The Legendary Brubeck

Dec 6 2012 @ 2:00pm

Chris Barton toe-taps through the signature work of jazz musician Dave Brubeck, who died this week at the age of 91:

Written by Brubeck's saxophonist Paul Desmond, the immediately recognizable "Take Five" was in 5/4; "Blue Rondo à la Turk" – a song inspired by Turkish folk music Brubeck heard while on State Department-sponsored tour — shifts between 9/8 and 4/4; and the whole album continues the theme, shifting between waltz, double waltz and straight time with impossible ease. To casual music listeners, such information can look like a fractions exam, but these songs upended the idea of what a jazz song could do. 

David Graham looks at the larger picture:

Brubeck was a major exponent of West Coast or "cool" jazz, a style that was (and is) often accused of being a whitewashed version of jazz, played by and for white guys, a lite-swing alternative to the knottier and greasier styles being practiced by hard-bop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, and Miles Davis on the East Coast. Brubeck didn't fit the mold, musically or socially. Extremely conscious of color, he refused to tour apartheid South Africa and collaborated with Louis Armstrong on a musical about race relations and jazz. And while he could do "pretty," he could also attack the piano aggressively.

Henry Grabar digs deeper into his civil rights work:

Brubeck was as aware as anyone of the advantages afforded to a white musician, and, like Benny Goodman before him — another white musician at the helm of an integrated band — he used them to fight for civil rights. He led his group through the South in the tumultuous years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Riders, refusing to compromise the group's identity for the prejudice of Jim Crow.

Former student Brian Chahley remembers Brubeck's mastery at the piano, even late in his life:

Never have I met somebody who kept his youth so strong through his music. Sometimes it would take Dave three minutes to get to the piano (often with the piano comically far to the left of the stage, to minimize travel distance), but when that man sat down at the keys, all the stiffness and age melted away and he became the most incredible character. Seeming only 12 or 13 years old, he moved up and down the keyboard as though he had been saving the best for last. It taught me that every performance is a privilege, and never to take even one note for granted.

Andrew Cohen's dad raised him on Brubeck:

We grieve of course when we lose a loved one. But we may grieve again years later when we lose someone, even a stranger, who we know meant something special to the loved one we have lost. The new death reminds us anew of what the old death took from us. I feel that way about Dave Brubeck. His death today makes me think of all those Sunday mornings, and the joy my dad shared with us, a joy which now is gone from this earth. I suppose I could look at it that way. Or I suppose I could see the vivid memory of it all as just another blessing the two men, strangers but collaborators, each in his own way, bestowed upon my life. And I suppose I could make sure that I play "Blue Rondo" this Sunday for my own son.

Salon is rounding up videos of top performances.