The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” (video below, composition by saxophonist Paul Desmond) was certainly the first jazz tune I ever flipped over, and I suspect that for many folks like me Brubeck provided the entree to jazz. Hearing it again tonight in the context of Brubeck’s death is incredibly saddening, the joy of the song set against the finality of his death. He was such a vital artist that the juxtaposition is jarring. But I think it’s fair to say that the music will survive.
Brubeck came through town for three shows at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in November 2009. How was he holding up at this late stage of his career? Erik Thompson recalls: “Brubeck, who was 89-years-old at the time of his Dakota shows, still had no trouble keeping and capturing everyone’s attention during each of his 90-minute sets, drawing on old jazz standards as well as his own illustrious back catalog to delight fans of all ages who were assembled to get a look and give a listen to a true master of his craft.”
The leader of integrated musical ensembles from his Army days, he was a lifelong opponent of racial discrimination. An innovative composer and player, he was accessible and hugely popular. That’s a tough combination to manage, and the popularity part of the equation unfairly detracted from his critical reputation. My friend Bill McClay writes:
I thought the Los Angeles Times obituary was pretty good, and remarkably honest about the shameful and shabby way that the critics stubbornly refused to acknowledge his greatness, and never ceased to hold his popularity against him. Not only does the article touch on the racial theme, which I didn’t expect it to do, but it even touches on the fact that his long, happy, and devoted marriage and healthy family life was in some ways held against him—he didn’t live a sufficiently “colorful” life, but was a faithful husband and loving, conscientious father, never was addicted to heroin, etc. The whole thing taught me early on in life that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the public is a better judge than the critics. The one (unsurprising) omission from the LAT’s obit is any direct account of Brubeck’s religious faith, which was deep and specifically Christian (as I recall, he was an Episcopalian and then became a Catholic), and was behind much of the music he wrote in the last three or four decades of his life. The article mentions the sacred music, but the reader is left in the dark as to why he was writing it.
I feel a little bit as if I have lost a friend. But such a legacy! And now he can rest in peace—or, as the case may be, swing in peace.
On the occasion Bill and his son commend Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” (also with the classic Quartet, video below). RIP.