Jazz aficionados instantly recognize Dave Brubeck pretty much as God. Along with the Miles Davis Quintet’s “So What,” the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” is the most recognizable jazz tune from the post-1945 era. “Take Five,” “The Duke,” “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Strange Meadow Lark,” or, my favorite, “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” are essential listening.
The group Brubeck led in the late 1950s and 1960s which produced much of this music, drummer Joe Morello, bassist Eugene Wright, and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.
Popular during the day, he came to idolize the great Duke Ellington, he so enjoyed playing jazz piano in night clubs that he changed his major to music.
Graduating from College of the Pacific in 1942, world history intervened in Brubeck’s plans for a career. He had already registered for the draft two months after Pearl Harbor. In August 1942 Brubeck was conscripted into the United States Army. Training required him to relocate to Camp Haan, an 8,000-acre base in Riverside, California. There he joined the band, meeting his future bandmate, Paul Desmond, in the process. My colleague here at the Museum, Collin Makamson, found out that Brubeck qualified as a sharpshooter during this period.
Once training was completed, Private Brubeck departed for the European theater of operations aboard the troopship SS George Washington, a vessel that had been transporting American service members to Britain since January 1944. As he remembered, Brubeck never really had the chance to even touch British soil, though, before heading on to France. He stepped foot on Omaha Beach almost three months after the bloodshed and carnage of D-Day.
As a replacement soldier, he was to join General George Patton’s 3rd Amy. Brubeck knew that, with his background as a sharpshooter, real combat was not far away. When a group of women from the Red Cross visited a site called the Mudhole, entertainment was needed. Brubeck responded to a call for a piano player. Brubeck impressed the commander of the 17th, Colonel Leslie Brown, who selected Brubeck and two others to stay. No stranger to talent—he hosted Bing Crosby at the 17th that same month—Brown had different plans for the young California pianist. He and the other two men would entertain the troops. “I was so lucky that that happened,” Brubeck stated. “I remained just behind the frontline for the rest of the war.”
Tasked with forming a band, Brubeck recruited men sent back to the Depot for rest. If they had backgrounds as musicians, he gave them an opportunity to show their chops. Although Brubeck was only a Private First Class, he later related the Army assigned him the rank 020 (Band Leader.) While working with men who clearly outranked him, Brubeck, under Brown’s authority, led the group. Later he turned down the chance to become a Warrant Officer. The promotion would have taken him away from his bandmates. A good band requires a memorable name, something with strong associations. Brubeck and his friends called themselves the Wolf Pack Band.
Jazz musicians are known for improvisation. And Brubeck had to improvise to obtain instruments and sheet music for the group. Since trumpets and the like were not exactly easy to come by, he had to barter. Adapting to his situation, Brubeck also gathered scraps of paper to write down his own compositions. When interviewed for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, he said the Wolf Pack Band never actually played military music. They did covers of popular songs and originals. One of the originals Brubeck wrote was “We Crossed the Rhine.” He composed it in March 1945, after American forces secured a bridgehead over the Rhine at Remagen. Seeing all the traffic on a pontoon bridge, Brubeck tried to capture the rhythm of the trucks and tanks streaming over the mighty river.
Due to Brubeck’s diligence, the Wolf Pack Band eventually grew to 18 members. Many of them had seen combat first-hand and had won Purple Hearts. In an October 2009 interview, Brubeck remembered the audiences the group performed for in 1944-45. “Playing for frontline soldiers is the toughest audience you’re ever gonna have,” he told his bandmates. Brubeck urged them to wear their Purple Hearts to the shows. This made it easier to win the attention and, most importantly, the respect of the men.
Brubeck and the Wolf Pack Band also demanded a very different type of respect. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis despised jazz as a “degenerate” form of music created by “inferior” blacks and Jews. Despite the official rhetoric that this was a war for democracy against fascism, the United States was fighting it with a segregated military. Brubeck did not accept this kind of racism. With the full support of Colonel Brown, Brubeck chose Gil White, who was African American, to serve as Master of Ceremonies for shows. He also brought in a black trombone player, Jonathan Richard Flowers. These moves directly challenged Jim Crow in the US military. For all his courage, Brubeck emphasized the backing he could expect from Brown. When the Wolf Pack Band played a farewell party for now General Leslie Brown, who was departing for a position in the occupation of Germany, Brubeck related how General Brown embraced Flowers. The act clearly demonstrated where the general stood on the issue of integration.
Brubeck and his bandmates witnessed the preparations for the start of the International Military Tribunal in November 1945. While they could not attend the sessions, they did see and meet members of the British, French, and Soviet armed forces present for the trial.
The US Army discharged Dave Brubeck in January 1946.