Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012


Musician Dave Brubeck died overnight one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck made the cover of Time magazine back in 1954, preceding the huge popular success of his time-challenging biggest hit ‘Take 5,’ featuring Paul Desmond’s fluid saxophone lines over Brubeck’s riffing (stick that on the dance floor and watch your dancers get their feet tangled up), and his best-selling album Time Out. Touring with Duke Ellington at the time, his first move when he heard the news of his cover portrait was to walk along the corridor to apologise. Duke should have been first, he said later.

Jazz in the thirties and early forties was popular music. Not so by the fifties and sixties however, but Brubeck’s music still broke through. Time Out—the title a pun on the difficult time signatures he invited his band to wrestle with on the album—became the second-biggest selling jazz record in history, topped only by Mile Davis’ classic Kind of Blue. It didn’t hurt that it featured both ‘Take 5’  and ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’—a neat riff in 9/8 time he picked up from a street muso in Istanbul and transformed into something of wonder.

One Brubeck story from which I drew inspiration myself related to a surfing injury to his neck he suffered as a young man,* making it virtually impossible for him to continue playing the piano as he had done. Resolving not to give up his dream, instead of playing the keys solo by rolling off melodic lines (requiring much more keyboard focus) he changed to playing in block chords and directing the band. Turns out it did his career no harm at all, and changed the way jazz piano was played.

My own favourite Brubeck album is his collaboration with a singing Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors, (from which come ‘Summer Song’ and ‘They Say I Look Like God,’ a piece Dave thought Louis would have fun with but in which instead he pulled out every piece of pathos he could. (Brubeck himself talks about it movingly on this Armstrong documentary.) It seems a fitting tribute today to a man with a life well-lived.

* “Brubeck's career was just getting rolling when disaster struck in 1951. While working a gig in Hawaii, Dave had a swimming accident and nearly broke his neck. ‘I was swimming with my kids on Waikiki Beach and my last famous words were, 'Watch Daddy,'’ Brubeck recalled. ‘And I dove into a wave and there was a sandbar right in front of me. And rather than hit it with my face, I turned my head and it almost broke my neck, and I thought I was gonna be paralyzed. I had to go to the Army hospital and stayed there for twenty-one days in traction and they were able to pull my neck back.’ While lying in traction at a local hospital, he lost his job and his trio.

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