Jamie Cullum: Dave Brubeck and me

As jazz giant Dave Brubeck turns 90, Jamie Cullum salutes the man who was the soundtrack to his childhood

My brother Ben and I were musical kids; not Rachmaninov-toting prodigies, just kids enthralled by music. Before we had Walkmans, car journeys would involve squabbles, thumb wars and a listen to the tape deck. To help keep order in the back seat, Mum would provide us with a pair of pencils and a hardback book to drum on. After my choice of Ringo Starr narrating Thomas the Tank Engine, Mum and Dad would play The Best of Dave Brubeck. As my brother and I drummed haphazardly along to Unsquare Dance, Blue Rondo à la Turk and Take Five, we were unwittingly taking part in rhythmic and melodic invention of the highest order. Brubeck was the first jazz musician I ever heard – long before I knew what jazz was.

With his 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck and his quartet changed music for ever. The record brought together a collection of compositions based outside the traditional 4/4 time feel so prevalent in jazz at the time, and which dominates pop to this day. Though it wasn't originally a critical success, the title track (penned by Brubeck's saxophone player Paul Desmond) became a huge hit. Sounding neither like traditional jazz and bebop, nor rock'n'roll, Take Five became the soundtrack for many a college campus, and Brubeck (on the advice of his wife Iola) became one of the first jazz musicians to tour universities extensively.

Brubeck, who turns 90 next week, still regularly performs his compositions and long-form works for ballets and mass. His music endures because it can be appreciated on many levels, combining solid intellectual rigour with a sense of playfulness that hits you like a top 10 smash.

Brubeck's decision to use polyrhythms and polytonalities in jazz came not only from his deep understanding of classical music, but from more unlikely places. As a child on his father's cattle ranch in Ione, California, he would sing different rhythms against the clip-clopping of the horses' hooves, at first complementary then contrapunctually. He'd been a bit of a bluffer at his first musical conservatoire. Unable to read the music his classmates had no problem with, he would learn pieces by ear – a strength he possessed far in excess of his fellow students and teachers. He later studied with the composer Darius Milhaud, who sensed that he should study composition and orchestration over classical piano. Brubeck's strengths were in improvisation, his ability to tap into that childlike sense of abandon where your imagination is not yet hampered by doubt and intellectual anxiety. Musically, he's a Peter Pan professor: a polymath with grassy knees. Blue Rondo à la Turk, the song that opens his classic LP Time Out, is a perfect illustration of these multiple facets in operation – it's a bitch to play and beautiful to hear.

I have been honoured to spend time in Brubeck's company, and the slight tinge of the stuffy professor you may have obtained from articles written about him immediately disappears. He complimented my ballad playing (he'd seen me play that day), asked what I was listening to and suggested a few other things that would excite my ears and keep me progressing. We discussed a shared love of choral music. He hugged me like an old friend. Iola, his partner in life and music since 1942, was ever-present along with two other members of their bulging family. It was clear to me that the warmth radiating from Brubeck's music is something that extends to the world around him.

Having played to huge audiences throughout the 1960s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet disbanded at the end of the decade to allow Brubeck to concentrate on longer compositions. This is a part of his work that I believe will become more significant over time. According to his sons, he still spends hours in his studio composing fugues and pieces, practising and developing his art. At 90 his musical journey is far from over.

If I think back to those early car journeys and the delight I experienced hearing the lolling melody of It's a Raggy Waltz and that famous wolf-in-sheep's-clothing Take Five, I realise how important Brubeck's music has been to me. Like a great work of literature, you can dig into it perpetually to find new treasures. I stole my Dad's The Best of Dave Brubeck tape and left Thomas the Tank Engine in the car. The journey had begun.

Take six Essential albums

Time Out (1959)
The classic. Don't tell me you don't own this!

Time Further Out (1961)
Get the vinyl so you can enjoy the Miró on the cover.

Dave Digs Disney (1957)
Saccharine children's classics turned into art.

Jazz Impressions of Japan
The modes and feels of ancient Japan explored to stunning effect.

To Hope! A Celebration (1996)
Dave full Catholic Mass composition, suitable for atheists and believers alike.

London Flat, London Sharp (2005)
Dave at 84 with his latest quarter, no less urgent and no less inventive.

Jamie Cullum's two-part Dave Brubeck special is on Radio 2 on 30 November and 7 December at 7pm. Arena: Dave Brubeck – In His Own Sweet Way is on BBC4 on 3 December.

Jamie Cullum

The GuardianTramp

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