Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Dave Brubeck A Life in Time - Philip Clark

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I was interested in investigating how one aspect of his life illuminated another against the panorama of American history; and if you're wondering why the first chapter begins in 2003 and then flips back to 1953 — when the Dave Brubeck Quartet was touring in a package with Charlie Parker — that is why. Opening the book by explaining where Brubeck's music stood in relation to Parker's — who was then considered to be the very embodiment of modern jazz — goes straight to the heart of the music.”
- Philip Clark

“Dave Brubeck's music has achieved name recognition beyond jazz. But finding a convincing fit for Brubeck's legacy, one that reconciles his mass popularity with his advanced musical technique, has proved largely elusive. In Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, Philip Clark provides us with a thoughtful, thorough, and long-overdue biography of an extraordinary man whose influence continues to inform and inspire musicians today.

“Structured around Clark's extended interview and intensive new research, this book tells one of the last untold stories of jazz, unearthing the secret history of "Take Five" and many hitherto unknown aspects of Brubeck's early career — and about his creative relationship with his star saxophonist Paul Desmond. 

Woven throughout are cameo appearances from a host of unlikely figures, from Sting, Ray Manzarek of The Doors, and Keith Emerson, to John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, Harry Partch, and Edgard Varese. Each chapter explores a different theme or aspect of Brubeck's life and music, illuminating the core of his artistry and genius. To quote President Obama, as he awarded the musician with a Kennedy Center Honor: "You can't understand America without understanding jazz, and you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck."
- Hachette Books/Da Capo Press Media Release

What often distinguishes great people in the Arts isn’t genius, but perseverance.

But what happens when you get both: genius and perseverance?

Enter Dave Brubeck.

The trip to eminence was never an easy one for Brubeck, certainly not during the early decades of his career when he and his music were often bashed, battered and bruised [thank goodness for that perseverance].

If the East Coast Jazz establishment that reigned supreme during the Golden Age of Modern Jazz from 1945-65 considered the West Coast “cool school” to be three-steps below plant life, then where did that leave Dave Brubeck - originally based out of the San Francisco Bay area - and his music?

[In fairness, major Jazz critics Ralph J. Gleason, Grover Sales and Philip Elwood, who were all also in San Francisco during the period in question, had their issues with Brubeck’s music as well.]

As a pianist, Brubeck didn’t sound like Bud Powell, his alto saxophonist Paul Desmond didn’t sound like Charlie Parker and Joe Morello, the drummer in the classic version of his quartet [1956-1968], didn’t sound like "Klook" [Kenny Clark], Max [Roach] or Philly JJ [Joe Jones], respectively.

In the context of those halcyon, Modern Jazz days gone by, it might have been an awful time to be the Dave Brubeck Quartet, unless, of course, as Dave, Paul and Joe along with bassist Eugene Wright you loved playing your very distinctive style of Jazz or, you were one of the legions of fans who enjoyed listening to their music.

As was the case with Jazz on the West Coast, I’ve always suspected that the central problem that Dave Brubeck represents to his critics, then and now, is what to do with the “White” experience in Jazz.

For if Jazz is just a process, then the Jazz that Dave Brubeck and his bands made, irrespective of its racial origins, was just as valid as the Jazz any Black artist made.

Brubeck’s music wasn’t - in the parlance of the times - culturally appropriated, but rather culturally appropriate relative to its influences.

But more importantly, both the process of making Jazz and what Duke Ellington called “the feeling of Jazz” remained the same in Brubeck’s oeuvre despite its derivations.

Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck A Life in Time [New York: DaCapo, 2020] is both a reaffirmation of the distinctiveness of Dave’s music, as well as, a musical compass that points to the Classical and Jazz traditions from which it stems. Central to understanding the direction Brubeck’s music takes throughout its evolution are polytonality [playing multiple keys together] and polyrhythm, both of which have a longstanding thematic presence in his music. Another recurring theme in Dave’s music was his antipathy toward racial segregation which he would express in tunes, songs and in his extended compositions such as The Real Ambassadors, The Light in the Wilderness, and The Gates of Justice.

