Jazz nerds everywhere are shedding a tear at the news that legendary Jazz composer Dave Brubeck died yesterday. A day shy of his 92 birthday. Now that’s some UBS (universal bullshit). I love this write up in the New Yorker by Taylor Ho (okay!) Bynum who lives in my hometown, New Haven.
Dave Brubeck, who died yesterday, the day before his ninety-second birthday, was a composer and pianist, a jazz ambassador and popularizer, a civil-rights advocate, and a musical explorer. Those musicians, too hip for their own good, who dismiss Brubeck as square do so at their own loss. Whether or not he was to your taste, he was both brilliant and important: an iconoclastic player recognizable from one clustered chord, a restless composer pushing the bounds of genre, and a bridge between the past of the music and the future. He collaborated with Louis Armstrong on the somewhat didactic but deeply heartfelt oratorio “The Real Ambassadors,” and his work was a formative influence upon avant-gardists like the pianist Cecil Taylor and the saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who played on Brubeck’s underrated 1974 album “All the Things We Are.”
Brubeck is most often remembered for his classic quartet of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, hunched over the piano with his oversized horn-rimmed glasses and dark suit, exemplifying geek chic for college hipsters decades before the current trend. His music was brainy and catchy at the same time. The hummable melodies hid the crunchy harmonies, odd time signatures, and sophisticated counterpoint. (How many listeners have tied their fingers into knots trying to snap along with the platinum-selling “Time Out” and its 9/8 and 5/4 time signatures?)
Brubeck’s work embodied two of the generative tensions in creative music: the balance between predetermined structure and improvisational freedom, and between the individual and the ensemble. He recognized that increasing the complexity of the composed materials (whether through underutilized time signatures or through orchestral ambition) did not necessarily shackle the improviser. With the right players, it could be a spur pushing the performer toward new territory. It’s also true that, despite Brubeck’s individual genius, his music took flight because of rock-solid bassists like Eugene Wright and Jack Six and masterful drummers like Joe Morello and Alan Dawson. (“Take Five,” his most famous tune, is essentially a drum feature.) There were also familial collaborations with his sons (Darius, Chris, Dan, and Matthew), and, most especially, the inimitable saxophone of Paul Desmond. Too many of the appreciations I’ve heard or read omit Desmond entirely, or mention him only in passing. But like the partnership between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, theirs was a relationship of matched brilliance. And like Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” actually penned by Strayhorn, Brubeck’s signature tune “Take Five” was composed by Desmond.
In the month post-Sandy, we should also remember that when Desmond died, in 1977, he bequeathed the royalties to “Take Five” to the American Red Cross, bringing the organization close to six million dollars. With that composition sure to receive a flurry of performances after Brubeck’s death, it will likely bring in tens of thousands of dollars more to disaster relief at a time when it is sorely needed. This is perhaps the most fitting tribute of Desmond and Brubeck’s shared legacy of musical innovation and social compassion
Couldn’t of said it better myself because myself never said it in The New Yorker: