Making a Stand, in Music and in His Life
When Dave Brubeck utters a heartfelt sob as he recounts his shocking boyhood encounter with racism in America, Ken Burns’ documentary “Jazz” soars to its most emotionally wrenching heights.
Brubeck’s moving cry from the heart is one of the darkest, most soulful blue notes struck on TV in years. It is a rare, genuine piece of reality television that is about something of substance. It’s about our past, present and future. This fleeting yet powerfully moving moment pops up out of the blue in the seventh episode in the 10-part, nearly 19-hour documentary, which premieres Jan. 8 on PBS.
Looking lean and stoic, Brubeck was interviewed in the quiet sanctuary of his Wilton, Conn., home, where he and his wife, Iola, raised their six children.
After talking about his experiences as an infantryman in World War II, he recalls the first time he faced the mark of racism when he was a boy growing up on a California ranch managed by his father, a rugged harmonica-playing cowboy and state champion steer roper. The silver-maned, craggy-faced jazz legend tries desperately to hold back his tears but can’t.
“The first black man that I saw,” he remembers, “my dad took me to see a friend of his and asked him to ‘Open your shirt for Dave.’ There was a brand on his chest. And my dad said, ‘These things can’t happen.’ That’s what I fought for,” Brubeck says.
His tears bespeak the shameful, racist side of our history, a motif that runs throughout “Jazz.” His cry for compassion also says much about the man himself. Brubeck turns 80 today. He’ll celebrate on the road on yet another European tour, culminating as he performs with his four musician sons--Darius, Chris, Matthew and Daniel--Dec. 21 and 23 with the London Symphony Orchestra in London’s Barbican Centre.
A pianist, composer and bandleader, Brubeck is one of the most successful and famous jazz musicians. He also has been one of the most unfairly maligned figures during jazz’s 100-year history.
When he soared to success in the 1950s, writers savaged his music, declaring it bombastic. Other critics damned it as effete. Some critics groused that recognition had come far too easily. It was almost as if this “cool West Coast” musician--a meaningless description he despises--never paid dues.
Others charged him with being a usurper, a kind of Great White Hope basking in the media limelight that should have been reserved for black giants such as Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk.
Every time his father began talking about his Native American ancestry, Dave’s mother objected. California’s treatment of Native Americans was especially atrocious, even genocidal, writer Gene Lees notes in his classic essay on Brubeck, “Man on the Buffalo Nickel.” The assaults, with their implicit racial overtones, came to a head when the pianist wound up on the cover of Time magazine on Nov. 8, 1954. Anti-Brubeck critics cried foul, treating him almost as if he had played some conspiratorial role in being selected.
Commercial success traditionally has been viewed in the jazz world as a sure sign of a sellout, unless, of course, it should happen to you. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was not only scoring big with Mammon but was also taking jazz in new directions with its use of polytonality (multiple keys) and odd-time signatures. The most famous of the quartet’s odd-time signature pieces are “Take Five,” in 5/4 time, and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” a play on Mozart’s “Rondo a la Turk,” in 9/8 time.
Even though Brubeck somehow got through conservatory training without ever learning how to read music, he was suspect for his so-called “intellectualism.” He had studied with modern composer Darius Milhaud, which evidently tainted his jazz credentials even though Milhaud loved jazz. Somehow, in the afterglow of the Time article, Brubeck and his quartet became emblematic of Big Time Success.
But Brubeck had paid his dues for years before he and trumpeter Miles Davis reigned as Columbia Records’ biggest jazz sellers in the 1960s. Thanks to a swimming accident in 1951, chronic pain in Brubeck’s back radiating into his fingers has been his constant companion, aggravated by hours of sitting on planes, in airports and at the piano. Whenever possible, Brubeck composes on an electric keyboard and easel so he can stand, write on the easel and test ideas on the keyboard. His true love, however, is the Baldwin grand piano that is the centerpiece of his elegant art- and memorabilia-lined music room.
Just three years after the quartet was formed, Time lauded Brubeck for his “deep, almost mystical seriousness,” with which he made “some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born.”
Even with the magazine’s huge boost and purple prose and praise, Brubeck still says making the cover was “a mixed blessing.” It was “mixed,” he says, because of the reaction from critics and because he and Ellington were great friends.
Critics declared that Brubeck’s music, with its “European elements"--actually, the odd time signatures and drummer Joe Morello’s polyrhythms were more like African elements--undermined the rich black heritage of jazz. Yet Brubeck has always acknowledged his debt to the music’s bedrock black legacy and its incomparable black masters and innovators. For Brubeck, his friend Duke is, was and always shall be the greatest of American composers.
“I heard a knock on my hotel room door first thing in the morning, and there was Duke standing in the doorway: ‘Dave, you’re on the cover of Time magazine.’ My heart sank. I wanted to be on the cover of Time after Duke. It was the worst thing for me to be before Duke and to have him deliver it to me and say, ‘Here it is, Dave.’ ”
Brubeck’s piece “The Duke,” his lyrical hommage to his friend, has become a jazz standard. Sometime later, Ellington became the next jazz musician to make Time’s cover. Perhaps because of that boyhood experience of seeing a branded black man, Brubeck always took a stand against racism. Jazz, he says, is “freedom music.”
In the 1950s, sacrificing many lucrative concert dates in the South, Brubeck refused to go along with racist laws and customs that banned white and black musicians from playing together in public. Eugene Wright, a black bassist, was a member of the classic DBQ, taking over in 1957 from white bassist Norman Bates, remaining with the group until it disbanded in 1967.
On one Southern tour, Brubeck canceled 23 of 25 dates because they didn’t want Wright on stage.
For Brubeck, turning 80 is certainly not a sign to take five. Although he has had triple bypass surgery in recent years, he still plays more than 80 nights on the road annually and makes European tours the way more ordinary folk make jaunts to the mall. Will the maestro, who as pianist and composer has bridged the gap between jazz and classical music as few have, ever quit?
“Not yet. Not as long as I’m healthy. Travel is the hardest part. Playing is the easiest and most fun,” he says in his succinct Gary Cooper manner.