THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON APRIL 6, 2008.
IN MEMORY OF THE GREAT DAVE BRUBECK
There is no denying it, without Africans jazz, blues, and rock & roll would not exist. Given the history of racism in America it’s easy to understand why some black musicians resented whites playing jazz.
Although Louis Armstrong was the first jazz musician to make the cover of Time, the choice of Dave Brubeck as the next jazz musician to receive this honor certainly bruised some feelings. The renowned Canadian music journalist Gene Lees wrote Cats Of Any Color: Jazz, Black And White and openly explored the question of reverse racism in jazz. This of course is explosive stuff as you can read in Jazz and Race an online piece by Sandy Carter.
On a tour in the Netherlands a Dutch journalist was actually so inelegant that he asked Willie “The Lion” Smith in front of Dave Brubeck: “Isn’t it true that no white man can play jazz?” Willie, sitting next to Brubeck, simply said, “I’d like you to meet my son.”
Dave Brubeck is about the most unlikely character to become a jazz musician you could imagine.
“He never played in a big band, never lived in a city until after his musical tastes were formed, never moved to New York to play bebop with Dizzy and Bird.
Instead, he grew up in rural California, first in Concord and later on a remote 45,000-acre ranch near Ione, 40 miles from Sacramento. Young Dave was an authentic cowboy — his father was a champion roper — and he spent his days riding horses, mending fences and herding cattle.
In spite of their isolation, Brubeck’s mother, a well-trained pianist, taught her three sons to play piano and gave relatively advanced lessons in music theory. The two older boys, Henry and Howard, went on to careers as composers and music teachers. Dave, however, had a different approach. Before he began wearing glasses, he was cross-eyed and could not read music. As a result, he learned to play by ear and could repeat anything on the piano, no matter how complex, after hearing it once or twice.” Read the whole article on the Miami Herald.
SMITH: There’s one other very important and vivid experience you had with your dad that really made an impression on you in terms of fighting racial inequality. Tell me about that.
DAVE: I think I may have been six or seven, but I have to guess. And I don’t know what was in my father’s mind, but we were together. I used to go with him sometimes when he’d buy cattle. [We were down] on the Sacramento River. And my wife’s uncle always hung out with a black rodeo rider. His name, believe it or not, was Shine. And so my dad just brought me up to this guy and he said “open your shirt for Dave and show him your chest.” And he did and there was this brand on his chest. And my dad said “something like this should never happen again..” …You’ve gotta remember I’m around cattle branding and I know what it’s like, that hot iron, ’cause I’ve branded hundreds of cattle. And the hotter the iron, the less it will hurt and the quicker you can get off, get off the burning and the smell of that burnt hair and skin. So you want to get that fire as hot as you can. And the whole picture came to my mind, because I’ve been around branding as long as I can remember. And to see a, a wonderful man having had to go through that was just too much for me….It had an impact on me that I’ll never forget. All of my life I thought what I can do about this. It’s like my dad telling me to do something about it.
Cool jazz is a jazz style that emerged in the late 1940s in New York City.
During 1945, after the Second World War, there was an influx of Californian (predominantly white) jazz musicians to New York. Once there, these musicians mixed with the mostly black bebop musicians, but were also strongly influenced by the “smooth” sound of saxophonist Lester Young. The style that emerged became known as “cool jazz”, which avoided the aggressive tempos and harmonic abstraction of bebop. Cool jazz is often differentiated from other jazz idioms by its emphasis on the intellectual aspects of the music. Such aspects would include intricate arrangements, innovative forms, and through composed feel (even through improvised sections.) Wikipedia
Birth of Cool is a collection of a dozen songs recorded in 1949-1950 and originally released as singles. Miles Davis and a very racially integrated group of musicians used to meet in Gill Evans’ small apartment in NYC above a Chinese restaurant. In addition to providing the space Gill was an adviser and arranger. Other prominent members were Mike Zwerin (trombone), Bill Barber (tuba), Junior Collins (French horn), Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophone), Lee Konitz (alto saxophone), John Lewis (piano), Al McKibbon (bass), and Max Roach (drums).
Time Out is a 1959 album by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, based upon the use of time signatures that were unusual for jazz (mainly waltz or double-waltz time, but also 9/8, and most famously 5/4).
Although the album was intended as an experiment (Columbia president Goddard Lieberson was willing to chance releasing it) and received negative reviews by critics upon its release, it became one of the best-known and biggest-selling jazz albums, reaching number two in the U.S. Billboard “Pop Albums” chart, and produced one single — Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” — that reached number five in the Billboard “Adult Contemporary” chart. Wikipedia
What a wonderful collection of musicians in a perfect fit: Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, and “The Senator” Eugene Wright. So smooth, so elegant, so sophisticated, so talented – it was one of those groups where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’ve got 15 minutes, watch this.
At 87 Cowboy Dave is still going strong, long may he ride!