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Ready for takeoff: Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Live from the Northwest, 1959”

The recently-released album captures the quartet playing standards and film songs in Portland and Vancouver just before the recording of their ground-shaking classic “Time Out.”

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The classic Dave Brubeck Quartet lineup, L to R: Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Brubeck, Paul Desmond. Photo courtesy of Brubeck Editions.
The classic Dave Brubeck Quartet lineup, L to R: Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond. Photo courtesy of Brubeck Editions.

In over 125 years of American jazz music, there may have been no more important year than 1959. 

Within those 12 months, four of the genre’s most seminal albums were recorded: Kind of Blue by trumpeter Miles Davis, for over 60 years jazz’s best-selling record and still arguably the most influential of all-time; Mingus Ah Um by bassist Charles Mingus; The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman, which kicked off the free-jazz movement; and Time Out by pianist Dave Brubeck, a radical yet highly listenable blend of jazz and classical motifs that featured the best-selling jazz song of all-time, “Take Five,” and was the first jazz album to sell one million copies.

Now, 12 years after Brubeck’s death and almost exactly 65 years after it was first recorded, Brubeck Editions (managed by the late pianist’s family) has released a live album recorded in Portland just four months before that masterful Time Out album.

Live From The Northwest, 1959, released last November, is the third such Brubeck Editions release and the second live album, following 2022’s Live From Vienna 1967, and 2020’s Time OutTakes, the latter featuring previously unreleased recordings from Time Out

The Dave Brubeck Quartet, "Live from the Northwest, 1959." Courtesy of Brubeck Editions.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, “Live from the Northwest, 1959.” Courtesy of Brubeck Editions.

Sound and Vision

This new Brubeck album was recorded by Oregon native Wally Heider, a celebrated audio engineer specializing in live recordings who went on to record for Capitol Records 1964’s The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl as well as the seminal 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (famous for one of the great Jimi Hendrix performances) and the multi-platinum Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton. Heider’s Hollywood, California recording studio was also where several famed 1960s artists made albums, including Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and The Grateful Dead.

It’s no wonder, then, that Live From The Northwest offers surprisingly great sound. This is not a case like Thelonious Monk’s live album At the Five Spot, which is great in spite of its less-than-stellar sound quality. This Brubeck album almost sounds like it was recorded in a studio. But it wasn’t. It was recorded in two spots over two nights: at Portland’s Multnomah Hotel (now the Embassy Suites by Hilton), downtown at SW Third and Pine, and at Clark College’s Applied Arts Center in Vancouver.

Classic Quartet

Live From The Northwest, 1959 features what’s known as Brubeck’s classic quartet, with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Joe Morello on drums, and Gene Wright on bass. 

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By this time, Brubeck and Desmond had already been playing together for 15 years; they’d met during World War II, when Brubeck tried out for the 253rd Army Band, to which Desmond belonged. At times over their years of fruitful collaboration, Desmond even gained more praise than Brubeck. Desmond wrote the group’s biggest-ever hit, “Take Five.” Yet they made a natural musical couple, as Live From The Northwest shows, with Desmond’s velvety-smooth tone complementing Brubeck’s sometimes angular, classically-tinged playing.

Morello first joined Brubeck in 1956 after a successful stint with pioneering English pianist Marian McPartland. He’d declined offers from swing icons Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey to play with Brubeck, but only after securing an assurance from the pianist that he could solo on every record, and develop his own ideas about rhythm.

It was Desmond who had brought Morello to Brubeck’s attention, but soon after, Brubeck had to broker a spat between the two following Morello’s first live performance with the group, at the Blue Note in Chicago, refusing Desmond’s suggestion that this should have also been Morello’s last. Brubeck knew that Morello, who had first trained as a violinist, was just the kind of melodic drummer who could lift the music—which was proved correct three years later, with Morello’s creative playing anchoring Time Out classic songs like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk.”

A year before the group’s Portland concert, bassist Eugene Wright—who had played with icons like Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker—had become the first Black member of Brubeck’s group. During a tour of the then-segregated south, just minutes before a scheduled concert at East Carolina College in Greenville, North Carolina, the school’s dean informed Brubeck that Wright could not perform. Brubeck countered that without his bass player there would be no concert. The two men’s argument began to attract attention from the audience of students, causing them to begin chanting Wright’s name in support. The dean relented, and the concert went on.

As Brubeck later noted, “I liked his solid bass lines that grounded that group. [It] was possible to play other tempos and do polyrhythmic things and he wouldn’t budge from this grounded beat.” That quality would prove essential when the group recorded Time Out four months after the Portland concerts.

The Hotel and the Junior College

Brubeck’s Portland concert took place at two very different locations. The Multnomah Hotel, where the group first played, was in the final years of its initial 53-year run as Portland’s largest hotel, which rivaled the grand Portland Hotel (on the present-day Pioneer Courthouse Square site) for opulence. It was completed in 1912 and developed by Philip Gevurtz, whose family owned and operated the Gevurtz Furniture Company from 1899-1997, and who also developed the still-standing Mallory Hotel (now called the Hotel deLuxe).

