Special Report

Take 85

Why Brubeck matters, even at 85.

By 12.13.05

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Last week jazz legend David Warren Brubeck turned 85. One wonders how many music lovers realized Brubeck was still alive, let alone still playing jazz, still out on the road for 80 gigs a year in a dozen countries.

After all aren't jazz musicians -- the great ones anyway -- supposed to be self-destructive geniuses? Not always. Brubeck has thus far survived Charlie Parker by 50 years, Coltrane by 38 years, Charlie Mingus by 26, and Miles Davis by 14. Commenting on the dysfunctional streak inherent in so many jazz artists, Brubeck once famously said, "So many of my friends shouldn't have died; they just believed they were indestructible and they lived too hard and those things finally catch up with you."

Unlike most jazz superstars, Dave Brubeck remains a modest, unpretentious family man. Raised by a cattle rancher father and a mother who loved to play Chopin and insisted the family speak French at the dinner table, Dave often seemed more the nerdy veterinarian he studied to be in school than the innovative jazz man he remains. He didn't smoke dope or drink to excess or hop from bed to bed. He didn't even speak the lingo. Instead of a Dizzy Gillespie getup and goatee, he wore a business suit and horn-rimmed glasses. In fact the whole jazz scene seemed foreign to Dave. "My dream," he said, "was to have a steady job, was not to be on the road, to exist like a guy that goes to work as a mechanic or a carpenter and knows he's going to have a job."

And yet no matter how effectively Brubeck shunned the excesses of stardom, there was no escaping the proverbial paying of the dues. "No person in their right mind would want to put their family through what I've had to put my family through," he once told an interviewer. At one point, after returning from World War II (he served in Patton's unit), Brubeck and his family lived in a corrugated iron shack with no windows while Dave sold sandwiches in office buildings to make ends meet, and at night banged out wild jazz at the Silver Log Tavern in a hopeless attempt to get the war out of his system.

To Dave Brubeck jazz was never about being hip or cool. It was about the music, and pushing it as far as it could go in new directions and holding on for the wild ride. He remains the living embodiment of Ezra Pound's dictum to "make it new." With Brubeck everything is on the table, which has resulted in ingenious combinations of modernist harmonies, contrapuntal choruses, classical structures, and complex time signatures with classical or folk or blues or Latin rhythms and improvised rhythms and sometimes serendipitous screw-ups. "There's a way of playing safe, there's a way of using tricks, and there's the way I like to play, which is dangerously, where you're going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven't created before," he said. Not bad for a guy who never learned to read music.

At his peak, in the late '50s and early '60s, Brubeck was the most popular jazz musician alive, more admired than Bird or Miles Davis. In 1954, he was pictured on the cover of Time magazine, a windfall that also caused a stir in the jazz world since the African-American and quintessential jazzman Duke Ellington was also profiled in the issue, and was arguably the more "important" artist. ("Important" being Dave's word.) All that changed a half dozen years later with the release of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's signature album. Time Out became the first jazz record to go gold, and the song "Take 5" became one of the few jazz standards to be heard on commercial radio. (Ironically Columbia Records at first refused to release Time Out because of its eccentric rhythms.)

WITH THE DAVE BRUBECK Quartet jazz was for the first time embraced by a mainstream audience, largely due to the Quartet's appeal to white college kids. Critics, of course, considered such vulgar popularity a sign of weakness. "The jazz world likes to view itself as outsiders from popular culture," said jazz critic Ted Gioia. "And jazz people are always uneasy whenever one of the fraternity crosses over to this large public audience." Jazz musicians were uneasy too, suspicious of anything not sticking to the familiar Kansas City four-four. "You don't swing," Miles Davis once sneered at Brubeck. Later, Miles had to admit that Brubeck did in fact swing, but insisted his band didn't.

Of course Brubeck did swing, and he was cool, in the sense that Elvis Presley was cool. And William S. Burroughs and later Andy Warhol. In the sense that he was a creator, not an imitator. Uninterested in the pose of the sulky, anti-social tough-guy, Brubeck wanted to be cool on his own terms; a jazzman, yes, but an essentially decent human being too.

He was controversial for other reasons, too. Brubeck's music was too optimistic for the critics' taste. There was and still is nothing cool about being an optimist. Cool, rather, is supposed to be about seeing the dark side, the essential absurdity of life, and taking pains to numb yourself against the existential angst of modern civilization. But here was modernism with a smiley face. Crazy Daddy-O.

And then there was the race card to deal with. Jazz was considered an African-American invention, indeed the most profound statement of an entire culture. No white guy could ever really play jazz, it was said (with the exception, perhaps of Stan Getz of whom Coltrane once said, "Let's face it. We would all play like him, if we could"). Even today the critics maintain that Brubeck's music was just West Coast or cool jazz, intellectual jazz, classical jazz, and -- most biting of all -- white jazz.

Brubeck largely ignored the critics, while their bleatings were mostly drowned out by the audience's applause and the ka-ching of the cash register.

NOW AT 85, DAVE BRUBECK is still on the road, still losing his baggage at airports, still arriving at hotels that have lost his registration, still waiting for the promoter's van that never shows up. The road: it has been the undoing of many a great musician, but Brubeck and his constant travel companion and wife of 63 years Iola (the "smartest girl in school" whom Dave proposed to the night of their first date) take it all in stride, enjoying each show like it will be their last.

Meanwhile Dave Brubeck continues to explore every night on stage, says the critic Ted Gioia. And his audiences are always pleasantly surprised. Unlike the tedious, juvenile simplicity of the rock and roll ballads of aging hippies, Brubeck's music is as fresh today as it ever was. "You could play probably a span of 50 years of me playing St. Louis Blues," he once said, "and most of the time it will be different every time."

But what Dave Brubeck really brings to jazz and American music and American culture and what is sorely missing today is his incredible optimism. "Dave and Iola's life together embraces the American spirit and the best in our values," says filmmaker Hedrick Smith, director of the documentary Rediscovering Dave Brubeck. "People hear Dave and come away feeling better, happier." Likewise Ted Gioia has noted that "Dave's is the classic American optimism we associate with people like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, and Dave was showing that, yes, there was this futuristic approach...but that it was going to be all right...America always had this sort of upbeat, embracing, forward-looking view that everything is going to be all right."

It is this optimism that has made jazzman Dave Brubeck one of America's foremost goodwill ambassadors. Ironic, perhaps, since given his druthers he might have ended up as something else entirely: a rancher on some high lonesome prairie or one of those square workadaddies living in a split level in Dullsville, USA. "I never wanted this kind of life that I'm still living," he said recently. But even at 85, Dave Brubeck can't help living it and enjoying it, and we are the better for it.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.