01 December 2008

Ten feet from legendary

Saturday night, after eight hours in a car, yelling at the non-entity that caused stand-still traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, navigating an island city that I do not know, and paying profiteer prices for parking, I sat in a dark nightclub ten feet from a piano where Dave Brubeck sat creating. The set started at 8:00 and I finally sat down at 8:15. It took me about two minutes of deep breathing and immersion in music to clear my head. That left me with less than forty minutes of an all-too-short set to enjoy some really, really great jazz. The next morning I went to church with friend Scrumpestuous D, picked up a total stranger, and spent another 8 hours in traffic coming home (read about the homeward trip here). Forty minutes ten feet from Dave Brubeck sandwiched by a total of 16 hours in the car? So worth it.

Dave Brubeck is one of my heroes. He revolutionized jazz in the 1950s with his experiments with time signatures. Up to that point, the vast majority of jazz music was arranged and performed in 4/4. It was simply what was accepted. Then in 1959, Brubeck released Time Out, a daring record that challenged the 4/4 standard. Kathy's Waltz (in 3/4) was an innovation. Even that seemed tame after the album started out with Blue Rondo a la Turk, which shifted back and forth from a frenetic 9/8 to a cool 4/4. The biggest hit off the album--and the biggest hit of Brubeck's career, was Take 5, played in 5/4. He was a musical innovator; he didn't allow himself to be bound by the accepted standards when he composed. He fell back on his classical piano training often and blended its influence into his music.

Before making his musical mark, Brubeck served his country in the army during World War II. Deployed with Patton's Third Army from 1944 to 1945, he was pulled from a unit headed for the front lines because of his musical finesse. Brubeck played piano as the lead of a racially integrated jazz band called the Wolf Pack. They provided entertainment for the troops in an as yet segregated Army. When they returned to the United States at the end of the war, he stayed with his band members for a while, but their mixed group met resistance. Brubeck describes it in Ken Burns' Jazz:
When we landed in Texas, we all went to the dining room to eat, and they wouldn’t serve the black guys. The guys had to go around and stand at the kitchen door. This one guy, he said he wouldn’t eat any of their food, and he started to cry, and he said, 'What I’ve been through, and the first day I’m back in the United States, I can’t even eat with you guys.' He said, 'I wonder why I went through all this.' You know, the first black man that I saw, my dad took me to see on the Sacramento River in California. And he said to his friend, 'Open your shirt for Dave.' There— [crying] there was a brand on his chest. And my dad said, 'These things can’t happen.' That’s why I fought for what I fought for (Jazz, Episode Seven: Dedicated to Chaos).

When he formed his famous quartet that produced Time Out in 1959 and stayed together until 1967, his bassist, Eugene Wright, was black.

I got to ask Mr. Brubeck a question once, in a Q&A at the Kennedy Center in March 2008. I asked him to talk about what it was like to play in an integrated band during a time when the general public resisted the idea of blacks and whites performing together (I may have used the word "pioneer" in there). He talked about the brotherhood and bonds created by music. He emphasized that jazz or no jazz, we're all brothers and sisters, and that was what always mattered to him.

Dave Brubeck is not only a great musician who left an indelible mark on the face of jazz, but he's also a great human being. His forward-thinking attitude and conviction for what was right may not have necessarily broken down racial barriers or overcome a nation's prejudice, but it certainly made a difference in the lives of his fellow Wolf Pack members, or in the life of Eugene Wright.

And I sat ten feet behind him on Saturday night, watching him create. He continues to meld classical themes into jazz constructs. Despite being 87 years old, he continues to play fluidly and pour an unseen reservoir of energy into his musical performance (his gutteral "aaaahs!" and "haaaaahs!" could be heard throughout the club, punctuated further by a stiff kick into the air under his piano). And he embraces the ideal of jazz as a musical form of freedom. Right before his quartet closed their set with their best-known standard, he stood at the microphone and said, "People ask us all the time if we get tired of playing 'Take Five.' Of course we don't. We've played it every show since 1959, but we never play it the same way. In fact we play it a different way every night. How do you like that?"

I like it even better the way he expressed it in Ken Burns' masterful documentary:
When you get a group of musicians really playing... it was this feeling of freedom, and then a guy would get a solo and this was his expression of freedom. A trumpet player, a trombone, or the saxophones, or the pianos. And then they were completely free, away from the constriction of the written music, but improvising on top of it. And this is the thing I love the most about jazz—it’s the thing that expresses the United States, it expresses freedom. All over the world, jazz is accepted as the music of freedom. It’s the most—it’s more important than baseball!


JKC said...

A fine post about a true American hero. What an awesome (in its true sense) experience.

That moment, by the way, in the Ken Burns documentary, is enough to wet the eyes of anyone but the most inveterate racist.

The Shark said...

I love jazz for its ability to be unique every time you play it. Not that other genres can't be flexible, but jazz I think provides for the easiest way to sound good, be fun, and be individual in each performance. The ability to improvise is awesome and really does reflect the spirit of American freedom.

That's also one of the major tenets of ska that I like -- which takes a heavy influence from jazz. So fun and so easy to manipulate into whatever you want it to be.

Amanda said...

This post makes me
1) Demand that we watch the Ken Burns documentary on jazz as soon as humanly possible
2) Grateful that there are people like Dave Brubeck in the world going about creating new and beautiful things and sharing them with just as many people as possible
3) Wish you had written all of my American History textbooks.

The Shark said...


Sure, we can watch it. When do you have 20 hours available? :)

Erin-ann said...

Very nicely written entry. I wish I would have known this on Black Friday when I was skimming through Jazz CDs for my brother Mike for Christmas! I think I got him something pretty cool anyway. Next time!

Christina said...

Your description of Mr. Brubeck's ability to make each performance different made me think this: "So, he's just a musical storyteller!" A good storyteller knows how to read his or her audience and give them what they want or maybe what they need. In my limited experience of all things musical I would say that the same is true. Maybe I should say that a good performer is one who can make a thing new for his/her audience and for himself or herself each time they perform it. I have to admit to lacking the proper patience for jazz improvisation, but perhaps I will have to open my mind a little more. I do, after all, like to learn new things.

Oh, and Amanda, I'll watch the documentary with you. All 20 hours.

Asian Keng said...

OMG you sat TEN FEET away from Dave Brubeck??????? Wow. That's all I have to say. And please keep me in the loop when you happen upon golden moments like Q&A at the Kennedy Center in March please! I'd love to come!!