Understanding The Legacy of Jazz Music’s Greatest Everyman
Here’s a common story: I caught the jazz bug from my father. It flowed freely from the speakers in our house, introducing me to all the greats and standards as part of a foundation I’ve never stopped building upon.There was Dizzy and Louis, Monk and Coltrane, Miles and, of course, Dave Brubeck.
Here’s a less common story: It was February of 2008, and a then 88 year-old Brubeck was in a week-long residency at The University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. I was a senior journalism major, a section editor for the student paper, and after a flurry of phone calls, a couple begging emails and one sheepish knock on a Holiday Inn door, I found myself sitting on a couch with Dave Brubeck. It’s always that easy, right?
The interview itself seems mostly a blur. I kept calling him Mr. Brubeck even though he repeatedly asked me to call him Dave (“sure thing, Mr. Brubeck”). We were supposed to talk for 20 minutes, which became almost an hour. We were perfect strangers, yet I left the room certain I had known him my entire life. I was supposed to be a professional (in training), but there was no way I was leaving that room without asking for a signature on the record I just happened to have with me.
I had always revered and understood the accomplishments of Dave Brubeck the musician, and in my own selfish way I’m sure that was my main reason in asking for (okay…begging for) the interview in the first place. Maybe I saw it as my final semester’s magnum opus in the paper, the “big name” interview a 21 year old doesn’t often get. But in that February afternoon, I was struck by my own foolishness in overlooking so much of his legacy I had never fully appreciated.
There was Brubeck the innovator: Time Out famously featured a range of exotic time signatures, and many other tracks throughout his storied discography were often tinged in the African tribal music studies of which he was so fond. “I thought if jazz was supposed to reflect African culture,” he told me that day, “it wasn’t in 4/4 time! It was so complex, most of us couldn’t figure it out!”
There was Brubeck the activist, who refused to play segregated clubs in the South, once canceling nearly an entire tour to prove that point, and similarly refused to perform in South Africa when informed he would need to do so with an all white band. “We were able to do things that I think helped integrate the universities or the concert halls,” he remembered fondly.
There was Brubeck the genre ambassador, whose “Jazz Goes To College” initiative (and records) brought this music to the young masses at a time when it was often unpopular with classically trained music professors (and typically draining on a touring group’s bottom line). “We’d play for whatever [they would] give us,’ and sometimes you might lose money, but we were gaining an audience, and that’s what we were trying to do,” he said. “The students were the ones [the professors] didn’t think we could play for and reach, but they were so ready because of their understanding of music.”
Others played faster and harder, more outlandishly or with more flair. But to these ears, no one – no one – played like Dave Brubeck. He had a subtleness in his ability, the yin to most be-boppers yang. He preferred a thoughtful simplicity and melodic counterpoint in his solos, and displayed quiet brilliance in the way he comped chords beneath his band mates (to whom he was always quick in deferring all credit).
I’m no jazz historian, no master of music theory. Others can and will make arguments for or against Dave Brubeck’s musical merit far more eloquently than this modest fan of the genre. But that’s the point. There was nothing pretentious about this man, a fact equally on display in the way he played and the way he lived. You didn’t need a mastery of scales, modes and inversions to appreciate the genius at work. He embodied the spirit of an everyman in a genre that was once viewed as the anti-everyman.
The last thing he left me with that day: “The road is a tough place — what you go through can leave you pretty tired. And yet, when I get to that piano, I have an adrenaline rush that overcomes any fatigue. By the time the concert is over, I’m feeling way better than during the toughness of the journey to get there.”
Quite a journey, from which came a lasting legacy. It took one of hour of one February afternoon for me to appreciate it, in what will forever remain one of the best hours, and one of the most cherished interviews, I’ve ever had. Thanks, Mr. Brubeck.