Saturday, December 8, 2012

Saturday morning tunes: Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song

We lost one of my favorite musicians this week: Legendary (the word will be used again and again this week, along with “iconic”) jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck died on Wednesday, one day shy of his 92nd birthday.
Dave Brubeck changed the sound of jazz in profound ways, unexpectedly becoming something of a pop star in the process.

Starting in the mid-1950s, in fact, he emerged as a symbol of jazz in America, and well beyond, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and selling more than a million copies of “Take Five” in 1960. To this day, the puckishly syncopated tune remains one of the most recognizable in jazz, though Brubeck didn’t write it – his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, did.

Beneath the popular acclaim stood a brilliant, uncompromising composer-pianist who challenged conventional jazz techniques, brought the music to American college campuses and helped break down racial barriers through a music uniquely suited to that task.
I first heard Brubeck perform in the early 1970s, at Purdue University. I wangled my way to a reception afterwards (the details are vague) and got him to sign a poster I had stolen from the student union earlier the same day.

Here he is, with Bill Smith, Randy Jones, and longtime side man Jack Six.

If your browser won't display the embedded version, click here

There are stories aplenty about Brubeck. This one, that he tells himself, is one of my favorites:
Though widely beloved as an elder statesman in jazz during recent decades, Brubeck’s initial burst of immense popularity, more than half a century ago, caused a backlash. When “Take Five” made him a household name, some critics and deejays accused him of selling out, he said in a 1990 Tribune interview.

"But I had a lot of fun with them,” recalled Brubeck. “One of the most internationally known disc jockeys accused me, right on the air, of going commercial.

"So I said to him, on the air: ‘OK, let’s play the (‘Take Five’) record, and you follow along and count it,’” said Brubeck, referring to its underlying rhythmic pattern, which defied the two-, three- and four-beats-to-the-bar techniques of the day.

"And there was this huge blank – he didn’t say anything.

"So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’

"And he just didn’t answer.

"At that time, hardly any musicians could play ‘Take Five.’ Now a grammar school kid can play it.

"But those were breakthroughs.”

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