Tag Archives: brubeck

In Your Own Sweet Way…

Dave Brubeck on the Cover of Time
Dave Brubeck on the Cover of Time

I normally talk about my own, 5-person family and limit this space to that.  And it’s not that tonight’s is too different from that.

Except I want to devote my few hundred words to a man who I don’t know but touched my life very deeply.

When you read this, likely, it would have been visionary Jazz musician Dave Brubeck’s 92nd birthday.  If you’re older or from the West coast, you know who that is.  If you’re younger and not then you likely won’t.

In today’s world of hip-hop re-hashed sampled music mixed with auto-tuned pop songs with no real talent or inspiration behind them, the thought and composition of this man stands out, to this day, in my mind.

Brubeck was never one to stick with the mainstream.  If the atypical piece of music in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a 4/4 time piece of music, Brubeck wanted to see what classical themes and off-time signatures could do for the medium.  It aggravated so-called “jazz purists” at the time.  It sparked the imagination of his own mentor, Duke Ellington, who said it sounded like jazz to him . . .and it swings!

Jumping off that statement, while I realize that a 5/4 time signature can confound the toe-tappers when his crossover hit “Take Five” starts to play, I dare you not to smile and swing with it.

I grew up with Brubeck.  It’s not that he was – at the time – a popular artist when I was a child.  Growing up in the ’70s/’80s you listened to rock and roll.  Led Zeppelin and The Eagles and Steve Miller with some Carlos Santana thrown in for good measure.  But my father had the same eclectic musical tastes I did so I also got to hear BB King mixed in with Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and . . . of course . . . Dave Brubeck.  There was quite a bit of him in the record collection.  Why?  In the ’50s Brubeck had done a college tour, hundreds of campuses, including Creighton University – where my father went to college.  He saw the original quartet – with the sax player Paul Desmond.

The music always wraps around me like a comfortable, warm blanket.  Desmond’s sax playing is so smooth and flowing it’s like a velvet glove lined in silk.  His playing isn’t deliberate, it’s improvised for sure, but it’s just fluid.  I’ve never heard another sax player sound precisely like him and that’s too bad because he was just so brilliant.  However, with all the recorded material through the original quartet, it’s great there is so much.

Brubeck wasn’t just a pioneer in the music world, either.  He played jazz on the front lines because his commanding officers told him it was good for morale and even when bombs were falling he wasn’t allowed to stop playing.  When he struck out with the classic quartet: Dave himself, Paul Desmond, Tom Morello and Eugene Wright, he lost tons of profitable gigs.  Why?  Because Wright was an African-American bass player and the Southern campuses (and probably some Northern ones, too) wouldn’t let them play or at best – wouldn’t let Wright come in the front door.  Brubeck hated that and took a stand, choosing smaller venues and avoiding the profitable places that wouldn’t treat every member of his quartet with respect.  He wrote jazz, classical, hymns, and standards.  His music was covered by Miles Davis and Robben Ford alike.  (Ford has said before he always wanted to play like Paul Desmond sounded)

I was fortunate enough to see Dave Brubeck twice in my life.  The first ranks up as one of the most amazing concerts I’ve seen in my life and it almost didn’t happen.  I had bought two tickets to Brubeck’s show in 1989.  He was performing with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra, doing portions from the Mass he’d written and all of his standards.  I had a date for the show, someone I’d been dying to go out with . . . and she cancelled.  (It might be wise to tell you I don’t even remember her name now, that’s how well things went!)  I wasn’t happy, I was down, and I almost didn’t go.  Even back then, dates by yourself are just simply . . . rough.  Add to that it was the symphony, so I had to dress up.  That’s doubly difficult.

