Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dave Brubeck at 90

Jazz musicians were high on my list of childhood heroes, right up there with my Dad who served with General Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe and my Uncles [his brothers] who both served in the Pacific for the duration of World War II with the US Navy and Marines, respectively.

The fact that Dave Brubeck sent along the photo autographed by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Gene Wright and drummer Joe Morello which you will find at the end of this piece did nothing to diminished my admiration of him. [I had sent him a handwritten letter – remember those? - requesting a photograph of he and the group.]

And then there’s all of that wonderful music that Dave produced with his various groups over the years which has been a constant source of inspiration and enjoyment. Heck, I even liked the Dave Digs Disney theme album that the quartet made not-too-long after signing with Columbia Records in 1950s.

What a life; what a guy!

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought perhaps that visitors to the site who may have missed the endearing tribute to Dave as he turns 90 which Gene Seymour wrote for the December 5, 2010 “Arts & Books” section of The Los Angeles Times might enjoy having an opportunity to read it. Click the following link for subscription information for the Los Angeles Times.

“The Enduring Jazz Legends Who Turns 90 on December 6, 2010 is Still Playing And Composing.”


© - Gene Seymour reporting from Wilton, Conn./Los Angeles Times; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Most people who have never lived in Connecticut imagine that the whole state is exactly like Wilton. It's not, but driving toward the town where Dave Brubeck lives, you understand why this dream never dies, especially in late autumn when every tree seems almost mythic in its chromatic display and every pitch and roll of the rural landscape yields views that can either fill your heart or break it gently.
You can easily love this area of the world in the same unfettered way the whole world seems to love Dave Brubeck. Jazz may not occupy the center of the musical universe at the front end of the 21st century, but even people who know little, if anything, about jazz know who Brubeck is. And what they know, they like very much. Through more than 60 years of record­ings and performances at colleges, concert halls, festivals and nightclubs all over the world, Brubeck put forth a body of work — as pianist, composer and bandleader — that is as accessible as it is ingenious, as stress-free as it is rhythmically emphatic, as open-hearted as it is wide-ranging.

Brubeck turns 90 years old Monday and the occasion will be marked with the premiere on Turner Classic Movies of Bruce Ricker's documentary "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way," executive-produced by Clint Eastwood. Columbia Records, which enjoyed a fruitful, hugely profitable relationship with Brubeck from 1954 to 1970, just marked the occasion with the re­lease of a two-disc set, "Leg­acy of a Legend," whose se­lections were supervised by Brubeck.

All this celebratory activ­ity has been tempered somewhat by the pace­maker surgery Brubeck had in October. His recovery was so unexpectedly protracted that he had to postpone pre­viously scheduled perform­ances. (You figure that it had to have been a pretty se­rious problem for someone so devoted to making his gigs that he once did 120 straight days of travel for concert dates.)

"It was tough," Brubeck says of the procedure, which was supposed to have kept him hospitalized overnight but led to an 18-day stay. "They had to go into muscle instead of skin ... and that caused all the problems."

The dark-haired, owlish countenance that was once among the most recogniz­able faces in music has be­come pale, almost snowy white. He speaks and moves more delicately and deliber­ately than he did even a dec­ade ago. But there remains in Brubeck an aura of amia­bility so ' radiant that it seems to compete with the sunlight flooding his living room in ways that are al­most as breathtaking as the country surrounding his house. Instinctively, one looks for the piano. It's one step below the parlor area in a space where anyone else with an instrument, even a trap set, can jam.

From this area of the house, an assistant brings out a promotional poster of a now-defunct series of CDs, Columbia Jazz Masters, on which caricatures of these masters crowd together on a tiny stage. In the process of identifying the icons de­picted on the poster—nota­bly Miles Davis, Louis Arm­strong, Count Basic, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday - it strikes the observer that the only one in this picture among the living is the stu­dious, buttoned-down young fellow with horn-rimmed spectacles seated at the piano nearest to Holi­day.

So, of course, one asks him first about Lady Day. "I toured with her years ago. She was a wonderful singer, but her health was so bad. She didn't take care of her­self. And her manager wouldn't give her money to stay in a hotel, so she'd sleep in the band bus."

Leaving the ranch

It may take Brubeck longer than it used to for him to reach back for a rec­ollection. But when he does, it unravels with vivid detail, whether he's remembering a club date from the 1950s or talking about his childhood in Stockton, where his fa­ther wanted him to go into the family business of cattle-ranching.

"I'd always go home from college to work with him on the ranch. And this one summer I said to him, 'You know, I have a job, playing in a club. I would like to do that. You have plenty of cow­boys.' He said, 'Dave, I can't see you leaving this life and playing in a smoky night­club. You could be out in the fresh air. I think you're mak­ing a big mistake.' But I went and it was a big disap­pointment. He never lived to see me make it as a musi­cian. So I don't know if he would have approved in the end."

