a drummer who can realize the ideas he had in his head but left unrecorded due to the timidity of his rhythm section. He gave Joe Morello a call. The drummer continues the tale in his amusing fashion: “Dave calls me up one day and he says ‘I’d like to have you come with the group’. I told him ‘I don’t know if you’d like my playing, cause I don’t particularly like what you are doing. I want to be able to play, I don’t want to just sit there. If you want, just get a metronome, its cheaper. Its just a small box, you can play with that.’ He said ‘I’ll feature you, I’ll mention you in the marquee.’ I said ‘I don’t care about that, I just want to be free to play.’” A two-month tour ensued to test the waters, after which Morello joined as a permanent member.
The final piece in the road to Time Out puzzle fell in place in 1958, when the quartet was invited to join the Jazz Ambassadors tour, organized by the US State Department. This was a curious historical moment in the intersection of music and the cold war, with the US government showcasing to world regions surrounding the iron curtain its true American art form. Interracial groups were preferred, promoting US democracy and tolerance, and the tours were labeled Jazz Diplomacy. Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman were the first to embark on that journey in 1956, but Louis Armstrong was on to the duality of idealism being portrayed with integrated groups of musicians while racism was rearing its ugly head in the south. In 1957 he was invited to take the tour while the crisis of school segregation was unfolding in Little Rock, Arkansas. He declined, announcing angrily: “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell… It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” Four years later, when the Civil Rights Movement started making headway in the US, Armstrong took the Jazz Ambassadors tour to Africa. But the tours had their brighter side, allowing American jazz musicians to experience firsthand other ethnic music cultures and folk music from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and India. And none benefited more from that experience than Dave Brubeck and his group.
For a number of months in 1958 the Dave Brubeck Quartet visited 14 countries including Poland, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Throughout the tour the group interacted with local musicians and those experiences left a deep impression on them. When the group came back to the US, they recorded the album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. Calcutta Blues is one example from that album of the band applying the influences from that trip into their own flavor of jazz. The mournful tune came out of witnessing the poor conditions in India: “Millions sleep in the street every night. There were three plagues going on in Calcutta, and the taxis were used for ambulances and hearses. You don’t forget those kinds of things. Nothing can change you more than seeing the misery of this world.” Notice Brubeck’s use of the piano’s low register and the hand drumming technique Morello uses on his drum set.
Paul Desmond wrote in a diary he kept while on that visit to India: “Dave and I, as usual, more puzzling because there is very little harmony in Indian music (a fifth in the bass which remains constant against one melodic line is about as complex as it gets) so any chord with more than three notes apparently sounds like any other chord with more than three notes.”
One element of the musical experiences the group had during their trip was not present on Impressions of Eurasia, but was heavily explored during recordings made in the summer of 1959 – the concept of odd time signatures in the context of jazz compositions. When Brubeck ventured into this in the late 1940s it was quite simplistic, as in the use of 5/4 time in the opening bars of What Is This Thing Called Love.
The Jazz Diplomacy journey sparked a new interest for Dave Brubeck in time signatures, and this time he had the perfect partner to share this enthusiasm with in Joe Morello. Brubeck recognized a kindred spirit when he saw one: “I could tell that Morello wasn’t going to come in and just be a timekeeper. He obviously could play those time signatures that I wanted to get into ever since the days of the octet. I hadn’t had a drummer who could do that since Cal Tjader.” Quickly after joining the group Morello started to add sprinkles of odd time signatures when he was soloing. A fine example is a tune called ‘Sounds of the Loop’, a favorite live feature for the group where he used to solo on a 5/4 rhythm. However until 1959 this was the Joe Morello special, and the rest of the band was not involved in these rhythmic explorations.