But I went, and I got there insanely early.  I was down in front, the show nowhere near starting, and this man came out, moving slowly, hair disheveled, wearing a cardigan and blue jeans.  I only ever saw his back and he was making adjustments to the piano, so I assumed he was with the theater.  As I walked to leave the man sat behind the keys and started playing “Strange Meadowlark” from the album Time Out, and I realized then I had seen the man himself.  As I turned around to go ask him to sign an LP he was gone.  That night, though, he came out, crisp tuxedo, and the evening was brilliant!  He did symphonic arrangements of some standards, an Ellington song, and then he told the symphony to leave and he played roaring renditions of Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk that took up a good half hour of the show.  It was after that the conductor came back and extolled that only Dave Brubeck could – four short weeks before – have a quadruple bypass and come back playing like this.

I saw him again, just a few years ago, here in Sacramento.  He played in a pavilion at the Radisson Hotel and he was far older, far more frail looking, but I had a date.  My wife, who loved Brubeck as well, came with me and we saw him from something like 5th or 6th row.  Even at that age he still could swing!  He told the story of the first record store he’d frequented, including buying St. Louis Blues . . . and then simply sat down and said “well, we’ll just play it for you” and did . . . in stellar fashion.

It was a beautiful night, possibly the extension of what that first show should have been.

But my point to all this . . . is that this amazing musician did amazing things, and not all of them limited to music.  He was on the cover of Time magazine.  He held the record for most performances at the Newport Jazz Festival.  He was on the forefront of the civil rights movement, even writing a musical for  Louis Armstrong that never got performed – perhaps due to the subject material.

Dave Brubeck was an amazing man and an even more brilliant musician.  The world is less off-beat for him leaving us.  And perhaps that’s why I like his music so much – it’s just enough off-beat, just confounding enough to do 5/4 and 7/4 time that you scratch your head but love it all . . .

I am fortunate in that my kids, with no hesitation, will recognize a Brubeck song when they hear it.  They know the odd signatures and cool, smooth tone and brilliant musicianship.  Sure, they listen to Flo Rida here and there and rock out to the Black Keys a lot.  I have my own rock and blues background.  But good music, folks, is good music, and I’m proud to expose them to it.

Like the song said, he lived a philosophy, and I learned – if a little – from him to live your life In Your Own Sweet Way.

Strange Meadow Lark . . .

Strange Meadow Lark
OK, yes, I did use the title just so I could get a Brubeck song into the post for his birthday, too, but it’s my prerogative, I’m doing the writing after all.

The holidays are a scramble, even on the best of years, particularly financially.  I have four kids, which makes for a lot less money to dole out between children.  Now that I’ve lost my wife, and by virtue of that, a second income, I’ve lost a lot of ability to get presents and pay the bills.  (If you think that’s all I miss, by the way, go back and read previous blog posts here and then try to criticize me!)  Before you say it’s what I get for having four kids – I knew what I was doing, I went ahead and slept with my wife, I could have found ways to have only 2 kids.


I never thought I’d be doing this alone, though.

Most of what we have left from Andrea is great.  We have a lot of amazing traditions, things we came up with together, and things that she brought to the table that added to the way my family handled the holidays and decorating and the kids.  I am eternally grateful to Andrea for giving me so many things that I never thought I would experience.  I have an ability now to go through the house, know what goes where, how to decorate little pieces, make the house look nice, and somehow still feel like I’ve got some semblance of manhood when I’ve finished.

But there are some traditions that I honestly, sincerely, wish she had left the hell alone.  I grew up in the Midwest, and while so many people around the country criticize the middle section of our nation, there’s just so much to appreciate that they don’t understand.  People there are strong.  Their mettle is tested every winter with below-zero wind chills and they get battered by thunderstorms and tornadoes every Spring.  But for every hail storm there’s an appreciation of the beauty of the lightning that accompanies them.  For every tornado there’s the knowledge that comes, where you recognize the temperature drop, the hail, then the eerie calm and greenish-grey clouds just before the funnel forms.  You are strong, you are smart and you are instinctive.  When I was getting ready to head to college, going through the last year of high school, my mother made me help make dinner every night.  She taught me how to make homemade bread; how to bake cookies; how to clean up as you go so you don’t have to clean it ALL up after; how to persevere when things go wrong.  When I got married I already knew how to clean.  With my little brother I’d changed diapers – cloth ones and you have to WASH those, folks.  I learned how to be a good man, holding onto tradition and faith and strength.  Those traits have helped me get through this year.

