Professor Brubeck

I did the thing today I sometimes do that baffles my editors. One of them emailed about Dave Brubeck’s death and asked whether I’d like to write about him. I’m the jazz guy, after all, to the extent we have one, and Brubeck was the rare jazz musician everyone loved. But I passed. I have never been a fan of Brubeck’s piano playing. (I’ll get back to that.) I thought that in his later years he didn’t surround himself with impressive or even consistently coherent bands. I reviewed him twice for The Gazette in Montreal, not kindly. I was intrigued to be reminded that he had the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in his band for a bit in the 1970s. That must have been tense: Mulligan usually insisted on the refinement and closely-calibrated group dynamics I don’t associate with late-period Brubeck.

But anyone who had the early career Brubeck had has earned any kind of late career he wants. His great quartet with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Gene Wright was as virtuous and influential as any in jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. It rose to prominence at a time when a lot of musicians were wondering what kind of next step jazz could take after the obvious possibilities of bebop — jetting velocity, rich harmony, accents in odd places — had been explored by hundreds of musicians for more than a decade. Different musicians had different answers. Miles Davis slowed the pace of harmonic change. Art Blakey and Horace Silver heightened the music’s blues and gospel overtones. A few years later, Ornette Coleman would edge toward an emancipation from much of the music’s rule book. The pianist Lennie Tristano and his small circle dove deeper into the rule book, working obsessively with a small group of standard tunes until they could take them in any direction.

Brubeck’s direction is suggested by the title of one of his early albums, Jazz Goes to College. The buttoned-down tone of his performances kept his academic investigations from intimidating his audiences. In Desmond’s imperturbable alto saxophone, his band had an ideal solo voice. Morello had the flash and speed audiences love in a drummer but he never broke a sweat. The band stayed cool with him carrying the groove.

As a composer Brubeck had a knack for importing ideas from classical music, including the mid-20th-century academy, into tunes without giving up catchy melody. That quality was most evident on Time Out, the band’s monster hit album. Desmond penned the hit Take Five, whose 5/4 time signature scared the hell out of the guys: on the album version, Brubeck doesn’t solo; it took him a while on the road to get used to that extra beat in every bar. Brubeck’s own Blue Rondo a la Turk was in 9/8, counted as 2-2-2-3, but here too they switched into a reassuring 4 for the solo. In between them on the album was the tune most musicians like best, Strange Meadow Lark, which was just a gorgeous ballad.

Brubeck’s tunes were so beguiling that a few of them worked their way into other musicians’ repertoire. Miles Davis’ versions of In Your Own Sweet Way and The Duke (whose bass line traces a 12-tone row, the sort of detail the campus set adored) are perhaps more widely remembered than Brubeck’s own. To me it always seemed that the details of Brubeck tunes’ plumbing mattered less than the way he was able to give each tune its own, strong, memorable personality. That’s never easy. You remembered one of his tunes once you’d heard it. You wanted to hear it again. Especially if you could hear that exquisite band play it.

The band didn’t last forever. Great bands rarely do. In his later years Brubeck stayed on the road, often  playing with his sons, covering the hits and indulging assorted newer experiments. He was renowned for his goodwill toward colleagues and he was generous with audiences. Honest work.

To me, in important ways, he wasn’t much of a jazz pianist. He blocked out a tune’s structure instead of winding an original path through it. He didn’t particularly swing. But I know jazz pianists who liked him fine, so I’m outvoted. Meanwhile… well, the damnedest thing has happened. In the last decade, both the structural specifics of Brubeck’s music, especially the odd time signatures, and his arch, wry intellectual attitude have become ubiquitous in jazz. There aren’t a lot of jazz bands these days that sound like Horace Silver or Tristano or Ornette, but there’s a band playing something or other over a 7/4 or 13/4 or 9/8 vamp on every street corner. Influence has always been the test in jazz, for better or worse: it’s not what some writer says that counts, it’s whose sound inspires the most musicians. These days the School of Brubeck is the one with the largest alumni society.

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