If one believes in fate, it's easy to conclude, in retrospect, that Dave Brubeck was destined to become a jazz musician.
"I can't remember when I didn't want to be a piano player and composer," says Brubeck from his home in Wilton, Conn. "It started that young. When things start when you're young, I think you have an advantage in seeing it through. Maybe. I'm still trying."
Indeed. Brubeck, 81, who performs Saturday at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, is a seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of musical ideas and inspiration. He's recorded more than 130 albums, worked with many of the greatest artists in jazz and won almost every award imaginable. And, at an age when many performers are content to rest on past laurels, Brubeck tours constantly, both domestically and in Europe. He continues to create original material for his quartet -- as evidenced by his compelling 2001 CD, The Crossing -- and for symphonies and choral groups. One may wonder: What does he have left to prove? Why not relax a little?
"I've got a great group," Brubeck says of his current quartet, which includes alto saxophonist/flutist Bobby Militello, drummer Randy Jones and bassist Michael Moore. "It's a lot of fun and very satisfying and creative. What else is there in life?"
Brubeck recently appeared at Carnegie Hall, performing both jazz and sacred material. Later this month, he'll record with the London Symphony Orchestra. In July, he'll cut a new quartet CD. In September, he'll play with his sons at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he'll also recreate a portion of his theatrical production, The Real Ambassadors, first performed at Monterey with Louis Armstrong in 1962.
Brubeck was (and remains) an innovator who redefined the boundaries of rhythm and harmony in American music. His landmark work, Time Out, recorded in 1959, was an experimental collection of songs set in unconventional time signatures. Prior to Time Out, most popular music, including jazz, was written and performed in 4/4 time, or perhaps 3/4 time. Time Out featured such tunes as the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond's "Take Five" (in 5/4) and Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (9/8) and "Pick Up Sticks" (6/4).
Today, such diverse time signatures are ubiquitous in jazz. High school marching bands play "Take Five." Brubeck notes with pleasure that crowds in Vienna, Austria, clap effortlessly with the 7/4 rhythm of his "Unsquare Dance," the theme song of a television program there. TV viewers in Paris hear "Blue Rondo" during the nightly weather report, while French vocalist Claude Nougaro registered hits with vocal versions of "Blue Rondo" and Brubeck's "Three to Get Ready."
Time Out was a milestone in Brubeck's quest to infuse jazz with daring tonal and rhythmic devices, an objective he outlined in an early '50s Downbeat article. "It's time that the jazz musicians take up their original role of leading the public into more adventurous rhythms," Brubeck reiterated, in a 1961 appearance on Ralph Gleason's television program "Jazz Casual."
Brubeck's innate rhythmic sense was nurtured on a 45,000-acre cattle ranch in California, where he was raised. While riding on horseback, young Brubeck would invent polyrhythms (two or more simultaneous, distinct rhythms) to complement his horse's hoof beats. His father, Pete, was a champion roper in the rodeo ("roe-day-oh," as Brubeck pronounces it). Brubeck's mother, Bessie, was a classical pianist and music teacher who wanted her children to be musicians.
His parents' differing perspectives might have been difficult for young Brubeck to reconcile but for the fact that Pete Brubeck loved to hear his wife play piano. Also, he whistled during the day, Brubeck says, and unknowingly "would whistle a lot of Chopin and Beethoven. I think if somebody told him what he was doing, he would have been disgusted, but he was always going around whistling pieces that my mother played."
After a stint as a pre-med veterinary student, with plans of joining his father on the ranch, Brubeck switched over to the music conservatory at College (now University) of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. While there, Brubeck met his future wife, Iola. They married after their 1942 graduation, while Brubeck was on leave from the Army. Both explicitly understood his commitment to music.
"I made one promise to her before we got married that she'd never be bored. She hasn't had time," he says. Iola Brubeck has collaborated with her husband as lyricist on many of his compositions. Together they've raised six children, four of whom are musicians.
After getting out of the Army in 1946, Brubeck studied with classical composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, fine-tuning his approach to polytonality, in which a musician or musicians play in more than one key simultaneously, and polyrhythms. However, attempts to commercialize his progressive ideas, via his Dave Brubeck Octet, failed. Times were lean: At one point the Brubecks lived in a corrugated tin shack. By 1950, however, Brubeck, leading a trio, found an audience. In 1951, he and Desmond formed a quartet.