The holidays are amazing there.  We have Christmas done up, snow on the ground, the trees decorated, presents under the tree, lights everywhere, it’s an event.  We used to visit my Grandma’s house, just a couple miles into town, and you could just feel Christmas.  My youth was filled with cooking . . . turkey and ham in the oven; there was bread dressing; my family: my Mom and Grandma made sugar cookies, Lincoln Logs (peanut butter, coconut, dipped in chocolate); pecan sandies; cinnamon rolls; kolaches; pumpkin and pecan pie; lace cookies, all of it.  They cooked for weeks, the temperature cold enough they put the containers on the back porch and it kept everything fresh.  I don’t have the time to do this.  Neither does my wife’s family.  I can cook, and Thanksgiving I did it all, but the all-encompassing feeling wasn’t there.  We just didn’t feel like we were embracing the holiday.

But there are also odd traditions that they brought to us that I never celebrated, nor did my family, nor my Mom’s Irish relatives.  To me they are excuses to have yet another holiday, something for people with too much time on their hands and too little imagination to take yet another tradition that some people did have and try to force everyone to do it.

My kids came home tonight . . . again . . . and asked if they could put their shoes out.

“It’s Saint Nicholas Day, Dad!”

Now, if you haven’t heard of it, I certainly hadn’t before my wife’s family got involved, the kids put out their shoes and they get candy, coins, oranges, and presents.  Sound familiar?  Oh, wait, it’s a miniature stocking stuffer moment.  It’s another thing I have to remember and yet another strange meadowlark that just started popping up.  I get that some people honor the saint this day.  I get it’s a tradition in some cultures.  Not in ALL cultures.  I can’t keep up.  It’s 9pm, everyone’s going to bed and I have to put shoes out.  Nick has to come put crap in their freaking shoes and I’m still behind on the nightly routine.  It happens every year and it frustrates the hell out of me.

Can we stop with the over-extension of holidays?  Do we have to decorate for Halloween as big and bright as we do for Christmas?  Do we have to take other people’s traditions – cultures that are NOT our own – and dumb them down, castrate them, and apply them to a vanilla-flavored version of their true purpose?  Nick’s coming at Christmas.  He doesn’t need a teaser trailer.  The school does it.  Now we have to do it at home.  Every year, some new tradition starts getting made up because Martha Stewart apparently hasn’t made enough money and people want to make more work for those of us that are just scraping by.  I want my kids to have a good year and amazing traditions.  I don’t feel like I should have them thrust upon me.  What’s next, Festivus for the rest of us?

Now before you all start criticizing me and telling me about the tradition, how your family did it, how it’s a real occasion, I don’t doubt you or any of that.  But it’s not MY tradition, it’s not a tradition everywhere.  So why are you forcing me to follow it by your intense conversation about it with my kids?  Here’s what this succeeds in doing: raising expectations that are already hard for me to meet .  Even when Andrea was here, she made us do this because someone they knew started it.  But I don’t want these traditions, these holidays that others used but not us.  I hate that the amazing week of Christmas that I had with family: food and the smell of baking and feelings of love are being replaced by stuffing candy and junk in shoes without really discussing why the hell you’re doing that in the first place.

St. Nicholas had a day, December the 6th, because that’s when certain cultures celebrated him.  He had his own tradition.  Part of Nick carried over into everything from “Sinter Klaus” to what we know as Santa.

Yet we now have both the shoes . . . AND . . . the stockings, presents, tree, and all of that later on – on December 25th.

Enough already!  And before you give me the “just don’t do it” speech, you tell your kids why they’re the only ones at school who St. Nick skipped last night.  Maybe you haven’t been very good.  Maybe you’re not on the good list and that’s why he skipped your house!  It’s like the old peer pressure from high school except this time I don’t get the happy, dizzy buzz that comes with what they’re forcing down my throat.

