Thursday, December 2, 2010
Some things you can’t make up.
Thirty-nine days after heart surgery that had many worried he was down for the count, Dave Brubeck is alive and swinging. The timeless musician returned to performing on Nov. 19, at a gig in Worcestor, Mass., near the hospital where he was treated (he performed for his doctors, of course), and his quartet recently won the Down Beat Readers’ Poll for “Best Jazz Group,” as the Monterey Jazz Festival website jubilantly pointed out, “for the first time in 57 years!”
There’s more. On Dec. 6, Brubeck’s 90th birthday, the Turner Classic Movie Channel is presenting a new documentary, Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way. Executive produced by Clint Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker, who has previously collaborated with Clint on tributes to Johnny Mercer and Tony Bennett, the footage is an obvious labor of love and a fitting tribute to a legend who wears his fame, and his prodigious talent, lightly.
It’s a neat counterpart to Concord Music Group’s new two-disc collection, The Definitive Dave Brubeck, On Fantasy, Concord Jazz and Telarc, collecting Brubeckiana from his session work in the ’40s to the present.
But the movie gives you a feeling of the man behind the music.
There’s too much ground to cover in Brubeck’s protean career to begin to do him justice, but Ricker gives it a valiant try: There’s the love story of Dave and his wife and muse, Iola, who has stood steadfastly behind him, inspired some of his most moving tunes and, not coincidentally, been the business mind behind booking the breakthrough college dates memorialized in albums like Jazz at the College of the Pacific (Dave’s alma mater), which audaciously brought jazz to new audiences.
There’s the tale of Brubeck’s musical growth, from a novice pianist, encouraged by his mother (his father wanted him to be a veterinarian), marching musically with Patton’s army into France and Germany, then heading to Mills College in Oakland to study with the French composer Darius Milhaud after his discharge. (Milhaud wisely discouraged him from a purely classical career: “You want to be a composer like me? I want to be a composer like you. Don’t give up what you can do!”)
There’s Dave the breakout musical star, reluctantly allowing his initial trio to expand into a quartet with the inspired addition of Paul Desmond, whose “Take Five” turned into the best-selling jazz single in history. Brubeck always combined humanity, musicianship and savvy, relinquishing the musical spotlight to stars like Desmond and Joe Morello, the quartet’s legendary founding drummer.
As George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival observes in the film: “Jazz critics always thought Desmond was the key to the group. Desmond was only the icing on the cake. The cake was Dave Brubeck.”
Fair enough, but it’s hard to know how far Brubeck or his band would have gone without the inspired, unforgettable lyricism of Desmond. Credit him with the generosity to let the great saxophonist flourish.
Interviews with Brubeck fans from Eastwood, who two-fingers it a bit with Dave on piano, to wunderkind Jamie Cullum, Sting and even Keith Emerson (who covered “Blue Rondo a la Turk” for Emerson, Lake and Palmer) serve up informed opinions on Brubeck’s legacy, although I could have done with a little less of George Lucas and Bill Cosby, as sincere as their appreciation may be, and preferred a different narrator than the sonorous Alec Baldwin.
There’s no question that Brubeck is a different kind of piano player than some of the other greats – his heavy, swinging chordal clusters lack the simplicity of Ellington and Basie, the quiet melancholy of Bill Evans or the inspired dissonance of Thelonious Monk.
But the great thing about Brubeck is that he doesn’t try to be hip: He’s just Dave, a force of nature.
As music historian Ashley Kahn points out, Brubeck was “almost apologetic” about being the first jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time, rather than, say, Duke, Charlie Parker or Dizzy. Few are more aware than he of the irony that he owes part of his success to the fact that he happens to be Caucasian, just as it was the Rolling Stones who brought an acceptable commercial face to the music of Howlin’ Wolf.
Brubeck has always been an unwitting, if not unwilling, popularizer. But he has never done so by lowering his standards or pandering. He’s someone who just happens to have an uncanny, and most un-jazzlike instinct, for popular taste. And, as recent events illustrate, inexhaustible energy.
“I do believe in heaven,” says Brubeck, who converted to Catholicism in later years. “I believe in the miraculous, and things you can’t explain. That’s what faith is.”