8/3/09 - take five

In today's excerpt - Western musicians almost never vary from conventional 'beats' or time signatures, especially the well-worn 4/4 (four beats to a measure, a quarter note gets a beat) and 3/4 (the so-called waltz time). A Cold War era trip by high-profile jazz musicians to foreign countries brought about a famous though brief departure from this convention:

"[In 1955 Congressmen Adam Clayton] Powell proposed a plan for boosting the nation's image around the world. ... Let them see and hear our jazz bands. Not only would jazz tours refute the Soviet line that America lacked a native culture; they would also soften the image of American racism as many jazz bands featured black and white musicians playing together. ...

"The State Department approved Powell's idea. Powell convinced his good friend Dizzy Gillespie to make the first goodwill tour, leading an eighteen-piece big band. ... Musicians like Gillespie, [Louis] Armstrong, [Benny] Goodman, [Duke] Ellington, and [Dave] Brubeck were superstars, and their tours became sensations. ... It was never clear whether the Jazz Ambassadors—whose tours continued through the early seventies—affected world opinion of American foreign policy; probably not. But in many countries, they did have a substantial impact on the broader image of America, its vitality and its culture.

"The influence worked both ways. On their tours, the jazzmen didn't just play; they also listened to local musicians. And just as they brought a taste of America to the rest of the world, they also brought a taste of the world back home. Dave Brubeck and his quartet were sent on an exhaustive tour in 1958, encompassing East Germany, Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Iran and Iraq—a 'circle of Russia' as Brubeck's wife Iola would later call it.

"Walking around Istanbul one morning, Brubeck heard a group of street musicians playing an exotic rhythm, fast and syncopated. It was in 9/8 time—nine eighth notes per measure—a very unusual meter in Western music, and the players phrased the notes in a still more jarring way: not 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, as might be expected, but 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3.

"Later that day, Brubeck had an interview scheduled at a local radio station. Like many broadcasters at the time, the station had its own symphony orchestra. When Brubeck arrived, the musicians were taking a break from a rehearsal. He told some of them about the rhythm that he'd heard on the streets and asked if anyone knew what it was. He hummed the tune, and several of the musicians started playing it, adding flourishes and counterpoint, even improvising on it. It was a traditional Turkish folk song, widely known—at least in Turkey. ...

"All during the 1958 tour, Brubeck heard odd meters and raga rhythms from local musicians, and when his quartet played with them, they were all astonished that his drummer, Joe Morello, could match these rhythms precisely.

"When Brubeck got back to the United States, he was inspired to make an album that would break out of the standard 4/4 time that marked almost all jazz tunes, no matter how adventurous they might otherwise be. And he especially wanted to write something based on that 9/8 folk tune he'd heard in Istanbul.

"Brubeck was one of the most famous jazz musicians in the country ... [and] could do pretty much whatever he wanted. ... Brubeck and the quartet flew to New York and—over three sessions, on June 25, July 1, and August 18—made the album that he'd wanted to make. It was called Time Out, and it would become, after Kind of Blue, one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever. After they realized that they had a hit on their hands, Columbia Records executives also released a 45-rpm single—consisting of two songs from the album—and it sold a million more copies. On one side of the single was 'Take Five,' a Paul Desmond composition in 5/4 time (five quarter notes per measure instead of the usual four). On the other side was 'Blue Rondo & la Turk,' based on the staccato 9/8 rhythm of the Istanbul street song.

"The record's huge success signaled that American audiences, on the eve of the sixties, were ready, even yearning, for at least a taste of the exotic."


Fred Kaplan


1959: The Year Everything Changed


John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Copyright 2009 by Fred Kaplan


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