thedukeRegular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy finding influences that cross musical genres and boundaries. Dave Brubeck, a classically-trained jazz musician, should be ideal subject matter – but in the case of this piece I think the received wisdom has gone a bit too far. “The Duke”, dedicated to Duke Ellington, was first recorded on Brubeck’s 1955 LP Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool, but probably the best version is the one for solo piano on Brubeck Plays Brubeck, issued by Columbia Records a year later. That’s the version that Miles Davis heard and gave to Gil Evans to orchestrate for a 19 piece band on the Miles Ahead album of 1957 – an arrangement which Brubeck loved. It’s a beautifully relaxed piece with an inventive bass line combined with a melody that often moves in block, parallel triads, almost as if the spread of the right hand just remains in a single position as it moves up and down the keyboard. The effect is a blurring of the harmonies and a feeling of laziness – the chords fit the convenience of the hand rather than the strict laws of harmony.

All the more surprising then, that this piece has come to be known as a relatively rare example of jazz that uses a 12-tone row (here in the opening section’s bass line). Brubeck has related how, when playing it a college concert, the head of the jazz department came up and pointed it out to him, so it seems that it was done unconsciously. But if it can be regarded as a tone row at all, it’s certainly not used in the manner of Schoenberg. The strict rules are that no notes should be repeated before the full row has been used (the underlying idea being that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal weight). Brubeck does use all 12 notes but takes 21 notes to do so, with nine repeated. And one of the reasons that all the 12 notes are used up so quickly is that the predominant motion is in chromatic, semitone steps. Most importantly of all, the line is harmonized diatonically – despite the blurring effect mentioned above the underlying chord sequence itself is relatively conventional.

“The Duke” is an early Brubeck composition and it wasn’t until his later work that some of the “classical” techniques he learnt from Milhaud’s composition classes at Mills College in the 1940s started showing up. But it was clearly on his mind even then – the original title of this piece was “The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud.” In one interview, Brubeck recalled that his first group (an octet) was started in 1946 when Milhaud asked “How many of you can play jazz?” When eight raised their hands he assigned them all to write a jazz piece. They called the group Les Eight in tribute to Milhaud (who was, of course, a member of Les Six). But Milhaud wasn’t a serialist, and neither, at least at this stage in his career, was Brubeck.