Dec 5, 2012
What Dave Brubeck Means to Me
Brubeck, along with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, is inextricably tied up with my idea of what jazz is and should be. He's as essential to the only true American art form as any of the greats, be it Armstrong or Ellington, Parker or Gillespie. Anyone who wants to argue that point with me had better come ready to fight. Brubeck brought jazz to a wider audience than probably any human who ever lived, he did things no one else had done with the music - then or now - and was one of the most elegant and lyrical musicians ever to sit at a keyboard. One of the greats? He defined the term.
My own history with Brubeck began in my early teens when, weary of 1970s classic rock I heard "Take Five" playing somewhere, maybe on the Ron Cuzner radio show in Milwaukee. Later I'd learn about Brubeck's classical influences and his use of unusual time signatures, how he "transcended standard conceptions of swing rhythm," as one critic put it. All I knew was, the moment I heard "Take Five" I was done with Led Zeppelin for good. I've listened to his music ever since, and just last year I reviewed one of his albums. My fondest Brubeck memory is from years ago, when my wife and I took our young son to see him play in Philadelphia. At the time he was well into his 80s. He played with the energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age.
Nowadays "Take Five" and other Brubeck signature tunes like "Blue Rondo a la Turk" have become so much a part of our culture that it's difficult to imagine how striking they were, how entirely new they sounded when they were released in 1959 on the album "Time Out," Brubeck's masterpiece.
Indeed, they were too new for some. Critics ripped Brubeck, charging that his music was effete, bombastic. And as a white musician in a predominantly African-American art form, he was attacked by those who sniped that he was getting recognition that was due black musicians. Of course, there wasn't much Brubeck could do about such attacks. All he could do was keep playing music. Which he did.
Then something interesting happened. As jazz critic Ira Gitler has noted, Miles Davis started covering Brubeck's songs (Davis always had a keen ear for a great tune, regardless of its provenance.) Once Brubeck had the stamp of approval from the coolest man in all of jazz, that was it. The critics cooled their jets, the carping about Brubeck's color faded away, and "Time Out" went one to become the first jazz instrumental album to sell a million copies. Even today, "Take Five" remains the biggest-selling instrumental jazz single in history.
But the attacks over race stung Brubeck more than anyone knew, because he, as it turned out, was an early and passionate advocate for civil rights. He led a mixed-race quartet in the 1950s and '60s that was often barred from playing venues in the Deep South, and during his career he wrote compositions inspired by both Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King.
And when Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, it wasn't just the critics who were upset: Brubeck despaired of the fact that he had received such an honor before his idol, Duke Ellington.
Years later, when he was interviewed for Ken Burns' PBS documentary "Jazz," Brubeck was asked about his first encounter with racism, when he was a boy growing up on a California ranch run by his father.
This is what he says:
"The first black man that I saw, my dad took me to see a friend of his and asked him to 'Open your shirt for Dave.' There was a brand on his chest. And my dad said, 'These things can't happen.'
"That's why I fought for what I fought for," he adds. And then, unable to hold back his emotions any longer, Dave Brubeck weeps.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons