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Song Stories: Time Out for “Take Five”

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Portrait of Dave Brubeck with sheet music as backdrop, Oct 8, 1954. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.

As a child growing up in southeastern Virginia, I got to tag along with my father on a few journalistic adventures. He was the Program Director of a small radio station in Chesapeake, and it served as a vocational school where students could learn how to run a broadcast studio. Whenever a performing artist was touring through the area to play with the local symphony or headline a jazz festival, my dad could always pull some strings and land an interview, often giving the students access to these performers. Doc Severinsen, John Browning, Richard Stoltzman, John Wallace, and Aaron Copland all come to mind. I was a young student broadcaster when my dad interviewed Dave Brubeck in the late 1980s. For most of those interviews, we would meet the artist at their hotel or concert hall, but Brubeck was so humble and unassuming  that he drove to our studio for an on-air conversation. That was when I first heard “Take Five.”


[Portrait of Paul Desmond holding saxophone with backdrop of sheet music], Oct 8, 1954. From the collection Van Vechten Collection. //
“Take Five,” along with “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” is a tune that is forever branded with our association of Dave Brubeck. However, Brubeck did not write the tune. It was written by his legendary saxophonist, Paul Desmond.  The song came from the album Time Out which spent 164 weeks on the Billboard 200 in 1959, and was the first jazz LP to sell one million copies. Ironically, Columbia Records only allowed the album to be released under the assumption that the quartet would go back to recording jazz standards for subsequent projects. The album consists of seven songs unified by irregular time signatures, and it was inspired by music the quartet heard while on a State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East and India. Most mainstream jazz was in 4/4 or occasionally 3/4 time in that era, but this album explored 9/8, 6/4, and the meter of “Take Five”: 5/4.


[Portrait of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond playing saxophone], Oct 8, 1954. From the collection Van Vechten Collection. //
While Paul Desmond came up with the melody, it was drummer Joe Morello who came up with the groove. Morello was bored playing in 4/4, so he started working with uneven time signatures for a change of pace. He wanted a groove that was slow enough that one could follow the odd meter, but fast enough for listeners to shake their heads. “Take Five” was originally intended to be a drum solo, but after collaborating with Desmond, it became a jazz standard that inspired other 5/4 themes, such as Lalo Schifrin’s classic “Mission: Impossible.” “Take Five” became such a part of the American vernacular that it was even used as the theme of NBC’s Today Show in the 1960s. As directed by Desmond’s estate after his death in 1977, all of the royalties from the song go to the American Red Cross.

While I don’t remember as much as I wish from my dad’s interview with Brubeck, I still remember the signature thick tortoise-rimmed glasses the legendary pianist wore. This trademark was not intentional, but necessary. Brubeck was born cross-eyed, and had vision problems that made it difficult for him to read. He enrolled at Mills College in 1946 after a stint in the Second World War to study with Darius Milhaud, but he couldn’t read music. His dyslexia, which he referred to as “my problem,” proved to be a motivating factor for him, as he never used it as an excuse and he developed an incredible ear for capturing harmonies and melodies. Prior to his Mills College experience in 1942, he was almost not allowed to finish at the University of the Pacific because of his dyslexia. The dean only allowed him to graduate on the condition that Brubeck never teach. This did not slow him down, as Brubeck would go on to mentor a great number of aspiring students.


[ Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, 1968-1972]. From the collection The Gerry Mulligan Collection. //
The Dave Brubeck Quartet would tour and record together until 1968, when Brubeck retired from the group to focus on composing sacred music. However, as his friend and colleague Duke Ellington remarked at the time, “You’ll be back.” Ellington was correct, as Brubeck started collaborating with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in the early 1970s. Brubeck passed away one day short of his 92nd birthday in 2012 as he was walking with his son Darius (named after his mentor at Mills College) to a routine appointment with his cardiologist. His death came just hours before he was to receive a Grammy Award nomination for “Ansel Adams: America,” a symphonic piece he wrote along with one of his other sons, Chris.

As with many songs, “Take Five” has a story that is more encompassing than just the notes on the page or the sounds from a recording. It talks about overcoming obstacles, articulating a creative vision, and seizing upon spontaneity. If legacy has a time signature, it would probably be 5/4.

If you enjoyed reading about “Take Five,” please consider some other resources available. You can read a previous post about our jazz collection. Also, consider perusing the Gerry Mulligan Collection for other photographs of Brubeck contemporaries. Finally, relax and enjoy a wonderful performance from 2003 by the Dave Brubeck Quartet from the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress (retrieved from the Library of Congress, Finally, be sure to enjoy some of the holdings listed below from the NLS Music Section. To borrow any of the following braille and large print music or recorded materials, you may access BARD or request a copy by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].

Digital Talking Books

Bill Brown teaches how to play “Take Five” on three instruments:

Flute (DBM03554)

Guitar (DBM02671)

Bass guitar (DBM03351)

Hankin, Aaron. Tapestry of the Times. Episode 18. This episode includes a version of “Take Five” played on the Middle Eastern oud. (DBM04031)

Irwin, Bill. A Light History of Jazz Piano [sound recording] : and a Short History of the Piano. Irwin plays hundreds of recordings of jazz pianists and other notable performers. (DBM03681)

Jazz Joins the Classics: French Composer Darius Milhaud Discusses his Experiments with Jazz. Dave Brubeck explains how composer Darius Milhaud used jazz for the first time in classical compsitions. (DBM00133)

Braille Music

Giants of Jazz Piano. Piano solos as performed by Dave Brubeck, Art Tatum, George Shearing, Duke Ellington, Marian McPartland, Matt Dennis, David Benoit, and Bill Evans. Includes Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Bar over bar format with chord symbols. (BRM35937)

Long, Jack. The Real Book of Jazz. Including “Take Five”, 194 jazz standards in melody line arrangements by Jack Long, with chord symbols and lyrics. Line by line and single line formats, with chord symbols. (BRM36832)

Milhaud, Darius. Scaramouche. For two pianos in bar over bar format. (BRM24677)

Large Print

Blues, Boogie, and Jazz [music (large print)]. Unaccompanied melodies with lyrics and chord symbols; includes “Take Five”. (LPM00341)

Comments (6)

  1. Marvelous resource. Thank you!

    • Hi Margaret! Thank you so much for your kind words!

  2. Thanks for this excellent post. I actually have the CD entitled “Time Out”, and it is now in my music library on my MacBook Air. It is truly a wonderful album. I did not know that Dave had dyslexia, but you wouldn’t know it given his great music. I’m definitely going to grab myself a copy of that book. BARD is truly an awesome resource, and I hope it sticks around for years to come!

    • Hi Jake–thank you for taking the time to read this post, and we greatly appreciate your feedback!

  3. Thank you for this information about Dave Brubeck and his music.

    • Thank you! We are so glad that you enjoyed reading about Dave Brubeck!

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