I’m trying so hard to survive this year without screwing my kids up completely.  That’s hard enough just in trying to keep them turning in their homework, preventing fights or bad behavior and learning who is trying to help you and who’s just trying to make themselves feel better.  This whole year’s been awful.  Now I add the strange traditions that have nothing to do with my family or how I grew up and suddenly I feel like the train’s derailing again.  I can hear the strange meadow lark singing off key from the rest of the flock.

Yes, I know, this just sounds angry and complaining, but I’m trying to give my kids what I had.  I want them to feel the holidays as I felt them, though I know it’s impossible.  Their Mom’s not here, the woman’s touch isn’t in our house, it’s all gone wrong.

So the worst part of it all is that we did it anyway.  All this complaining, the entire diatribe, and I put out the shoes.  Why?  Because it’s true, I can’t let the kids fall.  Even the smallest little, annoying thing that wouldn’t have been such a big deal last year is expanded now.  Nothing is little.  The tiniest crack can become the biggest chasm because we’re still fumbling around blindly in the darkness.  Each holiday or event is like a light post along the way.  I hate this freaking tradition, partially because I never remember to do it – it’s not in my litany of traditions from my family – partially because it’s yet another thing I have to get right . . . alone.  The kids don’t really care, I know.  They get their sugar high – thanks again for that – and they’re happy.

So here I sit, the only grumpy person in a sea of Rachel Ray’s and Martha’s, bitching that it’s not a “good thing”, only to come to the harsh realization.

It’s me who’s the strange meadow lark.

Booze, Bras and Brubeck . . .

This is the exact moment at that formal

I’ve eluded to this before but one of the losses that weighs heavily on me nightly is the loss of companionship.  It’s funny I feel that way because I never thought I’d be one that missed that interpersonal connection.

When I went to college I missed being around my family and never realized how close we actually were until I wasn’t around them every day.  There was no internet at this time and the idea that you could call them from anywhere but your house was just absurd – the stuff of Captain Kirk not cellular calling.  My solution was to go to the “Bell” store at the mall and buy a refurbished telephone.  It was a little black number that I thought was glossy and cool and fit my pseudo-musician persona.

By the time I’d met Andrea, I was feeling independent even if I wasn’t.  Leaving high school from a small town where everyone knew everything about you; knew your business; had ideas who you should like, love, date, have infatuation for, etc.; and had expectations for what you should be was something that weighed heavily on someone like me.  I was someone who refused to conform even if that meant isolating myself.  When I left for college, the idea that I could walk down campus, grow a beard or even learn to play the guitar were amazing.  I felt very confident that being scruffy, lanky, screwball single boy from a small town was working for me.

I had no idea what I was missing.

At that time, Andrea was a social animal.  She had a fake ID.  She drank with her sorority sisters and frat brothers.  She wore brand new clothes from Express and made herself up just to go out and drink at the bar.  Her hair alone took her over an hour to get ready.  A far cry from me, who didn’t shave, had long hair, and scared away a group of Jehova’s Witnesses when I answered the door in my Hendrix t-shirt with my Strat hanging off my shoulder.

The night I realized what I was missing is actually burned into my consciousness, and I almost blew her off.  March 29th, 1991.  I remember, because I had volunteered to work late with a colleague because both of us wanted to sit in the Newsroom and watch the George Foreman/Evander Holyfield fight without paying for the pay-per-view.  By the time the fight had hit hard and heavy it was becoming clear it wasn’t the fight of the century that the hype had led us to believe.  About midway through the newsroom phone rang.  That was unusual, understand, because we were a 6pm only newscast and the newsroom was usually vacant so calling that late would only happen if someone from the town was clueless or someone knew we were there.

Andrea had gone out drinking with her friends and had actually asked my colleague to come along.  Not me, a colleague.  I didn’t mind, though I was a hair jealous but loathe to admit it.  When I answered it was her, already having had a few, asking if the fight was over.

“…all but over, I suppose.  Not as amazing as we thought,” was my reply.