More anecdotes invari­ably turn up in "In His Own Sweet Way," which uses ar­chival footage; vintage in­terviews with Brubeck (in­cluding two with the late Walter Cronkite); testimo­nials from sources as varied as Bill Clinton, George Lu­cas, Bill Cosby and Stanley Crouch; and, of course, many musical interludes on- and off-stage to present as comprehensive a life story of Brubeck as you'll find anywhere.
The artistic triumphs are covered, of course: his groundbreaking college concert tours in the early 1950s that shot him to fame; his experiments with time signatures and polytonality. Then there are the personal triumphs, especially his long and happy marriage to his wife, lola,* whom he met while both were attending what is now the University of the Pacific, where the Brubeck Institute of Music is based. He also was a suc­cess at being a father, with four of his sons — Darius (named for his mentor, French composer Darius Milhaud), Matthew, Chris­topher and Daniel — all be­coming renowned musi­cians in their own right.

The Sony two-disc set amplifies the artistic story as it pulls together pieces from the label's 16-year cache of Brubeck record­ings, most of which encom­pass the epoch-making "classic" quartet of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring bassist Gene Wright, drummer Joe Morello and alto saxophon­ist Paul Desmond, which served as a lucrative labora­tory for Brubeck's aggres­sive assaults on rhythmic imits. The set includes such chestnuts as "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Summer Song" (as vocalized by Armstrong' on the now out-of-print 1961 recording of Brubeck's se­riocomic "jazz opera," "The Real Ambassadors") and the indelible, inevitable "Take Five." (Quick! Who wrote it? Brubeck, you say? Wrong! Desmond did.) Some glowing rarities dis­tinguish this retrospective, including a never-before-re­leased live performance of "Three to Get Ready" by the classic quartet at its last concert before disbanding in December 1967. (Brubeck wanted to do more compos­ing than touring, a resolu­tion that didn't last longer than a couple of years.)

After listening to these and other Columbia tracks recently, jazz critic Gary Giddins said he liked "the best of them as much or more than ever. It's so much the sound of that era. And there is cheerfulness, a love of playing jazz, of inventing stuff that is rare in any pe­riod."

A bow to the Duke

Through it all, Brubeck, as the title of the film im­plies, retained a sweetness of temperament that some of his critics found too good to be true. Yet his sense of fair play was genuine. Take, for instance, Brubeck's re­action to being put on the cover of Time magazine in November 1954, following his triumphant series of col­lege concerts. Most people would say, at such a mo­ment, "Wow! I'm on the cov­er of Time!" Brubeck's im­mediate reaction was some­thing like: "Gee. How come I'm on the cover of Time magazine before Duke Ellington had the chance?"

It was Ellington, with whom Brubeck was touring at the time, who first showed Brubeck the Time cover. "Seven in the morn­ing, there's a knock at the door and there's Duke handing me the magazine and saying, 'Dave, you're on the cover.' He was happy for me, but I was just so disap­pointed because it should have been him. They got around to him finally a cou­ple of years later. But just bothered me."
Brubeck paid his own lasting tribute to Ellington with one of his most famous compositions, "The Duke," a solo version of which can be heard on "Legacy of a Legend." In a way, the tune is a tribute to both Ellington and his other musical hero, composer Milhaud.

"I was using polytonal chords on the bridge, and I wanted to call it 'Milhaud Meets Ellington.' I was in­spired to write the melody when I took my son Christo­pher to preschool. And com­ing back, it was raining, and I had the windshield wiper on. And I started thinking as the blades were going back and forth...." And he begins to sing the melody as his arm mimics a wiper, "Bah-dum-bahdum-bah-da-ba-daaah.... When [pia­nist] Marian McPartland first heard it, she said, 'Dave, you've written the best bass line of any song.'"

He still writes. "There's usually somebody wanting me to do something, and it'll be something I never thought of doing," he says, referring to such recently commissioned work as a pi­ano suite inspired by the na­ture photography of Ansel Adams and a mini-opera based on John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." "One thing," he admits. "At my age, holding a pencil for hours a day is not so good anymore. So I had Chris do all the hard work, getting all the copies together."

And he can still play, as he recently proved during a Thanksgiving weekend stint of his quartet at Man­hattan's Blue Note jazz club for his first gig since he left the hospital.

His interaction with longtime partners Bobby Militello on saxophone, Mi­chael Moore on bass and Randy Jones on drums was reportedly as seamless as ever and New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen found in Brubeck's playing "the picture of judicious clarity, its well-placed chordal accents suggesting a rifting horn section."

Is it possible he could keep this up? Well, he's sure not going 120 consecutive days in different cities any­more. But one dividend of his hospital stay was the chance to have, in his words, "all kinds of things fixed.... And I just saw on my driver's license that there's no re­strictions on my eyes. And my ears are still pretty good. I lost a little in one ear. It rings a lot because when you sit next to the drummer and those cymbals, it gets to your ears eventually. After the ringing started, I moved to the far end." He laughs. "I should have made that move sooner."

So it's all good then? He nods, stating what seems, when taking in a home, a ca­reer, a legacy and a life, alto­gether obvious. "I'm very fortunate."