Pretty Cool For A White Guy
After six decades, it's hard to remember that Dave Brubeck's jazz was once revolutionary.
Thursday, September 13, 2001
Dave Brubeck first appeared around these parts when he played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. In a performance that helped put the festival on the world''s jazz map, he performed The Real Ambassadors, his score for a jazz-based Broadway show. On stage with Brubeck was Louis Armstrong.
Before and since, Brubeck, who turns 81 this year, has had one of the most uncommon careers in jazz.
In the early 1940s, while some guys were tearing up the world with wild, fast, virtuostic Be-Bop, Brubeck and his band were inventing a sound that was mellow and brainy--the sound that came to be known as Cool Jazz or West Coast Jazz. When all of the action was in downtown nightclubs, Brubeck was dragging his band all over the country from college campus to college campus. (He and his bands pioneered the college tour.) While jazz had morphed from a popular artform into a fringe style, appreciated by urban hipsters and few others, Brubeck became hugely popular. In a genre which had always been 90 percent black, he and most of his bandmates were white.
Because of his popularity, because his hits today sound pretty, perhaps because of his professorial looks, Brubeck is often regarded as a mamby-pamby pop artist--compared unfavorably to the harder-edged, less-successful bandleaders of his day. He is considered by some critics to be less authentic than the true artists of the modern era. Somehow, he is seen as a poser whose success stems from the fact that he was safe--which is to say white.
Yet Miles Davis, a jazz icon in anyone''s book, and nobody''s Uncle Tom, revered Brubeck and covered his songs in concert and on record. (Davis'' is the definitive version of Brubeck''s classic "In Your Own Sweet Way"). Charlie Parker toured with him, as did many of the other giants of Be-Bop. And Brubeck, whose quartet included the black bassist Eugene Wright, refused to play in places where mixed-race bands were treated badly.
More importantly, Dave Brubeck''s music was nothing if not a genuine artistic expression.
It''s impossible today to fully appreciate Brubeck''s contribution to jazz. The album that won him his biggest success, Take Five, sounds mellow and gorgeous to contemporary ears. In 1959, it was just as beautiful, but it was also revolutionary.
The album was built around the concept that jazz could be played in unusual time signatures. The title track, written by Brubeck''s longtime bandmate, saxophonist Paul Desmond, is played in a stutter-step 4/5. Another hit off the record, Brubeck''s own "Blue Rondo á la Turk," also features weird rhythms as well as a complex polytonal melodic structure.
Take Five was a risky musical adventure in its day--everyone (except maybe Dave Brubeck) was surprised when it became the first million-selling jazz album in history.
This had been Brubeck''s schtick all along. From the earliest days of his octet, which he had formed a decade earlier, Brubeck had challenged the musical status quo with his own musical vision, and, possessed of an uncommon business acumen, found new ways to bring his music to a large audience.
A native of Concord, CA, Brubeck studied the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland. Milhaud introduced him to new ideas about polytonality and polyrhythms, ideas from the world of classical music--Milhaud had been, according to some historians, the first composer to use jazz idioms in a classical setting. Brubeck, whose mother taught piano, had a long-standing affection for classical composition.
"Take Five" and "Blue Rondo" were built around the cutting-edge ideas that Milhaud helped develop in the later part of his career. The fact that both songs sound almost common today is testament to the influence they exerted.
Brubeck continued to play with Desmond, Wright and drummer Joe Morello for almost 20 years. For the past 20 years, he has appeared often with his sons (Dan on drums, and Chris on bass and trombone)--a tradition that continues with his appearance in Carmel on Tuesday.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet is presented by the Jazz and Blues Co. at the Golden Bough Theatre, Monte Verde and 8th, Carmel. Doors open Tuesday at 6:30pm, performance at 7:30pm. Tickets: $90/preferred; $70/general. 624-6431.