One Hat Trick Plus One Slam-Dunk Equals ... Jazz

In the dank mists of the early 1960s, the Great American School System -- in which I was serving as a buck-private, junior-high-school sad sack -- decided it was a good idea for me to learn to dance. During the physical education portion of our day, the boys were duly embarrassed to be paired off by the instructor and taught the box step, so that we could impress the girls during the lunch hour with our fancy footwork.

Lunchtime came and the footwork went -- out the window -- replaced by the excitement of the officially-sanctioned opportunity to actually touch a female, while the teacher who chaperoned the activities in the ancient gymnasium -- this was, after all, a physical activity, if not a particularly sporting one -- played scratchy vinyl records by Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller. We males were in heaven-and-hell, trying to impress the gals and, at the same time, to conceal the obvious signs of sexual arousal that interfered with the creases in our adolescent stovepipe trousers.

One day, the boys' PE teacher, I assume as a joke, brought from home a 45-rpm of the 1959 Columbia release by the Dave Brubeck Quartet titled "Take Five." Well, now. Here was something to take the mind off the sexual tension. We'd learned the 4/4 box step and the 3/4 waltz. But putting them together was more than most of our hormone-ravaged bodies could manage on the dance floor. Toes were crunched. Arousals were revealed. Boys retired, blushing and belligerent, to the side of the gym opposite the girls' home base.

In the next PE session, the instructor put it to us in sporting terms. A hat trick in hockey equals three points. A dunk shot in basketball equals two points. Put them all together and they spell "Take Five." Ahhh ....

Brubeck and company had opened the world of the dance, and, for me, the world of jazz, to eccentric time signatures. It was at that moment I began seriously to appreciate drummers. Until then, I had been a basically duple-meter kind of guy. I understood the back-beat. That's what drove the best of rock 'n' roll. But where was the back-beat in 5/4 time? An epiphany arrived and it carried a telegram simply worded, "Syncopation, you idiot!" All my piano and trombone lessons came together. I was a youth remade.

The remarkable characteristic of "Take Five" is that it crossed over from the arcane jazz charts to the ranks of the more proletarian pop charts and it brought with it a revolution in rhythm. People like me who had stumbled over the odd measures in that wonderful Paul Desmond-penned tune became acclimated to a more cerebral, but no less bone-shaking, rhythm. Those of us who assimilated it relatively quickly became instant Brubeck fans.

My dear friend, Rick Halstead of Perrysburg, Ohio -- the man who put me onto the "right road" to jazz -- is a drummer and has a better-than-average appreciation of rhythmic nuance. He once said of Brubeck, "When he takes off on a solo, man, he is in the ether. You can almost see equations shooting out of his head."

So true.

A few weeks ago, SkyJazz paterfamilias Mike Smith and I had an international telephone conversation and this subject came up. That committee of two agreed that "Take Five" claims a special place in the world of "jazz-that-educates," that is, it carries with it a basic shift in the understanding of the music we love.

It was only a few years after "Take Five" that Lalo Schifrin's theme to the American "Mission Impossible" television show put the 5/4 meter before the public weekly. The result is that, nowadays, we don't have to think about hat tricks and slam-dunks. It's already in the groove.