By 1954, the Brubeck Quartet became so well known and popular that Time magazine, doing a major story on jazz in America, debated whether to put Brubeck or Duke Ellington on the cover. "Duke and I were on tour together across the country and this night, we were in Denver," Brubeck told correspondent Hedrick Smith. "And at seven o'clock in the morning, there was a knock on my door, and I opened the door, and there's Duke, and he said, 'You're on the cover of Time.' And he handed me Time magazine. It was the worst and the best moment possible, all mixed up, because I didn't want to have my story come first. I was so hoping that they would do Duke first, because I idolized him. He was so much more important than I was…he deserved to be first."
The choice of Brubeck over a black contemporary like Ellington both fueled his career and sparked controversy. "Brubeck was controversial when he appeared because he was not in the mainstream of what was going on, although he came from jazz roots," says former Downbeat Magazine editor Ira Gitler. "Jazz people are always suspicious of anyone that comes from a somewhat classical background. I just think a lot of the critics felt he didn't swing, in the way that jazz people were used to, the Count Bassie essence of swing. That Kansas City four-four."
Brubeck's 1955 LP Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool that featured The Duke, Brubeck's musical tribute to Ellington, which became one of Brubeck's most famous tunes ever. A jazz standard, it has been recorded dozens of times over by the likes of George Shearing, Bill Evans and Miles Davis.
Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool was one of the last albums to feature drummer Joe Dodge, who left the Brubeck quartet in 1956 to spend more time with his wife and children and was replaced by Joe Morello. A year later Norman Bates also left for the comforts of home and family. Brubeck tapped Eugene Wright to take his place on bass. With Morello and Wright in the fold, the "Classic Quartet" was born. Although Brubeck and Desmond played with several musicians over the years, this new group of Brubeck, Desmond, Wright and Morello would become the most famous of Brubeck's foursomes.
The Quartet was together barely a year when the State Department tapped them for a "goodwill" tour of Europe in 1958. Brubeck, Desmond, Wright and Morello made the trip across the Atlantic and performed all across two continents for audiences in England, Germany, Scotland, Denmark, Belgium, Amsterdam, Holland, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
The tour also featured a stop in Poland, which required a journey into communist-controlled East Berlin. Because of a State Department snafu, the group didn't have the necessary visas. A tour official found a way to get papers, but collecting them required a risky illegal journey through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and into communist territory. "I was supposed to be in Madame Gunderlach's trunk to go through the gate," Dave explains, "And of course, there were plenty of signs telling you not to go through. Many people that had gone through into East Germany disappeared for about six months or longer. So I didn't want to be in that position."
Brubeck refused to ride in the trunk, but did crouch down in the backseat and was dropped off at a big, non-descript building. "I sat there for two hours alone in this bare room," he said. "And this guy, very shabbily dressed came and sat next to me. He said, 'You Mister Kulu?' And I said, 'No, Mister Brubeck.' And he said, 'No, you Mister Kulu.' And I said, 'No, I'm Mister Brubeck.' So he took out a Polish newspaper and there's a picture of me. And under it, it says, Mister Kulu. So I figured it out - "Mr. Cool Jazz, that's what Kulu means. He thought that [was] my name. But he had the papers for me to continue on through East Berlin into Poland."
The trip produced The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe and left a lasting impression on Brubeck. The rhythms and beats of the cultures they encountered stayed with him and manifested themselves, for example, in unusual songs such as Blue Rondo a la Turk.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet released several other albums, but their collaboration on July 1, 1959 would prove to be the most important. That recording session spawned Time Out, Brubeck's biggest hit and the first jazz record to go gold. Named for the use of odd time signatures - like the 9/8 time featured in Blue Rondo a la Turk and 5/4 time used in Take Five - the album was Brubeck's way of expanding the Quartet's sound and, as it turned out, its audience, as the latter tune rocketed to the top of both the jazz and the pop music charts.
More national and worldwide tours, television appearances and wild popular success followed the release of Time Out. Many fans assumed the quartet might stay together forever. But by the early 1960's Morello's eyesight was failing and Brubeck wanted more free time to compose and to raise his children, now teenagers. So Dave talked it over with the group and, in 1967, decided to disband his famous quartet.