Last night, as I drove home after a long day at the office, I heard that Dave Brubeck had died. I said, "But he can't be more than 35 or 40, can he?"
But of course, he was older, much older. Today would have been his 92nd birthday--he lived almost 92 years, and he continued to play and perform almost until the very end.
Those of us who have grown up with his music already established forget how revolutionary that music was when it first appeared. He used time signatures almost never used in music and pulled it off. He mixed time signatures within single pieces--again, almost never done, and again, he did it brilliantly. His band was integrated before many bands were. In fact, this wonderful article in The Washington Post observes, "During World War II, Mr. Brubeck was pulled from the infantry by an Army colonel, who asked him to start a jazz band to entertain troops on the front lines. The group was perhaps the only integrated military musical unit during the war."
Dave Brubeck wove world rhythms into his music many decades before world music would be popular. He broke down all kinds of barriers, and still managed not to alienate the average listener--not an easy feat.
What's even more amazing is that he did what he did even though he couldn't read music. Here, again, we have an example of an artist taking what might be a crippling weakness and turning it into a strength.
My students are amazed that jazz music used to be seen as subversive. I tell them that if we were in a college classroom in the 1950's, that most of them wouldn't even be in class together, and we discuss that. Then we talk about the fact that their parents would be worried that their children would sneak off to shadowy nightclubs and listen to jazz--and who knew where that would lead?
Now, of course, the parents of students might be thrilled if their children turned to jazz. Some critics would say that Dave Brubeck was one of the forces which made jazz safe and sanitized for the suburbs. But the true story is a bit more complicated, even though Brubeck's life does seem a model of stability unlike most of his peers in jazz.
The article in The Washington Post even gives Brubeck some credit for propelling world leaders down the road to peace:
"In 1988, Mr. Brubeck and his quartet performed at a gala dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow during a summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. During “Take Five,” observers noticed that Gorbachev was tapping his fingers along with the music. 'I can’t understand Russian,' Mr. Brubeck said at the time, 'but I can understand body language.'
A diplomatic stalemate soon dissolved, and the two leaders signed a historic treaty to dismantle nuclear weapons.
'The next day,' Gloyd recalled to The Post 20 years later, Secretary of State George P. Shultz 'broke through the ranks, gave Dave a big hug and said, ‘Dave, you made the summit. No one was talking after three days. You made the breakthrough.’ ”
I think about how many wonderful musicians we've lost this year, pioneers in folk, in bluegrass, in jazz. I'm grateful that so many of them had such long and fruitful lives. I'm hopeful for the same for all of us creative folks.