“Why don’t you come with us?” was her answer.  I knew I wasn’t the first choice, so I said so: “you mean _____.  I can see if he wants to come have a drink.”

“No . . . why don’t you both come?  I’m talking to you, not him.”

My colleague (who I’m not naming because I don’t want to put names that are not family in this blog) was watching me as I had the conversation.  I asked him if he wanted to go.

“Why not?  We didn’t pay for the fight, and it’s kinda lame anyway.”

My biggest worry was getting into the bar.  Like I said, it was March of 1991.  “But I’m not 21 yet.  I can’t get in.”

“Neither am I,” she said.  “I have an ID.  You don’t?  Forget about it, they’re not carding at the door anyway.”

They weren’t.  So I went, to a college hangout near her campus, and hung out with a bunch of people I didn’t know and who probably didn’t care to know me.  I was petrified, wondering what possessed me to accept this invitation.  Then Andrea saw me as I walked into the bar.  She had on a sort of tweed jacket, with flecks of red so it was a brighter, obviously female-inspired look with dark brown corduroy patches on the sleeves.  She had on these brown silk pants that flowed behind her when she walked, her hair newly cut in a bob that fell just below her neck and framed her face.  She had a beer in one of those milky-clear Solo plastic cups and rushed up cheering at the top of her lungs, arms wide in an apparent effort to give a hug.  I moved instinctively, though begrudgingly, so that she’d have easier access to our mutual friend only to find her veering away from him and making a bee-line for me.

“I’m so glad you came!  See!  I told you they’d let you in.  Nothing to worry about.”

She hugged me, sort of falling into my arms as I put mine around her back, laying her head on my shoulder a little, lingering longer than normal, but not long enough for me.  It was so sweet and disarming.  She put her arm around me, leading me to the table where they had innumerable empty pitchers and several full glasses of beer.  I took one and looked up to see her looking at me.  There was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, her teeth full and visible through the red lipstick she wore then.

I remember staying until close, 1am, and saying how I had to go.  I’d asked if she needed a ride home, but she was close and wasn’t worried.

“I’m so glad you came, it really made me happy,” she said.

“I’m really glad I came too.  But you didn’t want me here.  You wanted _____.”

“I asked him, yes, but when you guys got here, I hugged you.

She gave me a small kiss on the cheek, that infectious giggle of hers playing out as she looked me in the eye, and turned around to walk out the door in front of me, dancing a little as she walked out.  I was in a daze.  I don’t even remember how I got home, I really don’t.  I must have re-lived every conversation, every thought, every interaction from the night a hundred times.  I was just bewildered.

It wasn’t the only time she’d thrust me into her world, a time that should have been so very uncomfortable.  We had started dating already when she wanted me to attend her sorority formal.  It was a crazy event, something that supposedly had a secret location in order to prevent drinking by the Greek attendees.  So of course most people knew where it was at.  We, on the other had, had decided to rent a motel room with her three roommates so that we could go to the lobby, get on the shuttle bus and come back to the room when it was all over, drinking whatever we wanted on the way there and back.  Andrea came out with her dress unzipped asking for help.  Underneath, she wore this white, lacy piece of lingerie that had me simply trembling.  As I grabbed for the zipper she looked over her shoulder saying “don’t get any ideas, Dave, I wore this so I wouldn’t be tempted.  It’s harder than hell to get out of, so you’re cuddling tonight and that’s all!”  I’d say I was angry, but it was almost sexier and I knew it.  It drove me crazy.

They sang some sort of song EVERY person on the bus knew.  Their brother frat was a known party organization and they were as fully obnoxious as ever.  I was amazed this world existed.  I had gone all through school staring at people like this and was totally absorbed by how crazy it all was.  I didn’t drink much, it wasn’t my thing and I hated losing control to that degree.  Andrea knew I was nervous and stayed by me all night.  She’d helped me get ready, bought me a tie, and just disarmed me to the point I could be comfortable.  I was listening to some music and she overheard it through the headphones.

“Who’s that?”

“It’s Brubeck.  “Theme from Mr. Broadway” it’s my favorite tune of his.”

