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.