Various accounts tell different stories about the origin of Take Five, but they all point to Joe Morello’s musical experiences in India. Some say Indian jazz drummer Leslie Godinho introduced him to the rhythm, others identify mridangam (a double sided Indian hand drum) maestro Palani Subramania Pillai as the one who did the trick. Either way, it is certain that the complexity of Indian rhythms played a major role in Morello’s playing of the Take Five groove, one of the most addictive and best known drum patterns ever to be recorded. More from Desmond’s diary: “Another session with Indian musicians at All India Radio – pretty much a mutual admiration society for rhythm men. Joe impressed by hand technique, odd meters (5, 7, 11). They were impressed by things that should be simple by comparison but apparently aren’t, to them: 2 against 3, etc, played by one drummer.”
When the band returned to the US, those rhythms stuck in Joe Morello’s head and he practiced them during band rehearsals. Brubeck remembers how the track was born: “Joe Morello had been messing around with a 5/4 beat when he was warming up, and Paul was always intrigued by it. So I asked that he write a tune in 5/4 and use Joe Morello’s beat. So Paul put a couple melodies. But he didn’t have a tune. He just had two melodies. He said, ‘I can’t write a tune in 5/4’ and he had given up. I said ‘You’ve got a tune right there. Use the second theme for the bridge.'”
Unused to playing in 5/4, the group found it difficult to play the tune start to finish. This became more acute as they moved to improvising after playing the main melody. Brubeck had to keep that opening vamp throughout the song: “The whole first session when we did Take Five you can hear me, I never left that rhythm. Because Joe Morello said ‘Keep that rhythm for me.’ And of course, Paul wanted it to keep going.” But Morello took the 5/4 meter much farther during his legendary solo on Take Five. The liner notes for the album do it justice: “It is interesting to notice how Joe Morello gradually releases himself from the rigidity of the 5/4 pulse, creating intricate and often startling counter-patterns over the piano figure. And contrary to any normal expectation – perhaps even the composer’s! – Take Five really swings.”
Perhaps no tune on the album is better to showcase the choice of odd meters than Blue Rondo à la Turk. The origin of that tune emerged during the band’s visit to Istanbul on that jazz diplomacy tour. Brubeck remembers: “I first heard the rhythm on the street in Istanbul on the way to the radio station, where I was to meet with the big radio orchestra. I stayed on the street corner, trying to get this rhythm down. I finally got it in my head and sang it all the way to the studio. I asked the orchestra, ‘what is this rhythm: one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three?’ I finished the first bar and the entire orchestra started improvising in 9/8. I couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘It’s like the blues to you, 9/8 is to us.'”
On June 2nd, 1959 in Oakland California, Brubeck debuted the odd time meter pieces the band was about to record. After playing a couple of tunes, he told the audience: “That was the first public performance of these rather odd tunes. They’re going to be part of an album of numbers done in different meters than those that have been basic to jazz. I believe we have pushed harmonies in jazz about as far as we can but a lot of advances can be made rhythmically. The next Tune is the farthest out we’ve ever been. We’re going to try it because I know we’re among friends.” The band than performed Blue Rondo à la Turk for the first time in front of an audience. Here is a different occasion of the quartet playing the tune live:
A decade later Brubeck influenced a completely different music genre, that of progressive rock in Europe and the British Isles. The concept of odd meters was explored widely by young musicians who took rock music farther than its basic three-chord, 4/4 meter. One in particular, keyboard player Keith Emerson, was listening to Brubeck: “When I was 15 years old I was going through further education in Sussex, England. My mother and father earned little and my meager earnings from a newspaper and grocery round were put towards a stereo record player. That Christmas, my present from Mum and Dad was a single 45 vinyl record. Take Five. On the B-side was Blue Rondo a la Turk. I played the hell out of it. In 1968, I recorded a 4/4 version of Blue Rondo and played the hell out of it in live performance.” The simplification of the meter did not last long, for Emerson started exploring odd meters quite obsessively with his band Emerson, Lake and Palmer only a couple of years later.
