Dave Brubeck died last Wednesday. Although the last few years have seen the loss of so many jazz greats of the 1950s and 60s, I found this to be especially sad because of the unique influence Mr. Brubeck and his quartet had on my musical growth, and – I say this without hyperbole – on the larger course of my life. You see, when I was 11 or 12 – I forget the exact age – I heard Take Five on the radio, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced: strange, wonderful, haunting – it seemed to penetrate deeply into my adolescent being, and awaken feelings that were completely new for me. As soon as I could, I saved up my allowance and purchased his album, Time Out, playing it over and over again on my Magnavox portable stereo, a nondescript beige suitcase that unfolded into a miraculous machine that would soon teleport me into worlds I had never dreamed existed.
After Time Out, I purchased The Bridge, by Sonny Rollins (based solely on the cover photo of him in a tweed jacket with a Pharaoh’s beard and the calm, knowing expression of a hipster Buddha), followed by Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (at the recommendation of an older – he must have been all of 25 – African-American soldier who I met while browsing the Jazz section of the local record store – an encounter that only furthered my sense of being initiated into a secret, magical underground). This remarkable Trifecta sealed my fate, and placed me irrevocably on a path that would take me from my familiar world of sports, country music, mom’s meat loaf, Sunday night television, and Junior High School to an unexplored terrain of music – especially Jazz – art, literature, philosophy, and all the strange wonderful people who populated it. And through it all, Dave Brubeck and his music kept their unique place in my mind. Among all the other artists, ideas, sounds, stories, and perspectives I was to discover, he was special. He was the man who stood beside me at the start of the journey.
I know that Mr. Brubeck and his Quartet have been criticized for taking an intellectual, almost academic approach to jazz, but this is part of what made him such an influence on me. I was a 12-year old math and science geek, and my coming hormonal tsunami was still just a narrow – albeit quickly flowing – stream. An academic approach was the best, if not the only route into my consciousness, and I studied the liner notes I found on the back of every one of my growing collection of Dave Brubeck albums. It was there that I learned about the intellectual structure of the melodies I had come to know first from my mother’s use of jazz songs as my infant lullabies, and later from the radio that sat on the red Formica tabletop in our bright yellow kitchen. I learned that music was a language of rhythm, harmony, and melody. I learned about improvisation, that the ability to take these melodies I had grown up with and turn them into something brand new with each performance was a skill that people could learn – that I could learn. I came to see my own life as a grand, creative improvisation on the ideas I had received from my family, my friends, my teachers, and the stacks of books and records that were starting to fill my room.
A few years after I first heard Take Five, my mother took me to hear the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the same drafty convention center that hosted down-market prizefights, traveling country music stars, professional wrestling, evangelical preachers, and others who passed through Albuquerque on their way to the great cities whose skylines I had only seen on TV. In spite of the impossible acoustics, the concert was pure magic, and my mother indulged my urgent need to meet the band. I remember waiting eagerly in line for Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, and Gene Wright to sign my concert program. Over the years that followed, that treasure would be lost in some trunk or drawer, only to be discovered in the course of a move or spring-cleaning. Finding it would take me back to that sense of wonder and discovery, and I would carefully set it aside in a safe place, promising to frame the precious pages, only to forget where that safe place was until it would eventually be rediscovered.
Like that concert program, the sense that my life was a strange, beautiful, constant, creative improvisation would come and go. I would sometimes misplace it among the clutter of career, relationships, money, and routine that fill adulthood, but I never lost it. As I’ve grown older, I have come to realize that the source of the unquenchable sense of strangeness and discovery that I experienced in the music of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the jazz performances I continue to seek out was inside me all along. It will always be there, waiting to be awakened by some new poem, book, song, or precious encounter with another living creature. I have come to realize that the life I live, the lives we all live – like the universe itself – are constant improvisations: eternally new, always becoming, forever dampened by the soft rains of creation.
For all that, and for some of the flat out best music I have ever heard, I can only say:
Thank you, Mr. Brubeck.