Dave Brubeck, R.I.P.
I interviewed Dave Brubeck five years ago for a WFCR news story about his appearance at the Academy of Music in Northampton. A few years earlier, I’d read a proclamation in his honor issued by the Governor of Connecticut before the pianist’s appearance at the Litchfield Jazz Festival. Otherwise, I’d only known him as a concert artist whom I'd seen on stages at Newport and Tanglewood and the UMass Fine Arts Center, but not at all personally. So it didn’t really surprise me when he gave me a grilling about my bonafides as an interviewer. I’ll admit to having been a bit taken aback at first, but I’ve heard enough horror stories from other jazz greats about the silly and misinformed questions they’ve been asked, so I gave Brubeck the benefit of the doubt and did my best to assure him that I was familiar with his work. When we got around to the interview a few days later, he concluded by thanking me for the quality of the questions.
I thought of Brubeck’s wariness about uninformed interlocutors when news of his death came in an e-mail message from Concord Records, one of the labels he’d recorded for after his long tenure with Columbia ended 40 years ago. As it happened, Concord was only forwarding the obituary that the Los Angeles Times had rushed to its website early this afternoon. Unfortunately, the paper hadn’t bothered to fact-check their own obit writer, and right there in the opening paragraph was the erroneous statement that Brubeck had been the composer of “Take Five.” I fired off a heads-up to the label, and they contacted the Times, which promptly corrected the error in time for tomorrow’s print edition.
The tune, of course, is Paul Desmond’s, and while it may not matter to a staff writer in Los Angeles, it certainly does to the American Red Cross, the organization to whom Desmond assigned the copyright when he died in 1977. "Take Five," which is the biggest-selling single in jazz history, reportedly earns about $100,000 per year in royalties from performance and broadcast use.
Here’s a beautifully filmed 1964 performance of “Take Five” featuring the Brubeck Quartet that had first recorded the tune five years earlier. It’s kicked off by Springfield native Joe Morello, who’s often credited with playing a drum pattern in 5/4 time that inspired Desmond’s creation. But as Doug Ramsey noted in his comprehensive biography of Desmond, Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, "In a 1976 interview with the CBC, Desmond gave Brubeck ultimate credit for the radical idea in 1959 of recording an album of pieces in unorthodox time signatures.” Ramsey also reported that “the piece had no name when Desmond brought in the two themes [he’d composed]. Brubeck came up with the formula for combining them into AABA form and provided the title.”
Brubeck understood the importance of assigning credit fairly and accurately. One of the most poignant moments in the Ken Burns documentary on jazz is the scene in which Dave recalls his discomfort at landing on the cover of Time ahead of Duke Ellington. It was November 1954, and Brubeck had just released his Jazz Goes to College LP on Columbia; Time called him the "most exciting" young jazz artist on the scene. As Brubeck told Burns, he and Ellington were touring together that fall, and on the morning the magazine hit the newstands, Duke knocked on his hotel door to present him with a copy. Recounting Ellington's magnanimity 45 years later, Brubeck was moved beyond words. (Two years later, following his sensational appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Duke became the third jazz musician to rate a Time cover story. Louis Armstrong was first in 1949; Thelonious Monk appeared in 1964, and Wynton Marsalis in 1990. Will he be the last?) Here's the segment on Brubeck in which he relates the story.
While we know of Desmond's charitable giving, I’m not privy to the specifics of Brubeck’s, but I can report that a fund-raising event that was originally scheduled to mark Dave’s 92nd birthday tomorrow night at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT will proceed as a celebration of his life and legacy. It's now being called "Thank You, Dave Brubeck." And it will benefit a Brubeck-related charity called Jazz’d 4 Life which is raising funds in support of a hospital building project in Haiti. It should be quite a night in Waterbury, just down the road from the home that Dave and his wife and musical collaborator Iola shared in Wilton, CT for many years.
Owen McNally published this touching profile of Brubeck in the Hartford Courant on November 25. It was intended as a preview of tomorrow night’s concert and reports on Dave's activities at age 91, alas it now reads as a beautiful elegy. And here's an informed and balanced perspective on Brubeck's career by the Guardian's John Fordham.
By the time I came of age as a jazz listener in the late '60's, Brubeck wasn't getting such good notice from my mentors and it took me awhile to catch up with his music. When I first saw him, I was amazed by the thunderous ovation he received when he took the stage, and I've yet to hear anything else remotely like it for another jazz musician. I'm glad I finally came around to developing an appreciation for his music, and that I got to speak with the man and experience his humanity in person. By all accounts, Dave was a good man, and he lived a good long life. As a musician, it's unlikely we'll see his like again, a man who played complex music and found a way to make it accessible to a huge audience, albeit with the benefit of a sublime middle-man in Desmond. Thanks for your time, Dave, and for the time signatures, too.