He sought out the same combustible mix in his famous quartet. Many jazz leaders surrounded themselves with musicians who they had an almost telepathic rapport with onstage. But Brubeck's Quartet clashed.
Brubeck was known for pounding the piano with thunderous chords. His saxophonist, Paul Desmond, played with a light and lyrical style that was so exquisite that one critic said he left "a trail of honey in the air." And then there was his drummer, Joe Morello, a proud man with superb technique who wanted to be showcased more.
The group fought musically and personally. Morello clashed with Desmond. Desmond clashed with Brubeck. They were all so different, but Brubeck made it work.
He wasn't threatened by differences. They inspired him, said Ted Giola, a jazz historian and author.
"It's to Dave Brubeck's credit that he was able to hear these musicians that played very differently from him and was able to see that by taking them and getting their different sounds, he was adding, not subtracting," Giola said in the documentary "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck."
"Dave had an instinct for differences and how that was going to add to his music."
Jazz and democracy
It must be said, though, that the jazz world that Brubeck helped create wasn't a racial utopia.
Black artists were exploited. White audiences gravitated to some white jazz artists who didn't have the talent of black artists. Even some white artists like Brubeck were looked at with disdain by some black musicians.
Ian Carey, a jazz trumpeter who recently wrote an essay, "How Not to Become a Bitter White Jazz musician," said "white musicians unfairly profited from discrimination against black musicians by audiences and the music industry."
Yet Carey also said that when it came time to play, a lot of those divisions evaporated because of something inherent in jazz: Most jazz musicians don't care how you look. They just care about how you play.
"The bandstand is a great equalizer," he said. "You're going to get the best guy or woman for the gig. It doesn't matter what they look like."
Brubeck applied the same principle to his music. He led the first integrated band in the U.S. Army during World War II. He hired a black man, Eugene Wright, to be his quartet's bassist. The jazz world that Brubeck moved in was full of cross-racial and cross-cultural fertilizations.
They weren't just ahead of their time; in some respects, they were ahead of our time.
Some of the biggest jazz records came from artists who built friendships across racial and ethnic lines. The singer Frank Sinatra recorded with and relentlessly championed black artists like Fitzgerald and Count Basie.
The white saxophonist Stan Getz kicked off the bossa nova craze with his recordings with Brazilians Astrud and Joao Gilberto. The jazz album classic "Kind of Blue" was spawned by the relationship between Bill Evans, a white, mild-mannered pianist who looked like a tax accountant, and the pugnacious black trumpeter Miles Davis.
Jazz lore says that initially some of the black members of Davis' band didn't want Evans to join the group because he was white, but Davis insisted because he loved Evans' "quiet fire."
"Kind of Blue" went on to become the best-selling jazz album of all time.
"He was a guy who looked like a stereotypical white nerd," Carey says of Evans. "But he could play. ... What he played was so much bigger than his appearance."
This egalitarian tradition in jazz -- everyone is equal on the bandstand -- has led some to compare it to democracy. The jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said that nothing captures the democratic process as perfectly as jazz.
"Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all."
Brubeck was a champion for democracy as well as jazz. It's often forgotten that many of the exotic rhythms he infused into his music came from tours his quartet took of the Middle and Far East. The State Department sponsored these tours to promote democracy during the Cold War.
Brubeck often compared jazz to democracy, saying both challenged individuals to express their freedom while being disciplined enough to respect the freedom of others.
Brubeck's words about jazz and democracy take on even more meaning with the recent presidential election.
It was a bruising election season and it revealed that the nation is experiencing profound demographic and social changes. Attitudes toward gay marriage are shifting, a black president was re-elected to a second term, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the country will have a majority-minority population by 2043.