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No time out

Irrepressible jazzman Dave Brubeck having fun at 81



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Despite dissimilar lifestyles, Brubeck and Desmond -- the latter a laid-back bachelor who died in 1977 -- enjoyed a musical connection bordering on telepathic. In the liner notes of the CD, 1975 The Duets, Desmond explained, "Dave and I have always had a bit of ESP happening musically between us ... I could play a totally illegal note at any point and Dave would instantly come up with a voicing making it sound like the most perfect note imaginable."

In 1956, drummer Joe Morello joined the band; bassist Eugene Wright arrived in 1958. This lineup, the "classic quartet," endured through 1967, achieving international acclaim and fostering what many consider Brubeck's most creative period, including Time Out.

Still, few success stories in popular culture lack for adversity, and Brubeck's is no exception. The popularity of Time Out drew the ire of jazz media, who challenged Brubeck's place as a jazz musician. The album was an unprecedented jazz hit, the genre's greatest penetration into Middle America, but Brubeck didn't fit the mold: Unabashedly professorial, he was a "square" with a compulsive work ethic. He, along with Duke Ellington, emphasized the role of composer in a performance-oriented genre. A white artist from the West Coast, not the jazz capital of New York, Brubeck brought academic, European-classical thinking to a black man's cultural milieu and achieved extraordinary commercial validation in return.

However, Time Out was no mercenary sell-out. It featured abstract cover art, was devoid of jazz standards and was not a dance record. It was so radical that the marketing powers at Brubeck's label, Columbia, attempted to squelch its release altogether. Fortunately for Brubeck, Columbia president Goddard Lieberson, himself a musician, loved the record. Still, it took Lieberson more than a year to get it released.

If critics and the music industry had concerns, they were not shared by Brubeck's fellow musicians. Icons such as Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus and Count Basie's vocalist, Jimmy Rushing, all recorded with Brubeck in the '60s. The 1960 Rushing session is "one of my favorite recordings," Brubeck recalls. "And it was Jimmy's idea, not mine." More recently, he's recorded with Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove and others.

The racial context of criticism against Brubeck is particularly ill suited. Profoundly religious, he was a vigorous advocate of racial integration -- the central theme of The Real Ambassadors -- and has backed his words with action. In the early '60s, Brubeck canceled 23 of 25 dates of a Southern tour because promoters refused to allow his integrated quartet (bassist Wright is black) to perform. Previously, when Time magazine featured him on its cover in 1954, Brubeck expressed regret that it was he, not Ellington, who was so honored.

But time, it seems, is functioning in Brubeck's behalf. His son Chris noted in the recent PBS special, "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck," that the pianist (and his music) has outlived many of his critics. Along the way, he's received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of the Arts. The National Endowment for the Arts dubbed him a Jazz Master.

In the years following the break-up of his classic quartet, Brubeck has observed, with a touch of regret and bewilderment, the diminished role of jazz as a force in popular culture. "Jazz is so important to this country," he says. "It represents us throughout the world and it did for so many years. The voice of freedom came from the jazz musicians, from what we were doing and what Duke [Ellington] was doing, and Louis [Armstrong]. It was such a surprise when that started getting diminished."

To perpetuate jazz and his contribution to it, the pianist/composer recently founded The Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific. The institute, with bassist Christian McBride as artistic director, offers undergraduate jazz scholarships as well as summer programs, concerts and seminars for junior high and high schools.

"At the universities and the good high schools, it's jazz that still has the respect and the challenge," Brubeck says. "It never really died out at the great music schools like North Texas State or Berklee College in Boston. And it's never really left the scene. If you go to a movie and there's a car chase, [the music is usually by] a jazz group. Go to a Broadway show and you can just hear the jazz influence. Jazz is still the foundation of our music. In classical music, you've had [Aaron] Copeland using jazz, [Leonard] Bernstein using jazz, Charles Ives. It's like seeing a great building, but knowing that the foundation is what's important. The foundation of what is American music is still jazz."

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