Another tune from Time Out jumps cleverly back and forth between ¾ and 4/4 meters. Three To Get Ready was named after an old children’s poem that was used as a countdown before starting a race:
One for the money,
Two for the show,
Three to make ready
And four to go
The liner notes to the album describe the song: “Three To Get Ready promises, at first hearing, to be a simple ‘Haydn-esque’ waltz theme in C major. But before long it begins to vacillate between 3- and 4- time, and the pattern becomes clear: two bars of 3, followed by two bars of 4. It is a metrical scheme which suits Dave Brubeck down to the ground; his solo here is one of the high spots.” The popularity of the album and the band prompted multiple film recordings of the quartet throughout the 1960s, compared to many great but less known jazz groups who were ignored. Here is the tune played live from that period:
The album was recorded during three sessions at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City between June and August 1959. During the preceding three months of that year the studio hosted the sessions that yielded Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Charlie Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um. What a streak. During the same time, in May of 1959, recording sessions for John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come took place. What a year for jazz.
Time Out was produced by legendary producer Teo Macero, who just started his rich career as producer of jazz albums. He debuted in that role on Dave Brubeck’s album Gone with the Wind, a jazz standards fare recorded in April 1959. That was Columbia’s safety net in case the looming ‘experimental album’ bombs in record stores.
The recording plan for Time Out, an album that was originally named Out of Our Time, was to complete the album in one recording session. However the complexity of the material pushed it into two farther sessions.
A single with the full versions of Take Five and Blue Rondo à la Turk was released by Columbia ahead of the album in September 1959 to little ceremony. It took the label 18 months to realize the hit potential of such a single, and in 1961 it was re-released with radio-friendly edited versions of both tunes. Take Five took off meteorically, becoming the biggest selling jazz song of all time, with over a million copies sold. Quite odd for a tune in odd time.
Many articles have been written about Time Out, but very few of them discuss the artwork featured on its cover. I love it when art and music mesh together perfectly on album covers, and this is a perfect one, so let’s give the artist his due.
The original idea conceived by Brubeck was to use a painting by Joan Miro, however the label was not able to obtain a permission. That painting was used two years later on the cover of Time Further Out. Maybe a permission was easier to obtain after the popularity of Time Out. The abstract painting that Brubeck eventually featured on Time Out’s cover is the creation of Sadamitsu “S. Neil” Fujita, who was a visual artist at Columbia Records between 1954 and 1960. Fujita was born in Hawaii and moved to Los Angeles to study art. In 1942 his studies stopped abruptly when he was relocated to a camp in Wyoming like many other families of Japanese Immigrants. A year later he enlisted in a unit consisting of Japanese-American volunteers and fought in Italy and France. Upon his return to civil life he found a job at Columbia Records. At that time the concept of album art was just forming, following the work of album cover pioneer Alex Steinweiss: “When I got to Columbia, there was the beginning of some idea of album cover art, but it was still just type and maybe a photo of the artist and some shapes arranged in an interesting way. I think that I was the first to use painters, photographers and illustrators to do artwork on album covers.” Columbia was trailing behind in that department, with smaller labels such as Blue Note and even the low budget Prestige featuring photographs and drawings that created an interesting aura around the music featured on their albums.
Fujita realized that Jazz called for abstraction, a certain kind of stylization, and using modern painters: “We thought about how we could use images or pictures in a more creative way. We thought about what the picture was saying about the music and how we could use that to sell the record. And abstract art was getting popular so we used a lot more abstraction in the designs—with jazz records especially but also with classical when there was a way for it to fit, like with the more modern composers.” Earlier in 1959 he created the fantastic cover for Charles Mingus milestone album Mingus Ah Um.
Following the same abstract style Fujita went on to create the painting for Time Out: “Somebody said that the group was returning from a tour of Asia. I had recently returned from the service with armed forces intelligence in the Western Pacific and I had been through East Asia, the Philippines and Calcutta, so I borrowed some colors and shapes that seemed to go with the mood.” It is hard to explain why certain visuals work well as album covers, for in many cases they seemingly have nothing to do with the music featured on the album. It certainly works here, an abstract painting and jazz explorations with time signatures fit perfectly together.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these about other classic jazz albums released in 1959: