Guest Column: A Brubeck Anniversary

Brubeck 2 headsThe two volumes of Dave Brubeck’s Jazz at the College of the Pacific on the Fantasy label have never received quite the degree of acclaim that met Jazz at Oberlin, recorded earlier in 1953. That’s a puzzle; The C.O.P. albums often equal the brilliance of Oberlin and of the phenomenally successful Jazz Goes to College, the quartet’s first LP for Columbia.

Having blazed the trail that opened college campuses to performances by major jazz groups, Brubeck’s C.O.P. concert was a triumphal return to his alma mater and a highlight of his band’s dozens of campus appearances in the early 1950s. In the week of the concert’s 50th anniversary and a year after Brubeck’s death at 91, we welcome Professor Keith Hatschek of what is now the University of the Pacific. Professor Hatschek writes for Rifftides about the event and the recording.

DBQ at COP 53 poster

Jazz at the College of the Pacific—Celebrating a Landmark Recording
By Keith Hatschek

On December 14,1953, the Dave Brubeck Quartet played a concert at the College of the Pacific that was immortalized on the iconic album Jazz at the College of the Pacific (Fantasy OJCCD-047-2). The esteemed jazz critic Nat Hentoff gave the recording five stars at the time of its release and wrote that it, “. . . ranks with the Oberlin and Storyville sets as the best of Brubeck on record.”

Time has done little to diminish the impact of this classic live recording. The set showcases the Quartet’s ability to weave melodic, rhythmic and dynamic elements into a cohesive sound that is at once both easily accessible to the casual listener while offering a depth of contrapuntal and thematic invention that merits repeated listening by the jazz aficionado.

Since his 1942 graduation from College of Pacific, aka C.O.P., pianist Dave Brubeck had grown significantly as a musician and bandleader. Wartime service, leading the first integrated U.S. Army band, finding his own compositional voice while studying on the G.I. Bill with the storied French composer Darius Milhaud, marrying Iola Whitlock, eventually starting a family, leading his ground-breaking Jazz Workshop Octet, suffering a severe neck injury body surfing in Hawaii, founding the Dave Brubeck Trio and, eventually, the Dave Brubeck Quartet— life was never dull in the Brubeck family household!

dbp 53-4 db playing in groupThe 1953 version of the Quartet was anchored by the smooth and swinging grooves established by drummer Joe Dodge and bassist Ron Crotty. Over their rhythmic bed, the free-ranging flights of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and Brubeck’s own imaginative and singular improvisations would soar in the C.O.P. Music Conservatory’s packed concert hall. The original release featured only about half of the performance, six songs (due to the time limitations of 33 1/3 LPs). While none of them was a Brubeck original, the enthusiastic response of the audience shows just how much the Quartet’s interpretations connected with the student audience.

That night was the third time since his return from military service that Dave had performed in concert atThe-Dave-Brubeck-Quartet-Jazz-at-the-College-of-the-Pacific his alma mater. All three of these early concerts were the result of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the men’s music fraternity, raising the money to hire Dave’s various groups and bring them back to campus. In 1948, his experimental Jazz Workshop Octet, formed in 1946, performed on campus, presenting their new and imaginative take on jazz standards, as well as original pieces. Looking back on the Octet’s music today, it is clear that they helped to establish a totally new direction in West Coast jazz, one that would be developed along similar lines by Miles Davis soon after with his own New York-based Nonet in 1949-50. Some of the Octet’s earliest pieces can be heard on Dave Brubeck Octet, also available on Fantasy.

While the Octet provided inspiration to many, finding work that paid adequately for an eight-piece ensemble proved impossible, so Dave formed a trio and in 1950, they were invited back to perform at C.O.P., for another sold-out show. In 1951, as Dave was recovering from his Hawaiian misadventure (he had been there performing with his trio with drummer Cal Tjader and Jack Weeks subbing for Ron Crotty, who had been drafted), Brubeck wrote to Paul Desmond, a former member of the Octet, seeking to start a Quartet with Paul and a rhythm section. Tjader and Weeks had been asked by Fantasy to start a new group that would go on to success as the Cal Tjader Trio. With the prolonged convalescence that Dave’s neck injury required, he invited Desmond to share the solo spotlight and make his own return to performing less strenuous.

