Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dave Brubeck – The Economist Magazine and The Week Obituaries

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For those of you who do not take The Economist or The Week, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought you might find their obituaries of Dave Brubeck, one of the seminal figures in the development of Jazz, to be of interest.

Many readers of these pages had the good fortune to experience and appreciate Dave Brubeck’s music.

In my case, it changed the course of my life – irrevocably.

The images that accompany the obituaries were selected by the magazines.

© -The Economist, December 15, 2012 copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Dave Brubeck, pianist and composer, died on December 5th, aged 91.

“TO PUT Dave Brubeck in a box was an unwise thing to do. He'd just jump right out again, big, broad and strong, with those horn-rimmed glasses and that crazy, slight­ly cross-eyed smile. Call him cool, and he'd tell you that many of his jazz arrangements were so hot, they sizzled. Lump him with players of white west-coast jazz, and he'd object that he felt more black than white. Suggest he was influenced by the pelting, intellectual strain of bebop that took over jazz in the 1940's, and he would say nope, he didn't listen to it; he only ever wanted to do his own thing. Call him the usher of a new jazz age, put him on the cover of Time magazine, where he landed in 1954, and he was crestfallen. Duke Ellington deserved all that, he said, but not him.

His contrarian ways went further. Give him a few bars of Beethoven, and he'd weave a jazz riff through it; but put him in the middle of a jazz set, and he would come up with classic counterpoint as strict as the "Goldberg Variations". Sing him a tune in C, and his left hand would play it in E flat; give him a jazz line in standard 4/4 time and he would play 5/4, 7/4, even 13/4 against it, relentlessly underpinning the adventure with big fat blocks of chords. He was a jazzman who struggled to read nota­tion and who graduated on a wing and an ear from his college music school; and he was also, in later years, a composer of can­tatas and oratorios who was proud to have written a Credo for Mozart's unfinished "Mass in C minor.”

The musicians he picked for his quartet, which dominated the popular jazz scene from 1951 to 1967, were chosen because they could break out of the box like him: Paul Desmond on feather-light, floating alto sax, Joe Morello razor-sharp and witty on drums, Eugene Wright rock-solid on bass. Their greatest success, an album called "Time Out" (1959) that sold more than 1M copies, was a collection of breezily poly tonal pieces in wild time signatures, center­ing on a Desmond piece called "Take Five" written in teasing 5/4, and "Blue Rondo a la Turk", devised by Mr. Brubeck after hearing street musicians playing in 9/8 in Istanbul. These two pieces alone consolidated the quartet's fame on campuses and in clubs all over America; but Columbia Records re­fused to release the album for a year, just baffled, said Mr. Brubeck impatiently, by the fact that it broke so many rules. It did, but hey, it sounded good.

Whenever he sat down at the piano-an instrument as satisfying, to him, as a whole orchestra-his aim was to get some­where he had never got before. It didn't matter how tired he was, how beat-up he felt. He wanted to be so inspired in his explorations that he would get beyond him­self. He liked to quote Louis Armstrong, who once told a woman who asked what he thought about as he played: "Lady, if I told you, your mind would explode." In his own words, he played dangerously, pre­pared to make any number of mistakes in order to create something he had never created before.

Horsebeat and heartbeat

Several people had set him on this path. His mother had first taught him piano when he preferred to be a rodeo-roper; her rippling playing of Chopin round the house he remembered in a piece called "Thank You". His platoon commander in 1944, having heard him doodling on a pi­ano, kept him away from the front line. And Darius Milhaud, his teacher after the war, taught him to see jazz as the natural id­iom of America and the music of free men. Mr. Brubeck believed seriously in jazz as a force for democracy: in post-Nazi Ger­many, in the Soviet Union, in the fragile post-war world (where he toured on be­half of the State Department) and in Amer­ica's South, where he insisted on perform­ing with his black bassist and, when he could, pushed him to the front of the stage.

