We lost a great jazz musician this week, Dave Brubeck. As I write, “Take Five” reverberates in my mind. The two seem connected automatically. Think of one, you think of the other. He didn’t compose it (that was Paul Desmond), but his fingerprints are all over it.
I didn’t know beans about jazz until one day, as a 19-year old air force serviceman stationed at Ellsworth AFB near Rapid City, SD, I was waiting to catch a bus back to base when I chanced upon one of those memorable chats we sometimes sereptiously run into with strangers we never meet again. For some reason, we fell upon jazz, or rather he introduced me to it, mentioning names I’d never heard of like George Shearing and Dave Brubeck.
In coming days, I began tuning in, beginning with those muffled, soothing keyboard sounds of Shearing, whom I came to adore. Soon I was into a growing repertoire of jazz greats–the likes of the inimical Duke, Mingus, Satchmo, Montgomery and, of course, Dave Brubeck. I was hooked!
Across the years, my love for jazz hasn’t diminished, though I confess I’m not enamored of the popular species passed around today as “smooth jazz,” which I won’t pursue here. I often like to think of jazz as today’s classical music. I thought I had coined an original in that observation till one day I came across a jazz notable, name forgotten, saying the same thing. Anyway, I appreciate the confirmation from a reputable source.
I also would contend that jazz has been our best art export, often taking on more popularity abroad in places like London and Paris than here at home where it seems relegated like poetry to backstage scenarios or college campuses, NPR and, sometimes, PBS. If you’re looking for some great live renditions, you can still find them of course in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Local gigs, alas, seem background to dinner conversation in most clubs these days, with dissonance smothering even the most sultry rhythms with one improvement: in the old days when public smoking was in, you’d be lucky even to make out the combo in the densely floating haze.
The thing I like most about jazz and that binds me to it fiercely is its heart-and-soul improvisation. If it isn’t there, hey, it ain’t jazz. Jazz is the music of freedom, doing it your own way, always in process, an ever happening. Jazz makes me feel free, speaks to my uniqueness and yours, captivates with its reverberations of old themes in new ways.
Brubeck was the master improviser, fiercely independent, even defiant. Ahead of his time, he ardently opposed segregation and refused to perform where it was practiced.
In music, he defined the octet, quartet and trio. At his most innovative, he departed from the traditional 4/4 jazz beat, composing or playing at 5/4 (e.g., “Take Five”). It didn’t stop there.
Few people know he barely survived the Battle of the Bulge, which saw his unit trapped behind enemy lines.
Or that he loved classical music deeply, especially Bach and Beethoven. Like many of his cohorts, his roots lay in classical music and continues in contemporaries like Herbie Hancock and Alicia Keyes. He aspired to writing serious pieces of his own, composing music for ballets, operas, and even a mass oratorio. (He became a Catholic in 1980.)
Or that his Time Out album (1959) was the first jazz album to exceed a million sales.
Back in the summer of 1986 while a stipend summer student at Yale, I came across Dave Brubeck within touching reach when he performed on the New Haven Green. And of course it included the mesmerizing “Take Five.” I regret I was then too shy to shake his hand.
Brubeck, a deeply religious man, once described heaven as where his friends Satchmo, the Duke, and Basie were jamming all day, everyday, forever. They’ve a new member now. and they’re jamming like crazy!
Thank you, Dave, for the music. Thank you for the man you were.