Thus, the earliest incarnation of one of the most celebrated jazz groups in history was formed out of necessity in the wake of Dave’s injury. With a few changes in the rhythm section, by 1953 they had hit their stride as can be heard on the seminal recording from March 1953, Jazz at Oberlin, and their various recordings spanning 1952-54 packaged as Jazz at Storyville.

Nick Phillips, Vice President of A&R and Jazz Catalog for Concord Music Group, which acquired Fantasy Records in the early 2000’s adds his own perspective:

Brubeck’s Jazz at the College of Pacific recording is both one of the most exciting and popular of his Fantasy Records-era albums — exciting for both the performances and the unbridled audience reaction to them. Along with Jazz at Oberlin, it was also pioneering: Presenting and recording jazz concerts at colleges simply wasn’t done before Brubeck did it. And it inspired a generation of college students to get into jazz.

Hearing the album today, the scintillating Brubeck-Desmond interplay at the end of “All the Things You Are” and the lyrical beauty suffused in the moving rendition of “Laura” demonstrate how these masters of invention could take any musical idea and make it uniquely original and captivating. There really was musical magic being made that night in the C.O.P. concert hall. Echoing the hearty applause heard on the LP, the then-student president of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, Wayne Morrill, contributed the erudite liner notes for the album, offering his appreciation from a musician’s perspective, of the group’s artistry. In closing, he wrote,

So ended another memorable concert by the Brubeck group at C.O.P. We of Phi Mu Alpha and the College of Pacific are proud to have Dave as an alumnus, and to know Dave as an old friend. Dave can be sure that he and his groups have a faithful and eager audience at Pacific.

Jazz at COP Vol 2 _mediumThe remaining eight songs captured during that night of the concert recording languished in the vault until 2002, when Fantasy Records released them as Jazz at C.O.P. Volume 2. They may have been held back because they include a few of the arrangements featured on the earlier Oberlin LP. Writing about the additional Volume 2 set, critic Dave Rickert of All About Jazz, noted,


Desmond gets plenty of solo time, really digging into the changes while showing a sense of humor by injecting quotes from “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” into “Love Walked In.” At this point in time Brubeck was playing as rhythmically and forcefully as he ever would, and his Tatum-meets-Rachmaninoff style shows the origins of the exploratory work he would pursue later on.

Jazz Times concurred, with David Franklin noting that on the second volume the Quartet was “in top form . . .Desmond’ s ideas seem inexhaustible . . . [and] Brubeck’s solos overflow with invention . . . this one’s a real find.” Concord Music Group’s Phillips offers one more reason for serious Brubeck fans to add Volume 2 to their collections.

The CD release of Volume 2 is also illuminating in that it features a significant bonus track, a rare recorded performance by Brubeck while he was a C.O.P. student. Recorded in 1942, Brubeck’s jazz solo piano rendition of “I Found a New Baby” is an incredible display of musicality and jaw-dropping virtuosity.

So to experience the whole night’s performance, albeit out of order from the actual fourteen-song set list that night, you’ll need to buy both albums, which are readily available. The bonus performance from 1942 is the cherry on top.

Meanwhile, Dave’s legacy is in good hands today. In 1999, Dave and his wife Iola, also a graduate of Pacific, selected what became University of the Pacific to be the home for the Brubeck Institute. The institute continues to support the Brubecks’ mission to foster jazz education and scholarship, a commitment to bettering the world around us and a celebration of mankind’s own interconnectedness, often using jazz and music as the point of connection and conversations.

It may have been a half century ago that this notable piece of jazz history was recorded here in Stockton, California, but the Quartet’s playing sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it did then. Here’s to celebrating a singular night of jazz well worth remembering fifty years on.

© Keith Hatschek, All rights reserved

HatschekKeith Hatschek directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific and is an active Brubeck scholar. His article “The Impact of American Jazz Diplomacy in Poland During the Cold War Era” was published in Jazz Perspectives, Vol. 4., No. 3 in 2010. He is currently at work on a book about Dave and Iola Brubeck’s jazz musical, The Real Ambassadors. He has written two books on the music industry and is a contributing writer for the music blog, Echoes—Insights for Independent Artists.

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  1. Brian Porter says

    You only need listen to “For All We Know” on Vol. 1 and the exquisite “Stardust” on Vol. 2 to understand how great this particular Brubeck group really was. Thanks for posting this review. I’m off now to play both discs for the umpteenth time.