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Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck

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Talking With Dave Brubeck

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Talking with Dave Brubeck

Picture of Dave Brubeck speaking from behind a piano

Excerpt from "West Coast Jazz" by Ted Gioia
©1998, University of California Press.

The guiding force and unlikely revolutionary behind this indigenous San Francisco modernism, this still controversial music, was without question pianist/composer Dave Brubeck. For the historian of West Coast jazz, Dave Brubeck is the sticky problem that won't go away. No figure associated with West Coast jazz is better known than Brubeck - and if fame was the sole or chief criterion of our historical inquiry, our task would be a simple one of citing the cover stories and sold-out concert halls that have marked his career. Such notoriety notwithstanding, no West Coast musician has been more controversial that Dave Brubeck. Brubeck's music is loved or hated, and rarely viewed with indifference. The historian who hopes to reflect the consensus view of his or her subject had better find another subject. About Dave Brubeck there is no consensus.

Even individual comments on Brubeck are apt to seem paradoxical or inconsistent. How else can we take Cecil Taylor's strange judgment on the subject:

When Brubeck opened in 1951 in New York I was very impressed with the depth and texture of his harmony, which had more notes in it than anyone else's that I had ever heard. It also had a rhythmical movement that I found exciting…I don't think that that music is important now for what it made, but I think it was important then for the gaps it filled.

Somehow the music lost its importance along the way. Taylor, however, is oddly silent about how this decline took place - and one hopes, for Cecil's sake, that a similarly inexplicable drop in importance, a kind of stock market crash of the aesthetic, doesn't one day afflict his own music.

Of course such convoluted judgments about Brubeck are not restricted to Cecil Taylor. One could spend many hours attempting to decipher the attitudes toward Brubeck of many otherwise intelligent and straightforward commentators. Ralph Gleason, the elder statesman of jazz criticism on the West Coast, wrote laudatory liner notes to a Brubeck album, and then later announced in Downbeat that not only did he dislike Brubeck's music, he had never liked it from the moment he first heard it. Critics who were at least consistent in their hostility created quite ingenious reasons for their disapproval. Frequently cited criticisms of Brubeck in the 1950's emphasized the facts - all of them difficult to dispute - that (1) his group earned more money that the Modern Jazz Quartet; (2) his picture was put on the cover of Time magazine; (3) Duke Ellington's picture was not put on the cover of Time magazine; (4) the Brubeck quartet did not sound like Gerry Mulligan's.

Even the much-publicized criticism that Brubeck's band didn't swing…seems a little odd in retrospect. Since the early Brubeck recordings of the 1950's present so much that, for better or worse, is new and unusual (especially in rhythmic and compositional structure), one expects the critics to focus on elucidating these positives attributes of the music instead of merely pointing out the ways in which Brubeck was not emulating, say, Basie or Mulligan, or the MJQ. Indeed the criticisms of Brubeck's sense of swing, harmony, and tone sound quite similar to those directed at another apparently un-swinging iconoclast: Thelonious Monk. In both instances the critics seemed less than interested in the extraordinary individualistic qualities of the music and content to interpret it in terms of what it was not. This parochial attitude fails miserably, in the case of fresh stylists like Monk and Brubeck, to get at the heart of the matter. In both instances, the music has held up well over the past years. It is the early criticism that seems worn and dated.

Although Brubeck's influence on other players (especially through his experimentation with odd meters) is quite evident, it is rarely acknowledged, at least in jazz circles. "{'Take Five'} was as important to me," rock star Billy Joel explains, "as Sergeant Pepper's was to rock 'n roll aficionados in the '60's." Could one imagine any jazz player daring to make such an unfashionable claim? But as soon as one leaves the inner cliques of jazz, where his name is seldom mentioned, one sees Brubeck's impact everywhere. The background music between the news flashes on TV, a few seconds of filler, bounces around in a Brubeckian 5/4 before disappearing. Jethro Tull, the long-lived rock group, hits the charts with "Living in the Past," a lilting tune with a "Take Five" breakdown of 5/4 into a waltzy three step followed by the two hard hits on beats four and five. The TV show "Mission Impossible" grabs listeners with the same Brubeck-derived rhythm. Although the jazz world may be sparing in its praise, the music community at large accepted Brubeck as an innovator long ago, as did the listening public.

If the critics are more than a little befuddled by this state of affairs, some blame lies in Brubeck's corner. He has often quite deliberately defied the conventional wisdom, never easily fitting into the mould. One of Brubeck's contemporaries tells that the pianist years ago confided his secret for success in music: It lay in having "stuff that others couldn't understand." For Brubeck this technique has proven, perhaps unintentionally, to be more than a matter of harmony, melody, and rhythm- his whole career stands out as some strange stuff indeed.

Even the first facts of Brubeck's biography contradict the stereotyped images of the jazz life. Jazz, we are told, is urban music that flourishes only in the heart of the city (hence labels such as "New Orleans jazz," "Chicago jazz," Kansas City jazz"), yet Brubeck's musical development was completely divorced from any urban environment. He grew up on a 45,000 acre ranch in Northern California, far removed from city life of any kind. He later flourished within the confines of an academic environment, thus violating another cardinal rule of jazz: that the music defies reaching in a classroom setting. In recent years this dubious truism has fallen under increasing attack, if only because more and more jazz players have graduated from (or are now teaching at) institutions such as the Berklee School, The University of Miami, or North Texas State.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck speaking from behind a piano



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