Dave Brubeck: An Unlikely Hit, 50 Years Strong In 1959, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck topped the pop charts and shook up the notion of rhythm in jazz with an odd-metered song called "Take Five." On the occasion of its golden anniversary and a new reissue of Time Out, Brubeck explains why it was such a hit.

Dave Brubeck: An Unlikely Hit, 50 Years Strong

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

NORRIS: That's "Take Five." The surprise jazz hit was recorded in 1959. It was surprising because it hit the pop charts and it shook up the notion of rhythm in jazz.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

NORRIS: Only trained musicians might understand exactly what gave "Take Five" its flow. It was all in the time signature: five beats to the measure, a departure from more traditional 4/4 time in jazz. It was cutting edge and cool, a song millions would scoop up and favor.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

NORRIS: "Take Five" was recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet for Columbia Records. It was on an album called "Time Out," a title that served as a double entendre. Those in the know knew it referenced the mood and the music's meter. The album also contained a tune called "Blue Rondo ala Turk." Even non-jazz buffs are familiar with its melody.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Rondo ala Turk")

NORRIS: This is the golden anniversary year for the album "Time Out," and to mark the occasion, there's a new 50th anniversary legacy edition of the recording. It includes a piano demonstration and a DVD of the making of "Time Out." The pianist Dave Brubeck has slowed down at age 88, but he's still playing and writing music. He stopped by our studio this week, and we talked about that 1959 studio session for "Time Out." He said his quartet was determined to come up with a new sound.

Mr. DAVE BRUBECK (Pianist, Composer): The president of Columbia Records said after he heard "Blue Rondo" and "Take Five," he said it's such a relief not hear "Body and Soul" and "Stardust." Every one of my artists play that every time they come into the studio. And what you're doing is so great. And then the sales force didn't want to put it out. They said nobody can dance to these crazy time signatures - 9/8 and 5/4. And he said, but I'm going to be sure it goes out because I believe in it. And it became the biggest seller in jazz.

NORRIS: I want to talk to you about that 5/4 signature, because it really was unique at the time. Everything in jazz was mainly 4/4 rhythm at that point.

Mr. BRUBECK: Mainly 4/4, sometimes 3/4. But my drummer, Joe Morello, wanted to play in 5/4. That's how this piece came about. He wanted a drum solo.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

Mr. BRUBECK: He wanted to do something different. A lot of other musicians never could play in five.

NORRIS: Why is it so difficult to play in the 5/4 time signature?

Mr. BRUBECK: Because you were brought up playing in 4/4. Everybody could walk to it and dance to it. Put an extra beat on that, everybody's tripping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: In this case, people weren't tripping. They actually really enjoyed this. Why did "Take Five" become such a classic?

Mr. BRUBECK: You know, the public demanded, after they heard it, and the disc jockeys said the board would be lighting up. What is that? What kind of song is that? It was grassroots that made that happen. And then it went around the world.

NORRIS: Can you tell me what that was like for you, to travel across the country, to travel across the world and hear your music on the radio?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: In those days, we were playing every night and driving after the job to the next job. And we'd start switching stations, and we'd be on one station after another.

NORRIS: You must have been very proud at that moment.

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah. I'm a country boy, you know? I never expected anything like that.

NORRIS: You're still performing. You're still making music. At one point, you were doing upward of 250 performances a year, and I'm told that sometimes you would slip messages or surprises into the live performances. And there was one in particular, you were in Moscow…

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah.

NORRIS: …into the performance.

Mr. BRUBECK: Shostakovich "Fifth Symphony."

(Soundbite of music, "Fifth Symphony" by Shostakovich)

Mr. BRUBECK: We were playing "Take Five," and this theme just came into my mind, of the Shostakovich "Fifth" in 5/4 time, and it was wonderful that the Russian audience caught on right away.

(Soundbite of music, "Fifth Symphony" by Shostakovich)

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

NORRIS: Mr. Brubeck, may I ask about your hands?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah.

NORRIS: Because at a certain point in life, the joints start to talk to you. What do you do to try to keep your hands nimble?

Mr. BRUBECK: For me, the more you get to play, the better it is. Just play as much as you can, while you can. I can't wait for the next job, so we can play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, thank you, Michele.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: That's Dave Brubeck. His album, "Time Out" and that hit song, "Take Five," turned 50 this year. "Take Five" was written by the saxophonist Paul Desmond. There's a reissue of the album "Time Out" with extra features, including a DVD. To hear more of my conversation with Dave Brubeck, visit our Web site: nprmusic.org.

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