The same year the hotel opened, on June 10, 1912 it hosted a stunning publicity stunt. Before a crowd of 50,000 onlookers, pilot Silas Christofferson flew a Curtis Pusher biplane from a makeshift runway on the hotel’s roof. “It will be the first exhibition of the kind in the history of aviation,” he told The Oregonian that same day.

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Silas Christofferson flying a biplane off the Multnomah Hotel roof in 1912. Photo via Oregonian via Dave Knows Portland.
Silas Christofferson flying a biplane off the Multnomah Hotel roof in 1912. Photo via Oregonian via Dave Knows Portland.

Among the Multnomah Hotel’s celebrity guests were Charles Lindberg in 1927 (in Portland to dedicate the new Swan Island airport); Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in 1948 (for a charity dinner in the ballroom); and Elvis Presley in 1957, inspiring excited fans to attempt climbing an exterior trellis to reach his second-floor room. Presidents Taft, Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy stayed there too, and Kennedy, while campaigning for the presidency in 1960, gave an impromptu speech from one of its balconies.

Just six years after Brubeck’s concert, however, the hotel closed, a victim of competition with other luxury hotels like the Benson and a new downtown Hilton; the Multnomah was also perceived to suffer due to its proximity to struggling Old Town and Skid Row. Thankfully the hotel was renovated and re-opened in 1995, as part of the Embassy Suites chain.

Clark College, where Brubeck’s quartet played a second show the next day, was as modest as the Multnomah Hotel was opulent. Founded as Vancouver Junior College in 1933, it had grown substantially after World War II, as returning veterans took advantage of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the G.I. Bill). 

Standard Songs

If there’s anything disappointing about Live From The Northwest, 1959, it’s that there isn’t much hint of the unique Time Out sound, despite its being recorded so soon after this concert. 

That’s because the record company, Columbia–nervous after learning that Brubeck was planning an album of unconventional time signatures, which they believed wouldn’t sell–rushed the group into the studio just a few weeks after the Portland show, following a tour of the South, to record the much more conventional album Gone With The Wind. The Portland concerts were rehearsals of that material, including its title track from the 1939 movie as well as standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which begins Live From the Northwest, and the Dixieland classic “Basin Street Blues,” popularized by Louis Armstrong.

Technically this isn’t the first time these Portland and Vancouver shows were put on record. In 2010, the British label Domino had released Live in Portland 1959, and five of the seven tracks on the two albums are identical. However, the new album from Brubeck Editions features a song not on the Domino release that should be of local interest: the mid-tempo “Multnomah Blues,” which seems to have been composed for the occasion. The song has never appeared on any other Brubeck recording.

“Multnomah Blues” also speaks to this concert being part of a transitional moment in Brubeck’s career. Through much of the 1950s, he’d played mostly covers of other people’s songs, albeit in imaginative interpretations, perhaps best exemplified by the 1953 live album Jazz at Oberlin. But in the coming decade Brubeck became an adept composer in his own right. Both “Multnomah Blues” and the longest track on Live From the Northwest, 1959, “Two Part Contention,” show where Brubeck was headed.

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A Quartet In Cohesion

In the liner notes to Live From The Northwest, 1959, there is a black and white photo of Brubeck and Desmond performing, presumably at the Multnomah Hotel show. Queries to Brubeck Editions to confirm its provenance have gone unanswered, but a cross beam in the background seems to resemble that of the hotel’s ballroom. There are men in white tuxedo jackets and women in formal dresses watching, some intently, some with arms folded as if unsure what to make of the music. But what comes across most clearly in the photo is the eye contact and connection between Brubeck and Desmond.

Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Photo courtesy of Brubeck Editions.
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Photo courtesy of Brubeck Editions.

That’s appropriate, because the entire album is striking for the cohesiveness with which these four musicians play. In the liner notes, Brubeck’s son Chris writes that some jazz critics speculated that Brubeck and Desmond “had some sort of ESP connection.” There’s nothing paranormal going on, but there is no mistaking that the pair had been together for some 15 years, and their playing had become an ideal kind of musical marriage.

If there are no stunning time-signature exploits foreshadowing the masterful Time Out on this live album, there is instead its necessary precursor: proof of artists who had become so in tune to each other, so in step, that they were ready to leave the safe orbit of ordinary jazz and explore the extra-gravitational pull of completely uncharted musical territory. Like the three other towering and timeless jazz masterpieces recorded in 1959 by Davis, Mingus and Coleman—or perhaps like Christofferson as he climbed aboard an airplane on the roof of the hotel—Brubeck and his band were ready to truly take off.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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One Response

  1. I love this review, great history. Paul Desmond is a treasure. I have always though his playing sounded like he was blowing “through” his instrument. There is a breathy softness to his sound. It’s beautiful.

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