In addition to these ongoing themes in his music, interwoven throughout Clark’s Bru Bio are the unflinching and unchanging aspects of Dave’s character which also shaped his approach to Jazz. These include Dave’s integrity, his unshakeable self-confidence, his sense of fairness and loyalty to the members of his groups and to the Jazz community of fellow musicians and fans, his devotion to his wife and children and his unwavering commitment to Jazz as an expressive and extemporaneous art form based on “... improvisation, piano technique and emotion.”

As to how he formatted his Brubeck biography, Clark doesn’t mince words and tells the reader right up front that his intent was “... not to write a book that marched through Dave Brubeck’s life chronologically….”

What he gives us instead is a segmental overview of Dave’s career from its beginnings in the 1940s, the early and classic quartets of the 1950s and 60s, respectively, through to the rethinking and reformulation of his music in the 1970s, all of which he incorporates into an Introduction, ten chapters and a Coda.

A trained musician as well as an experienced journalist, Mr. Clark’s rich narrative and descriptive gifts provide us with a detailed account of a series of interviews with Dave during a 10 day bus road trip through a 2003 UK concert schedule.

The substance of these talks is then retrospectively applied to the major recordings in Dave’s career in order to help the reader understand Dave’s unique approach to Jazz, from whence it came and how it evolved.

The information gleaned from additional email correspondence with Dave until his death in 2012, further research in the Brubeck papers at the University of the Pacific where they are housed, extensive listening to the session and master tapes at the Columbia/Sony vaults and an interview with bassist Gene Wright, the only surviving member of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet [1956-1967], are also incorporated to further expand the book’s central premises of polytonality, polyrhythm and a quest for racial justice which serve as the wellsprings from Dave’s style of Jazz.

All of this research, reflection and reportage on Philip Clark’s part results in a biography that is finally worthy of the man and the musician who was Dave Brubeck [December 6, 1920 - December 5, 2012] and one that I  recommend unreservedly. 

There are an infinite number of behind-the-scenes stories in the ten chapters that comprise Mr. Clark’s Bru Bio, each developed in such a way as to underscore and embellish significant milestones in Dave’s career. These accounts enrich our knowledge of how Dave created his art at the various innovative stages of his storied career.

A fuller explanation of how Mr. Clark went about his business is contained in the following Introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time which will be available on February 18, 2018 from DaCapo via this link.

“Once I had my title, not writing became more of a problem than sitting down to begin.

A Life in Time was a title that encapsulated the classic biographical model of "the life and times," but it also opened up the terrain. The project was not to write a book that marched through Dave Brubeck's life chronologically — casually observing, perhaps as an aside, that shortly after his quartet recorded "Take Five" in 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon flew on a trade mission to Moscow and Billie Holiday died. The plan instead was to thread his life back through the times that formed it. Brubeck saw active service as a soldier during the Second World War; he led a commercially successful, racially mixed jazz group during some of the ugliest, darkest days of American segregation; and in the late 1960s and early 1970s he created a series of large-scale compositions that reflected variously on issues of race, religion, and the messy politics of an uncertain era. Threading his life back through these times was both a musical and a social concern — I wanted to shine a light on how Brubeck, thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.

As a biographer in search of a title, I was handed a gift by Brubeck, even if it took me a while to realize it. He was a man obsessed with time. From the moment he founded the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 to only eighteen months before his death at the end of 2012, Brubeck spent much of his life touring the world, which adds up to sixty years of playing concerts in every continent of the world, including some countries that today would be too dangerous to contemplate visiting.

He was also a man impatient with time. Finding time to play jazz, time to compose, and time to devote to his wife lola and their six children were all important to Brubeck, and with only so many hours in the day, one solution was to overlap those activities. Compositions originally written for his extended sacred pieces were adapted for his jazz groups; and, if you want to spend more time with your teenage children, one sure way to know where they are every night is to play jazz with them. Beginning in 1973, Brubeck toured with three of his sons— Darius, Chris, and Dan—as Two Generations of Brubeck and the New Brubeck Quartet, his initial reluctance to embrace their newfangled cultural reference points — which included rock, funk, and soul music — quickly forgotten.

