TOPICS > Nation

A Musician of His ‘Time’: Remembering Jazz Great David Brubeck

December 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, who challenged time-signature conventions and brought jazz to a wide audience, has died at the age of 91. His 1959 album "Time Out" was the first jazz record to sell a million copies. Jeffrey Brown talks to George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, about Brubeck's life and musical legacy.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: remembering jazz giant Dave Brubeck.

The pianist and composer died today after a seven-decade career that spanned much of the post-war jazz world.

Born in California in 1920, he and his quartet would become known for rhythmically challenging compositions and for bringing jazz to a wider audience.

Brubeck recorded dozens of albums. He wrote opera, ballet and even a contemporary mass. Among his many awards was a 2009 Kennedy Center Honor. His 1959 album “Time Out” was the first jazz L.P. to sell a million copies. It contained his signature work, “Take Five.”

Here is that theme performed in three different eras.

(MUSIC)

GWEN IFILL: Brubeck would have turned 92 tomorrow.

For more on his legacy, we turn again to Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we’re joined by another leading figure in the world of jazz.

George Wein is the founder of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Mr. Wein, welcome to you.

You go back a long way with Dave Brubeck. Tell us about when you first heard his music in the early ’50s. What stood out?

GEORGE WEIN, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival: Dave opened at my club, Storyville, 1952, I think was the year. Nobody knew him.

And we opened and had about 20 or 30 people in the club. By the end of the week, it was full, because it communicated — people went out of the club and told everybody this fantastic music was happening.

And he went from right on there. The next 60 years was — never lost his popularity. He was one of the most important figures of all the great figures in jazz in the ’50s and the latter half of the 20th century.

Listening to “Take Five” was like solving a puzzle or untying a knot, because people were hearing this melody in 5-4, and they didn’t know what they were hearing. Once they solved it, they never forgot got it, and it became a hit for the next 50 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: How big a moment was that, especially with “Take Five”? It was a kind of national phenomenon on the pop charts and all, well beyond just the jazz audience.

GEORGE WEIN: Nobody had ever heard 5-4 in a popular sense. Everything of 4-4, beating one, you know, like rock ‘n’ roll or funk music, on the 2-4.

And, all of a sudden, something came along that you never heard before. But if you listened and you solved it, you were humming the melody, and you were beating your foot, and it was jazz. And it has affected music ever since.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where did his love of jazz come from? Because he came from a sort of unusual — unusual jazz background, from rural California. I read that he grew up taking to all different kinds of music, including classical music.

GEORGE WEIN: That was one of the things that made his music appeal to more than just the average jazz fan.

He had a classical background, and he utilized this. He never played a lot of classical music, but he utilized this feeling and his alternate rhythms that he used, and his left hand, his right hand. I mean, he was just — he just played in a way that nobody had ever heard. But it communicated. That’s the most important thing.

His music communicated, even though he played only the music he wanted to play.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was he like as a person? What was he like to work with?

GEORGE WEIN: He was the ultimate in elegance and excellence. He communicated with everyone. I use the word communication.

He respected his musicians. He respected his family. He respected the promoters and the producers that worked for him and that he worked for, and he respected his public. And that’s the way he was. And because of that, you respected him. I mean, you never gave up a feeling of love for this man, because he was absolutely wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you started by talking about 1952, but I gather he was playing until fairly recently, even for you, right?

GEORGE WEIN: Dave was there in — very sad — in 2011, last year, his sons, who are brilliant musicians, were playing, and Dave came hoping to play with his sons.

And then we met in the car. Just a few minutes, I got a call that Dave isn’t feel well. We sat there for 20 minutes. We didn’t say anything. We just talked, talked about anything.

But he said: “George, if I can’t play up to the standards of which I believe in myself, I can’t play, so I’m not going to play anymore.”

And I think that was the end as far as his playing career. And it’s a loss we can never, ever replace.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just in our last 30 seconds, Mr. Wein, how would you sum up his legacy, his influence today?

GEORGE WEIN: I think that his legacy is that he could play jazz, which is a difficult music sometimes for the public to accept, and he could get the public to understand and accept it. And he never lost that feeling with the public.

From the minute he became known, he was famous and drew — filled up houses all over the world right until the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, George Wein on the life and music of the great Dave Brubeck, thanks so much.

GEORGE WEIN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can listen to Dave Brubeck perform “Take Five,” along with other classics. That’s all on our website.