Jazz is Life: Remembering Dave Brubeck

Jazz is life: improvised, rhythmic, always leaning forward. There is mad, crazy logic to  jazz, patterns hiding in the stitchery to constantly surprise the attentive ear. Jazz is a sermon without words. Jazz is the gut punch. Jazz is the handshake. Jazz is the casual stroll and the jazz is the feverish race. Jazz is a conversation. Jazz is the leap from the cliff. Jazz is friendship. Jazz is contemplation. Jazz is the bordello, and jazz is the church. Jazz is life.

Jazz found me when I was 26. It spoke the language I was trying to express in my best writing. It was the sound of my inner ambition, the voice of that feeling that moves me inside. Two things happened when I was 26. I heard Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue for the first time and then heard Dave Brubeck’s song Blue Rondo a la Turk. No looking back.

Blue Rondo is a ferocious, playful bundle of nerves, constantly moving. Urgent at times and then slow and swaying. There is so much discipline and control in the quartet yet the song feels completely new and reinvented with every listen.

Dave Brubeck is a great introduction to jazz. Melodic piano. Strong, rhythmic riffs. Tenderness, sincerity, curiosity and lots and lots of playfulness.

I sat front row when Brubeck played at Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre on February 2, 2003. He would have been 82 years old at the time. He tottered out on stage, shuffling toward the piano, looking very much like someone’s great-grandfather lost in confusion. The crowd was silent as Brubeck staggered to the piano and took his bench. Then, a few tentative keys followed by a few random chords. I was worried that I was witnessing what happens in the years after a great career has ended. He sat with eyes closed, like he was lost in some thought that did not include us or the band. And then he leaned forward, on his face a wry, amused smile and then the gorgeous music began to pour from piano. He was screwing with us. Working against our expectation. And he was terrific – strong,  inventive and clear.

As much as I enjoyed watching Brubeck, it was almost more fun watching his bandmates. He kept surprising them with twists and riffs that kept them on their toes. There was no room for laziness. There was nothing routine. They played the Brubeck catalog – old and new, but they played it fun and fresh, like they were making it up for the first time.

Seeing Dave Brubeck in concert confirmed what I knew from hearing his recorded music. Jazz is my kind of music because it is about invention and the urge always and forever to make something completely new.

Dave Brubeck died on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, one day shy of his 92 birthday. His music brings me so much joy. I hope you already know and enjoy his work. If not, give a listen to one of his most important, interesting compositions, “Take Five”:

If you like that, you’ve got to hear “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, the song that started it all for me.

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