I open my book Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time in 2003, with the Dave Brubeck Quartet on the road, traveling out of London toward their next gig. As I sit at his side, Brubeck engages in free-flowing reminiscence—about working with Louis Armstrong and Leonard Bernstein and about the gangsters who lorded over jazz clubs in the 1950s. Then the narrative turns to 1953, when the Brubeck Quartet was on the American road in a package tour with the Charlie Parker Quintet. Both men were the same age, born in 1920, but it was Parker who was considered the very apogee of modern jazz—to jazz critics and aficionados of the music, the bebop that Parker had helped pioneer was everything.

This felt like the perfect curtain-raiser because it positioned Brubeck solidly at the center of that ongoing debate in the 1950s about where jazz was heading as an art form. He spoke about Parker with affecting warmth; Parker was funny, verbally agile, thirsty for good discussion about music. But he was also troubled. Brubeck remembered a night when Parker suffered a breakdown onstage, then shook his head regretfully as he recalled Parker ignoring his subsequent advice not to become dependent on Mafia heavies for drugs.