“He’s from Northern California, you know, where I grew up.  I love his stuff.”

I was floored.  It seemed so opposite of who she was.  This girl liked Morrissey and Toad the Wet Sprocket.  She went to James Taylor concerts.  Brubeck?

When we arrived I knew why I’d avoided Greek life.  The dinner hadn’t started, we’d only gotten to the salad when the obnoxious frat guy who was next to me cajoled his date to drink more beer.  She was young . . . insanely young . . . and it was clear she was looking a little green already.

“It’ll be alright.  We’ll loosen you up for tonight right?”  I didn’t have to read between the lines to know what he was loosening her up for.  He was as subtle as a land mine.  His plan backfired, though.  Within ten minutes, just after putting dressing on the salad, the poor girl, a freshman and first-timer who was amazed to have a date to the formal, passed out face-first in her salad.  Full-on, Italian oils and spices in her hair and all.  The guy shouted in anger that he wasn’t getting laid tonight, leaving me to lift the poor girl out of the leafy greens.  When Andrea asked what I was doing, I told her what happened.  As she was angrily looking for the kid’s house mates to make a complaint, one of Andrea’s roommates came running up saying “Oh my God, _________ is dancing so hard on the dance floor her dress is falling off and her boobs are hanging out!!!!”

A year prior I’d have run screaming from the place, looking for a way out.  Instead, I checked to make sure the girl next to me wasn’t sick and Andrea took my hand for the dance floor.  I’ve said before that I make music to avoid dancing.  For Andrea, it wasn’t an option.  At some point in that night, they played “Wonderful Tonight”, and we held each other close while feeling the music.  My inability to socialize, to actually work my way through a situation like this, was gone.  She made it all go away and told people only that I was wonderful and she loved spending time with me.  My goal wasn’t to get out of the party as fast as I could but to make it last as long as possible, to get out of my suit and into my pajamas and lay next to her in the bed.

That night I was so enamored with her I kissed her, for the cameras, in the motel room, friends and PDA be damned.  I was almost giddy with laughter when her sexy lingerie plan backfired.

“You know how hard it is to pee in this thing!”  I had no idea at the time, but it was a “body suit”, something that covered her top to bottom, sort of like a teddy or the like.  Problem was she had to unclasp it every time she needed to use the bathroom, and drinking inordinate amounts of beer in the evening made for lots of frustrations trying to reach down and undo the lace in the dark.

From that moment . . . the point where she’d laid in my arms and talked, all night, annoying her roommates with her giggling and talking, I was hooked.  She always wondered, and I’m not sure I ever told her, but that night, the night we slept together but didn’t “sleep together” was one of the most amazing nights I’ve ever had.  She was angry and frustrated that she had to deal with this crazy piece of lingerie.  She was frustrated that we’d both had enough to drink we were beyond sleepy and feeling so many emotions it drove us nuts.

It was that moment that I realized I wanted to wake up with her next to me like that every night.  You can say all you want, question my motives, tell me I’m wrong, but it wasn’t the day I bought the ring or asked her to marry me.  It was that night, in a motel room with six other people, holding her in my arms, that I decided I needed her to stay with me forever.

I miss that.  I’m remembering nights as far back as college and the feel, the comfort, the muscle memory of her laying there next to me is still there.  It’s the cause of my stress, the pull on my heart and the ache in my soul that I feel every night as I finally just feel my eyes droop and the jump in my blood pressure when I wake and think it was just a crazy dream only to see it’s the reality, I had lived the dream for 20 years up to this point.

I miss her, the social animal and public consciousness that pulled me out of my shell.  I know I’ve said this, but she made me a better man.  I’m slogging through life right now, not just because I miss her, but because, damn her, I miss the companionship.  She pulled me out of my isolated bliss and has ruined me for the rest of my life.  Now I see a beautiful woman on the street and still feel guilty for looking and can’t figure out why I have the guilt.

It’s that tug, the pull on my body that she still has.  The muscle memory won’t give way, like so many clasps on white lacy lingerie.