But that word, time, also had another meaning altogether. Whenever I interviewed Brubeck, it never took long for two key terms to emerge: polytonality and polyrhythm. Polytonality — music sounding in two or more keys simultaneously— and polyrhythm — overlays of different rhythmic pulses and grooves — were, like the attitude he took toward life, techniques that allowed obsessions and tics to coexist. Brubeck plied his music with overlaps: between musical cultures in "Blue Rondo a la Turk," which combined an indigenous Turkish rhythm with the blues, and in "Three to Get Ready," which squared the circle of a waltz by inserting bars of 4/4; between different time signatures, like his version of "Someday My Prince Will Come," which managed to be in 4/4 and 3/4 at the same time; between the radically diverse range of musical styles through which he waded in his improvised solos — no sweat as Liszt flowed into James P.Johnson.

And time also meant time signatures. "Take Five" in 5/4 time, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" in an asymmetrically arranged 9/8, "Unsquare Dance" in 7/4 — before Brubeck, no jazz musician had worked so consistently, or so successfully, with extending metric possibilities. For all their bold innovations and harmonic daring, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, the occasional waltz aside, kept to 4/4 time, but Brubeck's experiments with time signatures became his calling card. In the US, May 4—5/4—has become an unofficial Dave Brubeck Day and Twitter meme; and Tchaikovsky might have composed a famous waltz in 5/4 time in his Pathetique Symphony, but Brubeck came to own the idea of 5/4 time in the way that Van Gogh owned the sunflower and Philip Glass the arpeggio — which meant he owned nothing at all. Anyone can paint a sunflower or play music in any time signature they like; but Brubeck's 5/4 time stuck in the public imagination, to the point that he and it became inseparable.

Even before he had recorded a note of music in 5/4 or 7/4, Columbia Records bosses sniffed something in the air and decided to call his first studio album for the company Brubeck Time, and after the soar-away triumph of Time Out, Brubeck followed up with Time Further Out, Time Changes, Countdown—Time in Outer Space, and Time In. His gift to any prospective biographer, especially one searching for a title, was that word, time, which needed to feature as part of my title — but in a more meaningful way than a mere wisecracking play on words. Reconciling all those connotations of time, from the broadly historical to the directly musical, became my way forward. A structure pieced itself together as I took time to think through all these various meanings of time.

"Go back to the music if in doubt" became my mantra as I wrote, and in fact the structural inner workings of Brubeck's music led the way from the get-go. The story within a story of the blues and Turkish music in "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and of 3/4 versus 4/4 in "Three to Get Ready," and Brubeck's knack for nesting one time signature inside another, freed up time: no need to slavishly adhere to the chronology. I was interested in investigating how one aspect of his life illuminated another against the panorama of American history; and if you're wondering why the first chapter begins in 2003 and then flips back to 1953 — when the Dave Brubeck Quartet was touring in a package with Charlie Parker — that is why. Opening the book by explaining where Brubeck's music stood in relation to Parker's — who was then considered to be the very embodiment of modern jazz — goes straight to the heart of the music.

And another reason to cut direct to the chase, leaving Brubeck's birth until later, was that I didn't want to wait for the chronological narrative to catch up with my own role as an embedded reporter. In 2003, I shadowed the Dave Brubeck Quartet (then featuring Bobby Militello, Michael Moore, and Randyjones) during a ten-day tour of the UK. I couldn't make every gig, but as the quartet traveled between their rented apartment in Maida Vale, West London, and Brighton, Southend, Manchester, and Birmingham, I had the privilege of sitting next to Dave on the bus and we talked and talked, sometimes late into the night; I also spent time with Brubeck and his wife lola in their Maida Vale flat. Ostensibly this extended interview was for a feature commissioned by the British jazz magazine Jazz Review — published as "Adventures in the Sound of Modernist Swing" in July 2003 — but Dave gave me hours' worth of material, many more words and memories than could be stuffed into a 3,500-word article. I always worried that my original article, rushed out in a couple of days to satisfy press deadlines, was not the finessed, definitive piece I'd hoped for. The origins of this book go back to the realization that I owed it to myself and, more importantly, to Brubeck to write something more permanent and fitting.

