Dave Brubeck 1920-2012

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

As I was driving home from the doctor’s office late this morning, I turned on the jazz station and heard the last strains of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk.”  Immediately, a feeling of dread arose from somewhere around the solar plexus, although I knew that his 92nd birthday was coming up soon and perhaps this was a preliminary salute.  There was no back announcement, no sign that anything was up, and the station immediately segued into Lee Ritenour imitating Wes Montgomery, so I breathed a bit easier.  Then when I got home, I heard the sad news that Dave’s heart had suddenly given out.  He missed his birthday by only one day.

You’ll read a lot in the coming days about how Dave Brubeck broke ground in jazz with his use of odd-meter time signatures, Bach-influenced melodic lines, Milhaud-influenced polytonality, and contrapuntal interplay with the late, laconically witty Paul Desmond. Or how, with the contrivance of a strategic edit by Columbia Records, Dave managed to score a hit single, “Take Five” in a more enlightened time on radio – and how he managed to captivate a mass audience without compromising his musical experiments in the least.  Or how he turned to writing concert music and religious choral works in his later years, combining and juxtaposing every style that he had learned over the years while never losing his own powerful personal musical signature.

What you may not hear about is the Dave Brubeck whom I knew, however sporadically – a sweet, grounded, ever-optimistic guy with a big, loving family who somehow survived and thrived for decades in a tough, take-no-prisoners business that the Limeliters’s Lou Gottlieb once referred to as the Spanish Main.  I remember ringing up what I thought was the Brubeck office one day to request a future interview time with the pianist – I was writing liner notes for the album of his Mass, To Hope.  The craggy voice on the other end answered, “This is Dave.” He answered his own phone – no secretary, nor another designated buffer.   So we did the interview right then and there – and through that and two more Brubeck albums that I wrote notes for, he couldn’t have been more cooperative, gracious, and informative, never gratuitously boastful yet also proud of his legacy and unafraid to toot his own horn about projects past and upcoming. Over the phone, he even taught me how to play his then-new “Be Natural Blues” on the piano.

I believe that for all of his popularity and latter-day acclaim – for he outlived almost all of his critics and even converted some along the way – Brubeck will stand alone in jazz history and American music. There was no one like him before he broke in, and there would be no one like him afterwards, for he didn’t found a school. No one imitates him the way aspiring and established pianists build upon Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and especially Bill Evans – and that’s a tribute to his individuality and ability to make instantly appealing and yes, swinging music out of seemingly rigorous raw material.

Whenever Dave played the piano live, you could see and sense the pure, sheer delight he had in making music – and that was not show business; that came from deep down within his fundamental personality. To me, it was an accurate reflection of the Dave Brubeck whom I knew. I’ll miss him a lot.