Goodbye to a Jazz Legend
Pre-post note: I wrote most of this post before the tragedy happened in Connecticut. I thought about letting out some of the ideas that have been haunting me on this type of subject, but we’re seen something amazing, out of this dip into hell: people, pundits, and even the President are finally, finally talking seriously about what amounts to this: What is an acceptable compromise between the right to bear arms and the right not to be shot. Like everyone, I’m just sick that it took the murder of a bunch of kindergarteners to accomplish this. But everyone, everywhere is saying that. I’ll just add my vote to that super-majority, for now.
On with a smaller tragedy…
This blog isn’t really supposed to be about music, and specifically jazz, but I’m compelled to return to the subject. We lost a great jazz artist, this past week. Dave Brubeck has passed away at the age of 91, after giving us a lifetime of cool creativity.
Brubeck was born in Concord, California in 1920. He kept playing and entertaining pretty much right to the end, but his “golden period” was mostly in the 50’s and 60’s. Well after that, though, he had notable appearances with heads of state and religion.
But I don’t want to do a life story here. Let’s talk about Dave Brubeck’s music, and what made it unique. Often to the consternation of the critics, Brubeck just couldn’t bring himself so stick, clearly and permanently, to an identifiable genre. He was a well-educated musician who mixed in techniques and theme structures from various types of what we now lump together as classical music. He used fascinating time signatures that often made his pieces (or those of his various bands) extremely difficult for others to play.
Brubeck’s jazz was actually criticized as not being jazz at all, but basically classical music. I saw an interview of him, years ago, in which he told the interviewer that people use to say to him, “you don’t swing.” Then, he said, after a few years, people said, “You swing, but your band doesn’t swing.” And, of course, he laughed. But Brubeck’s jazz has stood the test of time. Some of his pieces have even become somewhat iconic.
Dave Brubeck was, in fact, my first jazz discovery, although somewhat late. Growing up, I never heard anything in my house except classical music. I took piano lessons for a few years and I was even somewhat talented. But I soon realized that I would never be nearly good enough to perform the only music that I knew. In classical music performance the standard is perfection, and I was never going to be perfect, so I quit.
I certainly wish I had discovered Brubeck and jazz piano earlier. I would have been inspired to enter a whole new world. In jazz, the players are highly skilled, to be sure. But they are allowed and even expected to experiment, to try new things, to play a piece differently every time, and to make it up as they go along. This is part of why jazz is so inspiring. It takes you places that you never thought of before. It’s like your French fry falls into your curry sauce by accident, and you eat it and say, “Wow! I never would have thought of that!”
Dave Brubeck and other jazz musicians (especially pianists) have opened up parts of my imagination that might otherwise never have been awakened. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brubeck. Thanks, Dave, for helping me discover so much.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.