Dave Brubeck enrolled in the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific) in 1938, three months shy of his 18th birthday, ready to study veterinary medicine.
Brubeck might very well have continued down this path and become a cowboy like his dad, but, as he explains, fate intervened. "The music department was across the lawn from the science department," he recalls. "And my zoology teacher said, 'Brubeck, go across the lawn next year. Your mind's not here.'" Dave took that advice and switched his major to music in his second year.
Dave excelled in music school. He mastered reed and brass instruments, playing perfect scales, imitating the musical phrases he heard in class and putting off keyboard instruction until his senior year, knowing it would reveal his worst secret: He couldn't read a note of music. "The piano teacher in my senior year figured it out in about five minutes." Brubeck says, "And that piano teacher went right downstairs to the Dean and said, 'That kid can't read anything.' And the Dean called me in and he said, 'We can't let you graduate with your class.' And I said, 'Okay.' And he said, 'Well doesn't that disturb you?' And I said, 'No, all I want to do is play jazz and I can do that.'"
But in terms of sheer talent, Brubeck was at the top of his class, excelling in composition, harmony and musical improvisation. So when his music teachers got wind that the Dean was going to block Brubeck's graduation, they came to his defense. "The ear training teacher went to [the Dean] and said, 'You're making a mistake. Brubeck's one of my best students,' Dave recalls. "And the Dean called me back in and he said, 'You know, I've heard some rather interesting reports on you. If you promise never to teach and embarrass the school, I'll let you graduate with the class.' And I said, 'I promise, I'll never teach.'"
Brubeck experienced another life-transforming event in college -- at a school dance. Dave's mother made him promise he would attend at least one such function before he graduated. Dave wasn't much interested, but wanted to indulge his mother. "I asked my roommate who is the smartest girl in school because if I've got to go to this dance, I'd at least I want it to be interesting," Brubeck recalled. "And he said, 'Iola Whitlock.'" Iola was a speech and drama student who directed the campus radio show. Like Dave, she also grew up in rural California and shared similar values of self-reliance and dedication to family. Iola agreed to go to the dance with Dave. But rather than dance, they spent most of the night sitting in Dave's car talking - and emerged from the car engaged. More than sixty years after that fateful night, they are still together. Iola has not only been his inspiration, but his principal collaborator, lyricist, critic and mother to their six children.
Brubeck joined the military upon graduation in 1942, and, after an audition, was assigned to an Army band. He spent some time stateside at Camp Haan in Riverside, California where he went through riflery training, played the piano and watched World War II unfold from afar. In 1944, his unit shipped out and landed in Europe after D-Day. Music literally saved Brubeck's life. Right before his unit was to be sent to front lines in the deadly Battle of the Bulge, a Red Cross show came through and asked for volunteer pianists, so Dave signed up. He was such a hit that the next day he was pulled out of his unit and ordered to organize an army jazz band.
Brubeck became bandleader of a group called "The Wolfpack," one of the first racially integrated units in the U.S. Army. Although he was offered promotions to higher ranks, Brubeck remained a private first class when he found out that accepting an officer's rank would mean moving out the barracks and away from his band members.
When Brubeck was discharged from the Army in 1946, he enrolled in graduate school at Mills College in Oakland where he studied with avant-garde French composer Darius Milhaud, who was part of the experimental school of music influenced by Igor Stravinsky. Under Milhaud's tutelage, the twenty-six-year-old Brubeck learned harmony and counterpoint from a classical perspective. But Milhaud also encouraged his students to write jazz compositions. The aspiring jazz musicians in his class were known collectively as "The Jazz Workshop," and would later become "The Dave Brubeck Octet." The octet featured alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, a figure who would loom large in Brubeck's career.
"Paul Desmond considered [the octet years] my wildest period," Dave recalled in an interview with correspondent Hedrick Smith. "He said I was stark raving mad because I'd be playing in two keys at once and playing all this wild stuff. Well, what I was really getting out of my system was World War II at the piano. [It] was just this reaction to what I had gone through, what the world had gone through, and I was playing pretty vicious piano." The Octet was musically creative, but so far ahead of its time that it didn't resonate with club owners looking for a traditional jazz sound. It was a financial bust. Brubeck had a decision to make - he and Iola were starting a family and creativity alone wasn't paying the bills.
In 1946, desperate for work, to support the family while he made his way through graduate school, Brubeck took a job with a combo called the Three Ds: Dave on piano, Don Ratto on bass and Darrell Cutler on sax. They played at the Geary Cellar in San Francisco, receiving good reviews and getting some exposure. Paul Desmond often sat in. While it was evident early on that Desmond and Brubeck played well together, Desmond had his own agenda. He stole the other two members of the Three Ds to form his own band, leaving Brubeck in the lurch and financially destitute. Brubeck supported his family with gigs here and there, often moving Iola and his children into substandard housing. "I finally found a job at the Silver Log Tavern," he said, "and we lived in a corrugated iron shack with no windows."
Even those jobs were few and far between and at one point, Brubeck had to sell sandwiches in office buildings to support his family. No matter how bad things got, Dave held onto his dream of a career in music. He formed a trio with two octet buddies, drummer Cal Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty. It wasn't long before the new group got their big break. Jimmy Lyons, a local radio disc jockey who later founded the Monterey Jazz Festival, liked Brubeck's music and gave it frequent plugs on his radio show. Lyons helped Brubeck and his trio land a job at the Burma Lounge. They started to develop a following, and suddenly the little trio from California was recording albums and topping national jazz polls.
Brubeck's career was just getting rolling when disaster struck in 1951. While working a gig in Hawaii, Dave had a swimming accident and nearly broke his neck. "I was swimming with my kids on Waikiki Beach and my last famous words were, 'watch daddy,'" Brubeck recalled. "And I dove into a wave and there was a sandbar right in front of me. And rather than hit it with my face, I turned my head and it almost broke my neck, and I thought I was gonna be paralyzed. I had to go to the Army hospital and stayed there for twenty-one days in traction and they were able to pull my neck back." While lying in traction at a local hospital, he lost his job and his trio.
Faced with financial obligations and some physical limitations, Brubeck reached out and called Paul Desmond, offering to start a quartet. Dave hadn't forgotten how Paul had left him in the lurch a year earlier, but still he felt a connection to the sax player. "In spite of us being very different, musically we were very much the same," Brubeck explains. "Paul called it ESP. We just would think together. He's played with a lot of other people but he always felt that when he played with me he felt the best. [And] I knew I played better with him. It was mutual."
They patched up their differences and did what they did best - created innovative and unusual music together for the next seventeen years.