There have only been three moments when the death of a celebrity caused me to choke up: Elvis; Sinatra; and today with the passing of jazz icon Dave Brubeck. Brubeck may not now be the household name he once was. Nonetheless, his name will always be spoken with an honored tone in my home.
I am fortunate enough to have seen all three men perform live. I saw Elvis when he played in my hometown, not long before his death. I saw Sinatra perform in Atlanta in the early ’90s. I saw Brubeck perform in Tarrytown, New York in the summer of 2009.
Each of these men was a master of his respective form. More importantly, their immense talents permitted them an artistic transcendence few can ever approach.
The accomplishments of Elvis and Sinatra are certainly more well-known. Brubeck’s should be. Moreover, Brubeck was able to do things in his personal life that few celebrities — let alone mid-century jazz musicians — are able to do.
He leaves behind his wife, Iola, who he married in 1942 — That’s 70 years of marriage. They raised six children, four of whom are professional musicians. He served under Gen. George Patton in WWII.
Collateral to all this, Brubeck was a pioneer in civil rights. His long-time bassist, Eugene Wright, is African-American. Brubeck’s quartet was one of the first major jazz ensembles to be integrated (only Max Roach preceded him). Brubeck was so committed to this ideal, he canceled several gigs because club owners demanded a replacement for Wright. Brubeck also canceled television appearances when he learned the networks intended to keep Wright out of frame.
One of his most significant musical innovations was to make jazz more accessible to the public. What was previously the purview of minorities, beatniks and recreational drug users became mainstream.
Mile Davis, an innovator on par with Brubeck, once famously derided the pianist’s music as “white, college boy jazz.” Apparently, Davis thought it lacked a certain artistic gravitas. Of course, Davis was also a notoriously angry, decades-long drug addict.
Writing for All About Jazz, Chris May draws another important comparison: “As… The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings observed, …Brubeck’s (album) Time Out has become so familiar that ‘no one actually hears what’s going on anymore.’ The album is one of two masterpieces made in 1959 sharing that fate. The other is trumpeter Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. But Brubeck’s album has suffered the most. Davis’ studied cultivation of his image, along with such spurious qualifications for hipsterdom as his bouts of heroin and cocaine addiction, mean that Kind of Blue’s magic still shines through the cloak of over-familiarity.”
They are both seminal, classic and irrefutably sublime. I always feel better after having listened to them.
This said, Time Out wins in one dimension: successful experimentation. Executives at Columbia Records thought Brubeck’s use of unusual time signatures (5/4, 9/8, 6/4, 3/4) would confuse people. As a consequence, they failed to promote it.
The underestimated public wasn’t confused. They were delighted. The single, Take Five, became the first jazz instrumental in history to sell more than 1 million copies.
Brubeck followed this release with Time Further Out (my personal favorite) and a succession of other “time” themed albums. I am also especially fond of the “Jazz Impressions” series. If you want to dive right in with both feet, do yourself a solid and order the recently released, re-mastered box set of The Columbia Studio Albums 1955-1966. It will be the best $100 you ever spend on music.
My enduring memory of Brubeck comes from that magical night in Tarrytown. There, I saw an elderly man, barely able to walk across the stage, sit on a piano bench and make music few could ever rival. It makes me so very sad to learn of his passing, but my grief is tempered by those final images of a man with an irrepressibly huge smile —- having spent his whole long life doing what he loved to do. We should all be so blessed.
Thank you, Mr. Brubeck, for all the happiness your talent has given me.