Most of the interview material was collected on the road in 2003, but this book also draws on face-to-face interviews recorded after that date, and occasional e-mail supplements routed through lola's AOL account. Brubeck was, typically, very generous with his time and willing to talk, but at the age of eighty-two, his memory was fallible, especially regarding dates and names. Some things he reported as fact were directly contradicted by my subsequent research, and all such occasions are highlighted in the text. Brubeck also had a tendency — like many musicians I've interviewed — to repeat a settled account of a story that, as he told it yet again, wandered further and further from reality. I learned quickly to nudge him in another direction when I'd heard the answers before. Sometimes he held back information to protect former associates and side-men who were still living in 2003 — in one such case, I was only able to piece together the full story of why his bass player and drummer both quit suddenly at the end of 1953 by reading through his later correspondence. But almost everything he told me about the making of Time Out was undermined by one troubling inconsistency that, with access to other sources and the rehearsal tapes, I have done my best to iron out.

One sure way I found to keep Brubeck's interest engaged was to pose questions about less-often-discussed areas of his career, and that strategy threw up some remarkable details about his friendship with Charlie Parker. Brubeck was born in California in 1920; I was born in the north of England in 1972, and that Brubeck had so much to tell me about a time and place so far outside of my own experience became intoxicating. As he talked in 2003 about segregation in the mid-1960s — and especially about how the quartet defied the Ku Klux Klan during a now-notorious concert in Alabama in 1964 — the thought that such an event had taken place only eight years before I was born haunted me. As I wrote all these years later, that Brubeck's accounts of his country's gravest shame should have such damning relevance to Trump's America felt unbearably poignant and tragic — time overlaps, but it is also cyclic.

The origins of this book are traceable to 2003, but the origins of my relationship with Brubeck's music stretch back much further. At Newcastle City Hall, in the early 1960s, had Brubeck turned around to look at the seats that were arranged onstage to accommodate a capacity crowd, he might have looked directly into the eyes of his future biographer's father. Later my father, who is a painter, worked on his canvases every night with Time Out on his turntable. I can remember, at the age of six or seven, keeping myself awake to hear "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the sound of which enthralled me; family mythology insists that I would run into his studio cheering whenever it was played. In the summer of 1986, during a family holiday to Spain, I found a cassette of Brubeck's 1973 album We're All Together Again for the First Time in a record shop in Figueres following a visit to the Dali Theatre-Museum. As we drove out of the city in the scorching Mediterranean sun, with the tape pumping through the rental car, threatening to blow the doors off, my mother shifted uncomfortably in the back seat next to my younger sister as the opening track, "Truth," unfolded. This was Brubeck at his wildest, vaulting free-form clusters around the keyboard before entering into a gladiatorial dialogue with drummer Alan Dawson. Once again, I was captivated.

It is no exaggeration to claim that everything I have achieved in my life as a musician and as a writer began with those two experiences. "Blue Rondo a la Turk" led me to more Brubeck, then to Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane (and back in history to Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton). And after I played it for my music teacher, John Hastie, "Truth" spun me in a whole other direction. If you like this, he suggested, you might well appreciate Bela Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. A trip to the local library unearthed a long-unborrowed boxed set in which the Bartok piece was paired with music by Karlheinz Stockhausen. I was immediately hooked, and I returned a few days later to borrow LPs of music by Pierre Boulez, Charles Ives, and Krzysztof Penderecki.

I met Brubeck for the first time in October 1992, when I was a music student and, following a quartet concert in Manchester, he graciously agreed to look through a piano composition I'd written called Thelonious Dreaming. lola took me backstage and Dave played some of my harmonies through on the piano, and then he suggested we ought to keep in touch. The next time I had some music ready, I sent it to his address in Wilton, Connecticut, and was amazed when, only a week later, a reply arrived. When I was looking for employment in 1998, I pitched an interview with Brubeck to the editor of the now-defunct Classic CD magazine; the Brubeck Quartet was touring the UK, and to this day, I remain convinced that the editor muddled my name with some proper journalist who knew what they were doing. But no matter. The article, my first paid piece of journalism, was duly published in the February 1999 issue, and from that point every magazine and newspaper I've written for — Jazz Review, the Wire, Gramophone, Classic FM, International Piano, Choir and Organ, Jazzwise, the Guardian, and the Financial Times — seemingly had cause to commission a Brubeck article. Not writing a Brubeck book was becoming a big problem for me, and after writing the program booklet for Brubeck's eighty-fifth birthday concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in 2005, I intimated to Dave, in the greenroom, that I ought to write a book. "Well . . . we'll talk." He smiled. Two or three attempts to write a Brubeck biography then went nowhere, and it was only after the title A Life in Time popped into my head — in a supermarket in East Finchley, North London — that everything fell into place.

