A diving accident in 1951 nearly took his life; upon recovery, Brubeck adopted his trademark block-chord style to compensate for lingering effects of the accident. The same year, at Iola’s urging, he patched things up with the tempestuous Desmond and invited him into the newly formed Dave Brubeck Quartet. Iola, while raising the couple’s growing family, also served as the quartet’s impresario, cleverly marketing the group to the GI-bill-infused ranks of American colleges and paving the way for the classic albums Jazz at Oberlin and, in the band’s Columbia Records debut, Jazz Goes to College. In 1954, Brubeck received the one honor he most regretted — his portrait on the cover of Time. He knew beforehand that the magazine would feature either him or Duke Ellington, and he feared racial prejudice would play a role in the selection. Ironically, he and the Duke were staying at the same hotel on the day of the magazine’s publication. When Ellington showed up at his hotel room with a copy, all Brubeck could say was, “It should have been you.”
By 1954, Musial was in the sweet spot of his career, a tremendous 13-year span begun in 1946. His fame may have been held back by the fact that he did not play in the post-war “capital of baseball”; one fan remarked on his passing that had Musial played in New York, the national pastime would have been renamed “Musialball.” But he did have his hometown Sporting News. That bible of the sport voted him the best player of the decade from 1946 to1955 — the era of Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and the early years of Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle. In hindsight, no one would quibble with that designation: Musial had 3,630 career hits, divided exactly between 1,815 at home and 1,815 away; a .331 lifetime batting average, divided fairly evenly (.336 home and .326 away); 475 home runs (252 home, 223 away) and, perhaps more impressively, 725 doubles and 177 triples; 155 home runs off fellow left-handers, including 17 off Warren Spahn, one of the greatest southpaws in history. Those who called him the most underrated figure in the history of American sports were perhaps understating their case.
Brubeck, despite cutting the first certified gold jazz album (Time Out, 1959), with its iconic track “Take Five,” was also simultaneously one of the most famous and most underrated masters of his craft. The “New York thing” did less to diminish his fame than it did his reputation with some critics who were unmoved by his West Coast vibe in the era of be-bop and “cool” jazz. Most people knew who he was; everybody could recognize “Take Five” and, perhaps, “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Jazz 101 students could expound on the innovation of the 5/4 and 9/8 time signatures that set these charts apart from the standard 4/4, 16-bar chorus structure rooted in the New Orleans foundation of jazz. But to some jazz aficionados Brubeck’s innovations were derivative, not authentic; they found his playing style bombastic, not refined, and his touch too populist and insufficiently cerebral. Brubeck’s was also the age of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and when jazz hit its popular demise with the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s, many of these impressions stuck. Jazz largely retreated into urban enclaves and further innovations in the recording studio; the influence of the popular imagination, for better or worse, waned.
What many people seem to have missed is Brubeck’s consistency and his epic mastery of the American songbook. There is much original composition on his 120 recorded albums, including some less fortunate forays into rock fusion during the 1970s. But taken as a whole — though I claim no expertise in analyzing the comprehensive catalogue — Brubeck’s recordings offer original, challenging, and at times definitive interpretations of American standard and jazz classics. His and Desmond’s renditions of “My Romance” (Rodgers) and “Somewhere” (Bernstein) know no instrumental equal; his solo take on “Where or When” (Rodgers, again), recorded for 2004’s Private Brubeck Remembers, evokes the entire era this wonderful album sought to commemorate. One hopes this huge and underappreciated component of his legacy will be discovered and rediscovered in that “popular imagination” without which jazz would be left to its insularity. And as for the “bombastic” block-chord style of the quartet’s classic years — just try sitting still through the last few minutes of “Blue Rondo.” One might as well knock Musial for his corkscrew batting stance, described by White Sox Hall of Famer Ted Lyons as “a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops were coming.”
Clearly, lives in professions as different as outfielder–first baseman and jazz pianist–composer can encompass only so many parallels. Brubeck, after all, recorded masterpiece albums in his eighties and delighted live audiences up to his 92nd year of life; Musial had to be content to hit a mere .330 in his 42nd. (Musial did delight audiences with his harmonica rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” well into his eighties.) Musial retired in 1963 to the active but comfortable life of restaurateur and good-will ambassador for the game he loved; four years later, Brubeck began the second phase of his career, upon disbanding his classic eponymous quartet. But the virtues that brought Dave Brubeck and “Stan the Man” (a sobriquet bestowed by the respectful fans of Brooklyn) to define American exceptionalism at the heart of the American century never tarnished, and never left them. As related by Bob Costas at Musial’s funeral, a tearful Mickey Mantle once told him that Stan Musial was a better ballplayer than he was “because he was a better man than I was.” Brubeck, too, stood out in a profession perhaps even more known than baseball for the human failings and addictions of some of its brightest lights.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in their quiet stands for racial equality. Costas recalled the All Star locker room in the mid-50s, when Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson sat together in a quiet corner, playing cards, ignored by their white teammates. Musial simply walked up to the group and said, “Deal me in.” A few years later, when bassist Eugene Wright joined the “classic” Brubeck Quartet of Time Out, West Side Story, and Bossa Nova USA, Brubeck insisted on equal treatment in meals and accommodations wherever the group played, and ensured star billing for his talented sideman. His concert musical, The Real Ambassadors, co-written with Iola, focused on themes of racial justice.