Dave Brubeck was a towering figure in American jazz and American music in general. His band recorded one of the few jazz tunes that the average person on the street might recognize, even if they don’t know they name. (It’s called “Take Five.”) Many people have written at length about Brubeck. Two pieces worth your time are this obituary by Ben Ratliff and this excellent interview by Ted Panken.
When I was a kid in Lenox, Massachusetts, my grandparents had one of those big pieces of furniture with a turntable and records hidden inside it. One of the records was by the Jack Stewart Quartet, a local band from the Berkshires who played a lot of Brubeck material. That’s where I first heard Brubeck’s tunes and fell in love with their fun-but-still-smart swingingness. Yes, that’s a word.
I met Dave Brubeck just once, about a decade ago at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. I never got a chance to interview him, though, which I greatly regret. I did sit down with his son Chris earlier this year, and you can hear that conversation here.
When Brubeck died, I asked some of my colleagues in the jazz world to say a few words about what he meant to them. The first to respond was pianist Geoffrey Keezer. I should note that, when he wrote to me, Geoffrey hadn’t yet heard the news that Dave had died:
I’ve met Dave Brubeck only once or twice, and I found him to be an exceptionally kind and humble man. After I completed a week-long teaching residency at the Brubeck Institute Summer Jazz Colony, Dave sent me an autographed CD and a personal handwritten card thanking me for my involvement in his program. I want to be like Dave when I grow up!
I never got the chance to meet Dave, but was fortunate to meet his eldest son, Darius Brubeck, on several occasions, both when he was heading up the jazz department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban) and since he left South Africa. Earlier this year, the SA Association for Jazz Education held its annual conference in Cape Town and we were fortunate to have Darius, Chris and Dan attend the conference, perform, and discuss a screening of the documentary about their father’s legacy and life, In His Own Sweet Way.
It was so special to hear them recount stories about growing up with Dave as a father, a mentor and a musical role model. The documentary really highlighted Dave’s gentle, generous and thoughtful nature, but hearing stories that reiterated these traits, especially by three of his sons, only made it more apparent that he was a truly special, compassionate soul whose music will continue to educate, inspire and get toes tapping-be it in 3/4, 5/4, or 7/8.
Matt Wilson is a drummer and educator and one of the people best suited, in my opinion, to carry jazz to regular folks the way Dave Brubeck did. Here’s what he had to say:
I was 14 when I first heard Mr. Brubeck live. The concert was at the Circa 21 Dinner Theater in Rock Island, Illinois. I recall how much fun Mr. Brubeck was having. It made a real impression on me. It was great to know that someone of that stature was still so enthusiastic about music.
Years later at a Saratoga Jazz Festival, I remember how excited he was watching the performance of the Branford Marsalis Quartet performing with bassist Milt “the Judge” Hinton sitting in. In 2010, when I was Artist in Residence at the Litchfield Jazz Festival, I conducted a public interview with Mr. Brubeck. He was such a beautiful human being and his recollections about events in his life, especially those where he took a stand against racism, moved us to tears.
What I will never forget from that day though was the amazing sense of wonder that Mr. Brubeck possessed. His creative energy was radiant and infectious. The next day he spotted me at Newport and, over a crowd, shouted to me, “Hey Matt, that sure was fun yesterday! Thank you for the wonderful visit!” Talk about a moment of pride.
Thank you Mr. Brubeck for being someone who through sound, love and dedication elevated the human experience. My family and I will miss you.
The final word goes to Andrew Durkin, a composer and pianist based in Portland, Oregon.
I discovered Brubeck’s Time Out in my early twenties. I loved the whole thing, but especially the sad and delicate “Strange Meadow Lark.” At around the same time, I took my first jazz history course. I cringed when the professor and his TA used Brubeck as the butt of some joke or other. I can’t remember what their point was: did they think his music wasn’t soulful? Or that it was too pretty? Or that it didn’t swing? Probably all three. I do remember I cringed for the wrong reasons. Not because I knew they were wrong (even though I did), but because I was ashamed for dearly loving something I wasn’t supposed to love.
There’s a lot to complain about in jazz right now, but it is some measure of how far we’ve come in the last twenty years that musicians don’t feel that kind of shame as much anymore. Nor do they feel as compelled to make insecure jokes about the rare artist who somehow manages to achieve popularity, artistic interest, commercial success, and longevity all at once. If there is a new open-mindedness in jazz — and I think there may be — it is partly because of Brubeck and older musicians like him. Even after they are gone they continue to patiently but firmly demonstrate that good music ultimately needs no justification.