Wednesday, December 5, 2012

DAVE BRUBECK: AMERICA'S MOST UNLIKELY MUSIC LEGEND


Dave Brubeck's classic "Time Out" album, 1959
Dave Brubeck, who sadly died today at age 91, was the most unlikely American music legend of the 20th century. Against all odds and conventional wisdom, the jazz pianist and composer, whose early records confounded and confused music critics as well as the public, became a music giant not because he ever sold out or compromised, but because he stuck to his guns and obviously loved what he was doing. Brubeck didn't come to the masses. The masses came to him. 

At first, it was a strained and strange romance. The attention he got early on was in large part because of the so-called oddball nature of his music. Oh, those wacky, unfamiliar time signatures. Most songs are written in 4/4, 2/4, 6/8 or 3/4 time. But Brubeck's quirky tunes were all over the map, time-wise. 

And I loved them. Thing is, despite their peculiarities, they were still very melodic songs, and I recognized that even as a child.

Perhaps that's because I was happily surrounded by music from a very young age. A drummer from the age of six (and now a singer-songwriter-guitarist), I gave a solo performance on my drum set in fifth grade for my elementary school music class. My dad was a radio personality, trumpet player and jazz fanatic who always tried to share his passion for jazz, and all kinds of music, with me.

My very first introduction to jazz was Brubeck's classic Take Five. My dad had the record, and I played it when I was about 10 years old. It wasn’t a new song, but it was new to me.

At first I was puzzled. The 5/4 time signature was like nothing I had heard before. What was this? But I didn’t walk away. I kept listening.

The song understandably alienates many who've never been encouraged to appreciate music that is out of the box. But it had the opposite effect on me. It sparked my curiosity. It challenged me. I listened several times. And by the third or fourth listen, I was hooked.

Once the initial novelty of Take Five wore off, it became an easy groove for me to understand and enjoy. Each time I listened, I liked it more, I "got it" more. It was like learning to ride a bike. Only I was actually learning a genre of music. 

Brubeck basically taught me what jazz is. To this day I’m thankful for him, and for my dad for planting that seed. Brubeck’s music was offbeat, but it also had "cool" written all over it. 

The next Brubeck song I played from my dad's collection was Blue Ronda A La Turk, an even more ambitious, complex and, well, weird piece of music. This one was in 9/8 time. Huh?! But I loved it, too, after a few listens. Maybe even more than Take Five, because now I knew where this guy was coming from.

The frenetic energy. The style. The meshing of piano and sax, always a trademark of Brubeck I would soon learn. All genius. It just grabbed me, even at that tender age. Within the high-energy pace of Blue Ronda A La Turk there are some amazing, even amusing changes, both in the chords and the pace. Wow, I thought. This guy is unbelievable.

Brubeck brings the song way down and slows it way down in parts. It's a surprising move, and it just shows Brubeck's creative powers as well as his sense of playfulness and humor.

Years later, when I saw Brubeck perform live, I was mesmerized by both the intensity and joy of the music. The man clearly loved what he did. He was having fun, and it was infectious. And when I saw him in person I was reminded of that first time I listened to his art.

Brubeck could also play a beautiful melody, like Strange Meadow Lark. The piano intro is lovely, and then the song switches gears and delves into a jazzier Brubeck piano-sax piece. Another classic.

Brubeck, who grew up on a ranch in California and actually loved rodeo roping, among other things, wasn’t so sure he’d even become a professional musician. But a zoology teacher reportedly told him he should focus on music. Though he didn’t learn to read music, he had such natural ability on piano. Eventually music won out. It took hold and became his life's passion. The rest is history.

Remarkably, despite its highly unconventional time signatures and unique tones, Brubeck's 1959 album Time Out, which features Take Five, his signature song, sold more than a million copies. It became the first true jazz album to become a gold record.

Brubeck became just the second jazz artist (after Louis Armstrong) to make the cover of Time magazine. His fame was a testament to his uncanny ability to make a very new type of music palatable to the general public. By reaching and appealing to people who had never heard a song in 5/4 time in their life, Brubeck achieved the seemingly impossible.

Brubeck, who took us on some amazing, complex musical journeys, died today of heart failure in Norwalk, Conn. He was one day short of his 92nd birthday. I have this vision in my head now of Brubeck and my late father up in Heaven, talking music. Maybe my dad is even telling him about the first time I played Take Five and learned what jazz is. It's a comforting thought.

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