Clippings: Brubeck’s jazzy style was contagious

It is usually a good idea to listen to your mom. Back in the ’60s and ’70s my mom was a very active volunteer with the Duluth Symphony. As an accomplished pianist and organist she was eager to keep at least one toe in the world of music while the rest of her was busy raising me and my brother and sister. She served on the symphony board and a few times a year she and my dad would break out their season tickets, get dressed up and head out for an evening of high culture. My brother and I would stay home and wreak havoc.
One night in the mid-’70s my mom told me and my brother to get dressed up, we were going to the symphony. What?! That didn’t sit right with me, especially since my parents would be sitting at a table on the stage level of the Duluth Arena, enjoying food and drink, while my brother and I would be up in the cheap seats. Why?! My mom explained that the symphony had a very special guest playing with them that night. His name was Dave Brubeck.
Brubeck, the legendary jazz pianist, died last Wednesday one day shy of his 92nd birthday. His career spanned more than 70 years and it spanned the globe. He was, and is, a giant of jazz. In 1999 he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and in 2009 he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his contributions to American culture.
Brubeck was born near San Francisco in 1920. He grew up on his parents’ ranch and went off to study veterinarian medicine in college, but the music bug, which hit him early in life, got the better of him and he switched majors. He played in army bands during World War II and upon his return to the States he formed his own groups. First an octet and then a trio. In 1951 he formed a quartet with saxophonist Paul Desmond and began an amazing 17-year journey as the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
The Quartet rode a wildly successful tour of college campuses, breaking down race barriers in the process (bassist Eugene Wright was black), to more widespread popularity. Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 to illustrate an article on the resurgence of jazz music. The Quartet began touring the world as U.S. State Department ambassadors in the late ’50s. In 1958, while in the Middle East and India, Brubeck was captivated by new musical languages and rhythms. In 1959 he experimented with those new ideas and recorded the album “Time Out.” The album and the single “Take Five,” composed in 5/4 meter, became huge hits, even breaking into the pop charts.
You can talk a lot about Brubeck’s use of experimental time signatures, polytonalities and improvised counterpoint, but for me I just liked the way he could swing. And he certainly did swing that night back in the Duluth Arena. His white dinner jacket and bow tie didn’t really impress me, but his playing did. And when he brought out his three grown son musicians to join him I really sat up in my seat. Darius on keyboard and synthesizer, Chris on electric bass and Dan on drums came out with long hair and beards, bell bottom jeans and psychedelic shirts. And they could kick it just as hard as dear old dad.
Who was this guy?!
He was just as comfortable and accomplished with the stuffy symphony as he was with his hippie kids. Turns out he was a real family man. He was criticized back in the day for maybe lacking edge. His contemporaries in the jazz world were ultra-hip, ultra-cool experimenters on stage and off, and he was maybe a bit of a square. He was a loyal family man (he was married to his wife, Iola, for 70 years). He was deeply religious. He didn’t spend extravagantly. He didn’t smoke and limited his drinking to one martini before dinner. When asked about Brubeck’s ventures into the seedier side of life, his quartet mate Desmond said, “Every five years or so, Dave makes a major breakthrough, like discovering room service.”
For Brubeck it was all about the music and it showed in the infectious smile that was always on his face when he played. It was a smile that spread to his children, to my mom and her children and to the faces of millions of other children who were fortunate enough to have discovered Dave and his music.
I have to thank mom for dragging me along that night. And I have to thank Dave Brubeck’s mom, too. Turns out that in the whole history of great motherly advice, right at the top may be the words uttered by Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck. Long before I or anyone else had heard of Dave Brubeck, back when he was just a kid, his mom forbid him to listen to the radio and said, “If you want to hear music you should play it yourself.”
Nicely played, Mrs. Brubeck.

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