One of the great regrets of my life to date – along with not learning to speak French, which I may still hope to do – is that I never got the chance to see jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, who died yesterday, perform live in concert. I came close, once: a couple of years ago my good friend over at Ten Thousand Places alerted me that Mr. Brubeck would be performing at The Kennedy Center, and I learnt that nearly around the same time he would be performing at the Blues Alley jazz club here in Georgetown. We talked about possibly getting a small group of friends together to go see him, but were rather dismayed when all of the tickets sold out within minutes, and were then being scalped online for some astronomically high prices. For a very old man whose heyday was many decades ago, this is quite a testament to the longevity of his career and his enduring popularity.
Dave Brubeck and his eponymous Quartet became a part of my life largely through the influence of my father. Dad would tell me about listening to Brubeck, Desmond, et al in high school and college during the late 1950′s/early 1960′s, and how he connected with it and with that era. I distinctly remember being a young boy and staring intently at the cover of his copy of “Red, Hot, and Cool” from 1955, which I believe my youngest brother has now expropriated for his own collection.
This particular record was released well before the now-legendary “Take Five”, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, “Three To Get Ready”, and so on from their 1959 “Time Out” album, when Brubeck et al were still growing in popularity. On the cover we see a group of well-dressed, but admittedly rather nerdy-looking guys, playing music in a smoky jazz club somewhere in New York, laughing it up with a beautiful model in a red dress. ”That’s what I want,” I would think to myself, as a chubby young piano student with thick glasses and little in the way of social skills. ”If they can do it, so can I.”
I never did learn to play jazz piano, sticking instead to the classical and the sacred, but neither did I lose my appreciation for Brubeck’s combination of the popular and the cerebral in his performances and compositions; and in fact, the more I came to understand it the more I found it everywhere, in people and things that I admired. For example, when my favorite Uncle would come to visit us from Madrid, he would sit down at the piano in the living room and play jazz entirely by ear, in a sort of broad, confident style that came from Brubeck’s era. And as I began to appreciate old movies, I began to hear this sort of playing as it popped up in some of my favorite films, like “All About Eve” (1950) and “Rear Window” (1954) – even though the piano players in those films were not trying to be Dave Brubeck, of course.
Although I own a number of Brubeck albums containing both his original compositions and covers/variations, I must admit that my favorite is “Dave Digs Disney” (1957). In this recording, the Quartet explores songs from Disney movies, including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Pinocchio”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “Cinderella”, among others. Through the course of the album they take the Disney musical themes and run with them in some creative and innovative ways, a mixture of childlike simplicity with musical complexity and virtuosity, that is truly extraordinary to listen to.
When I was little “Cinderella” was my favorite Disney cartoon, as I dearly loved the two mice Jacques and Gus, and the Quartet’s version of “So This Is Love”, from that film is a real treat for me every time I listen. There is again a confident but tempered swing in this recording, particularly in Brubeck’s playing, that is paradoxically both smart and popular at the same time. After Paul Desmond’s portion about midway through the piece, Brubeck gets to have three chances to present his own variations. Each one builds upon the last, until the third and final variation is just a full-out expression of joy in playing beautiful music on a beautiful instrument. If you have never heard this composition before, go find it and wait for this moment nearing the end of the piece, and you will see what I mean – and ironically, it did not make the cut on the original release!
As a final note, Brubeck converted to Catholicism a number of years ago, when he was approached to compose the musical settings for the mass. At the time he was of no particular religious faith, but was so inspired by the experience of composing the “Our Father”, as he described in an interview, that he crossed the Tiber. Among the many awards he received in his lifetime was the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame at the 2006 Commencement, in recognition for his contributions to the Church and to society. His brief speech accepting the award, which he kept short so that he could play for the audience, is as follows:
Thank you so much. When I first came into the stadium, I heard a wonderful sound. It was the Concert Band. And I said to myself, ”Why didn’t I bring the music I wrote for the Pope that was really for 21 brass?” These guys could really cut that. The reason I wrote it for 21 brass is we were honoring Pope John Paul II in the baseball stadium called Candlestick Park – 72,000 people. And I knew if I had violins and woodwinds, they wouldn’t be heard, but brass… man, you can hear the brass.
We were supposed to do my Mass with the Pope, but just before that was to start, they informed me that they wanted nine minutes of special music while the Pope came into the stadium in the popemobile. I said, ”Well, where is the text?” And they said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church and the jaws of Hell cannot prevail against it.” And I said, “You want nine minutes on one sentence?” So I turned them down and went to bed and woke up and said, ”I know how to do it. I’ll do it like Bach would have done it.” You can use the same sentence over and over if you do a chorale and fugue, and that’s what I did.
Now one of the most nervous days, outside of today, was that day. And all of a sudden, there was kind of a silence when 72,000 people weren’t buzzing and talking. And I looked up and the Pope was looking right at us in the orchestra, the brass. My conductor came over and sat by me on the piano bench and I said, ”Did he bless us, or what?” He said, “I think he was learning to conduct in 4/4.” Well, it all went very well, but someday Id like to hear it here. It belongs here.
Now I had some kind of serious classical pieces to choose from to play the piano and I’m not going to play any of them. Because you people are going out into the world and you need a piece called “Travelin’ Blues.”
Forgive me for saying so, but how cool is THAT?
It is now our turn to wish Mr. Brubeck well, as he travels on his own way to meet his Heavenly Father. We may feel a bit blue in having lost him, of course. Yet his smart, cheerful, beautiful music will remain with us, even as we wait to get in and listen to him playing in that magnificent celestial jam session.
R.I.P. Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)