Yet his mission was never to make jazz freer or more popular; it was to make mu­sic, pure and simple, any way he could. He sang his first polyrhythms against the steady trot of his horse as he rode round the 45,000 acres near Concord, California, where his father managed cattle. In high school, playing at rough miners' dances in the foothills of the Sierras, he would riskily "screw up the shuffle" by adding triplets to it. He wrote on the road, dreaming up "Un-square Dance" (in 7/4) while driving to New York, and composing "The Duke", his tribute to Ellington, against the beating windscreen wipers of his car. All this, with his use of folk songs and hymns and blues and birdcalls, his little snatches of homage to George Gershwin or Aaron Copland, and the freight-train urging of his playing, gave his jazz a flavour less of smoky dives than of open skies and plains.

Critics attacked him for getting rich from it. He said he had never wanted more than the union scale. They said he was too "European", too college-focused, that his music couldn't be danced to and hadn't got swing; he pointed out the happy feet tap­ping at his concerts, and the number of re­cords he sold. Above all they found it hard to believe that the most successful jazz in America was being played by a family man, a laid-back Californian, modest, gen­tle and open, who would happily have been a rancher all his days-except that he couldn't live without performing, because the rhythm of jazz, under all his extrapola­tion and exploration, was, he had discov­ered, the rhythm of his heart. •”

© -The Week, December 21, 2012 copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The Pianist Who Reshaped The Rhythms of Jazz

Dave Brubeck

“By the jazz world's wild stan­dards, Dave Brubeck was a total square. He didn't smoke or take drugs, and he limited himself to one martini before dinner. The pianist favored expressions like "baloney" and "you bet" over coarser alternatives. But when it came to music, Brubeck was anything but conven­tional. He experimented with challenging time signatures on tracks like "Take Five" and ran through all 12 keys on "The Duke," winning the respect of his harder-living contemporaries. On tour in the Netherlands in the 1950s, stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith was asked by a reporter, "Isn't it true that no white man can play jazz?" Smith gestured toward Brubeck and replied, "I'd like you to meet my son."

Nothing in Brubeck's background suggested that he was destined to be a jazz great. He grew up on the cattle ranch his father man­aged in northern California, said NBCNews.com. His mother, a classically trained pianist, banned her three sons from listening to the radio, believing they should play music if they wanted to hear it. The young Brubeck quickly mastered the piano, learning mostly by ear because he was born cross-eyed and had trouble reading music. Brubeck thought his future lay in ranching and had to be prodded to go to college, where at first he studied veterinary medicine. But he quickly "became smitten with jazz," said the Associated Press, and switched his major to music.

After graduating in 1942, Brubeck enrolled in the Army as an infantryman, only to be pulled from frontline duty and given a military band to lead. There he met Paul Desmond, who would become Brubeck's most important musical partner. The alto saxo­phonist "was a perfect foil; his lovely impas­sive tone was as ethereal as Brubeck's style was densely chorded," said The New York Times. Brubeck led a series of bands after being demobilized, and in 1951 he invited Desmond to join the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  The group's smooth West Coast sound proved a hit on college campuses, and "with the release of Time Out in 1959, Brubeck had an unexpected best seller," said The Washington Post. It became the first jazz LP to sell more than a million cop­ies, even though it included complex tunes like "Blue Rondo a la Turk." The piece is in 9/8 time—nine beats to the measure instead of the customary four beats—and blended Turkish folk rhythms with jazz and Mozart.

This success didn't "come without reservations in the jazz world," said The Guardian (U.K.). Some critics suggested that Brubeck only topped the charts because he was white, even though the pia­nist was a high-profile civil rights activist. He refused to play any venue that barred black musicians—his bassist, Gene Wright, was black—and he turned down a 1958 tour of South Africa when told that he could only perform with an all-white band. Brubeck always believed that race was irrelevant to music, explaining that jazz was based on the universal rhythm of the human heart. "It's the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat," he said. "It's the first thing you hear when you're born—or before you're born— and it's the last thing you hear."”

As you can see from the following video montage, Dave made a lot of records.

One of my favorites is Jazz Impressions of the United States. From it, I have selected Dave’s composition Ode to A Cowboy as the audio track to the video.

The tune seemed a fitting tribute to Dave as his days of riding the range as a young man were perhaps the place where the polyrhythms he was so fond of may have first entered his mind.