A long personal digression, I know, but one that I hope helps explain the book that A Life in Time has ultimately become. Having gone to so much effort to place Brubeck's life within his time, lifting him out of his time became important as I was nearing the end of the book. There was nothing to be gained by abandoning Brubeck in the 1950s and '60s. Too many critical perspectives on Brubeck's work, I felt, lacked credibility and were ill informed because they tapered off post-1967, when the classic quartet, featuring alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, disbanded. Another critical cliche — that the crazy number of records Brubeck sold was directly out of proportion to his influence — also struck me as suspect. True enough, the lineage of influence that led from Art Tatum to Matthew Shipp, via Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor — or from Miles Davis to Wadada Leo Smith, Wallace Roney, and every other trumpeter who followed him — did not apply to Brubeck. In that sense, the nay-sayers were right: there was/is no school of Brubeck. But being the sort of music fan who had discovered the joys of both Benny Goodman and lannis Xenakis through Brubeck, I couldn't buy into the notion that the shadow he cast began and ended with Time Out and "Take Five." The pianist who recorded "Truth" was clearly not the commercial smooth jazz pianist of myth.

A knottier web of influence was at play, a view confirmed by the other music journalism I was writing. When I wrote about the British post-punk band the Stranglers in 2013, I couldn't help but notice how deeply indebted their hit record "Golden Brown" was to "Take Five"; when I interviewed Ray Davies of the Kinks, he mentioned in passing how much he had loved the Brubeck Quartet in the 1960s; then the American composer John Adams told me something similar. When I heard Australian rock band AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie" during a taxi ride, the fuzzy guitar riff sounded oddly familiar — then I realized it was based on the tide track of Brubeck's 1962 album Countdown—Time in Outer Space.

These experiences, and similar ones, sent me to trace Brubeck's influence outside jazz. Musicians as varied as Anthony Braxton, Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett had gone on the record to express how important Brubeck had been at different points during their careers. But
I wasn't prepared for the much-feted pianist Andrew Hill — who recorded a strikingly radical series of albums for Blue Note, beginning in 1963 with Black Fire and Smoke Stack, with progressive thinkers like Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, and Sam Rivers at his side — to tell me how deeply he admired Brubeck's pia-nism. And so, with my title in place, I began to write a book that threw chronology to the wind, a biography that told Brubeck's story and investigated, as rigorously as I could, the aftermath.

Flip this page and you'll find yourself in 2003: at the age of eighty-two, Brubeck still felt like such a vital creative force that I thought the dust of history could wait a while. For Brubeck, jazz was never a done deal or marooned in history. He always played music in the present tense—which is where A Life in Time begins.”

PHILIP CLARK Oxford, July 5, 2019

[Philip Clark is a music journalist who has written for many leading publications including The Wire, Gramophone, MOJO, Jazzwise, and The Spectator. He also writes for the Guardian, Financial Times, London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. He trained as a composer but these days prefers to produce his own sounds playing piano as part of a weekly free improvisation workshop. Clark lives in Oxford with his wife, two children, two cats, and more recorded music than he can ever listen to.]

Clark’s Bru Bio is a brilliant book from every perspective: from the insights it sheds on Dave’s music, the many backstories it offers about his personal life and its depiction of his unflinching support of racial and social justice.

In its own [sweet?] way, it also lends credence to asserting that the body of work Dave composed over a 70-year span of time is the equal of that of [his hero] Duke Ellington or any other Jazz composer and deserves to be recognized as such.

Although by comparison, his extended works for larger orchestras are fewer in number- Brubeck chose a quartet featuring a saxophonist as his primary medium of expression - his larger, symphonic works are a consistent extension of his interest in polytonality, polyrhythm, and moral causes. 

As even a cursory review of Philip Clark’s cogent analysis of Dave’s music will show, such comparisons between Brubeck's oeuvre and other significant Jazz composers is not sacrilege but merely a statement of fact.

Fans of Dave Brubeck and his music have waited a long time for him to be ranked among the greatest Jazz musicians of all time.

And now, thanks, to Philip Clark’s efforts, a well-argued basis for according Dave such an honor is in place. 

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