Despite dissimilar lifestyles, Brubeck and Desmond -- the latter a laid-back bachelor who died in 1977 -- enjoyed a musical connection bordering on telepathic. In the liner notes of the CD, 1975 The Duets, Desmond explained, "Dave and I have always had a bit of ESP happening musically between us ... I could play a totally illegal note at any point and Dave would instantly come up with a voicing making it sound like the most perfect note imaginable."
In 1956, drummer Joe Morello joined the band; bassist Eugene Wright arrived in 1958. This lineup, the "classic quartet," endured through 1967, achieving international acclaim and fostering what many consider Brubeck's most creative period, including Time Out.
Still, few success stories in popular culture lack for adversity, and Brubeck's is no exception. The popularity of Time Out drew the ire of jazz media, who challenged Brubeck's place as a jazz musician. The album was an unprecedented jazz hit, the genre's greatest penetration into Middle America, but Brubeck didn't fit the mold: Unabashedly professorial, he was a "square" with a compulsive work ethic. He, along with Duke Ellington, emphasized the role of composer in a performance-oriented genre. A white artist from the West Coast, not the jazz capital of New York, Brubeck brought academic, European-classical thinking to a black man's cultural milieu and achieved extraordinary commercial validation in return.
However, Time Out was no mercenary sell-out. It featured abstract cover art, was devoid of jazz standards and was not a dance record. It was so radical that the marketing powers at Brubeck's label, Columbia, attempted to squelch its release altogether. Fortunately for Brubeck, Columbia president Goddard Lieberson, himself a musician, loved the record. Still, it took Lieberson more than a year to get it released.
If critics and the music industry had concerns, they were not shared by Brubeck's fellow musicians. Icons such as Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus and Count Basie's vocalist, Jimmy Rushing, all recorded with Brubeck in the '60s. The 1960 Rushing session is "one of my favorite recordings," Brubeck recalls. "And it was Jimmy's idea, not mine." More recently, he's recorded with Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove and others.
The racial context of criticism against Brubeck is particularly ill suited. Profoundly religious, he was a vigorous advocate of racial integration -- the central theme of The Real Ambassadors -- and has backed his words with action. In the early '60s, Brubeck canceled 23 of 25 dates of a Southern tour because promoters refused to allow his integrated quartet (bassist Wright is black) to perform. Previously, when Time magazine featured him on its cover in 1954, Brubeck expressed regret that it was he, not Ellington, who was so honored.
But time, it seems, is functioning in Brubeck's behalf. His son Chris noted in the recent PBS special, "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck," that the pianist (and his music) has outlived many of his critics. Along the way, he's received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of the Arts. The National Endowment for the Arts dubbed him a Jazz Master.
In the years following the break-up of his classic quartet, Brubeck has observed, with a touch of regret and bewilderment, the diminished role of jazz as a force in popular culture. "Jazz is so important to this country," he says. "It represents us throughout the world and it did for so many years. The voice of freedom came from the jazz musicians, from what we were doing and what Duke [Ellington] was doing, and Louis [Armstrong]. It was such a surprise when that started getting diminished."
To perpetuate jazz and his contribution to it, the pianist/composer recently founded The Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific. The institute, with bassist Christian McBride as artistic director, offers undergraduate jazz scholarships as well as summer programs, concerts and seminars for junior high and high schools.
"At the universities and the good high schools, it's jazz that still has the respect and the challenge," Brubeck says. "It never really died out at the great music schools like North Texas State or Berklee College in Boston. And it's never really left the scene. If you go to a movie and there's a car chase, [the music is usually by] a jazz group. Go to a Broadway show and you can just hear the jazz influence. Jazz is still the foundation of our music. In classical music, you've had [Aaron] Copeland using jazz, [Leonard] Bernstein using jazz, Charles Ives. It's like seeing a great building, but knowing that the foundation is what's important. The foundation of what is American music is still jazz."
The Dave Brubeck Quartet performs Sat., May 18, at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, 80 Forsyth St. 7:30 p.m. Sold out. 404-651-4727. www.rialtocenter.org.
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