After repairing both his smashed vertebrae and his shaky relationship with Paul Desmond, Dave was eager to get back to music. And starting in 1953, he and Desmond teamed with various sidemen including Ron Crotty (the bassist from Brubeck's trio days), bassists Wyatt "Bull" Ruther, Fred Dutton, Bob Bates and drummers Lloyd Davis and Joe Dodge.
The Brubeck Quartet started out playing two three-month gigs at the Blackhawk, the very spot where Brubeck and his trio had gotten its first big break a few years earlier. His radical new sound shook up the San Francisco jazz scene and gave the quartet a new level of visibility. Ted Gioia, jazz historian and author of the book West Coast Jazz, explains: "When Dave Brubeck began forming a modern jazz movement in Northern California, this was a radical departure for the area. There had been a very vibrant modern jazz movement back in New York, but the whole Northern California scene was very traditional. You look at San Francisco today; it's a center of modern jazz. And if you want to trace back the originator there it was really Dave's influence."
Their popularity grew to the point that every year they used their six-month Blackhawk break to take their act on the road to Atlanta and other southern cities, where they built a following among black audiences.
While Dave enjoyed his growing success, being on the road and so far away from his wife and children half of the year was hard on this self-described family man. Iola came up with a solution, based on the success that both the trio and the octet had enjoyed on college campuses in the 1940's. She had searched the World Almanac for every college and university on the west coast and began writing to each one individually, suggesting that the quartet would be great entertainment for college students. The reception was enthusiastic and Dave's trio had soon found themselves in hot demand at institutions of higher learning all over California. The college response was equally warm when Dave returned with his quartet in the early1950's. Joe Dodge, Brubeck's drummer during these early years remembers that at one point on the college circuit the group played "60 one-nighters in a row."
Iola didn't realize that her plan to help widen the trio's exposure on a local level would revolutionize the jazz world by opening up an entirely new audience to the music. Before Brubeck stormed campuses, bands had played fraternity dances and parties, but not concerts. Not only did college venues provide steady work and a new source of income for Brubeck's quartet, but they created a whole new fan base for jazz. College students were generally not old enough or did not have enough money to get into nightclubs and other venues that traditionally featured jazz artists. By bringing the music to college students on their home turf, Brubeck won their loyalty for years to come. Many of the students who heard him in the early 50's would comprise the record-buying public that would contribute to his commercial success in years to come.
The new venue also provided Dave and the quartet with an opportunity to build a library of live recordings. Their first such album, Jazz at Oberlin was recorded at the Ohio college on March 2, 1953, bringing jazz into mainstream music curriculums at Oberlin and at several other colleges and universities. Similar recordings followed, including Jazz Goes to College and Jazz Goes to Junior College.