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THE MUSIC OF FREEDOM

- Remembering Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

On a warm April evening in 1958, a friend and I joined hundreds of students on the campus of Delhi University for an outdoor concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Appearances by American jazz musicians in India were rare in those days: Dizzy Gillespie had made it only as far as Pakistan two years earlier; Duke Ellington wouldn’t turn up in Bombay for another five.

The state department had sent Brubeck to India as part of an ongoing effort to show that the United States of America had more to offer the world than Cold War belligerence. But for that crowd on that evening, it was the music, not the political motivation, that mattered. We were privileged to be hearing an early performance by the classic Brubeck quartet that was about to begin a decade as the most celebrated small group in jazz. Bassist Eugene Wright, who had just joined the quartet, provided the swinging foundation, alongside Joe Morello, one of the most musical, tasteful drummers ever to appear on a bandstand.

But it was the vivid contrast between Brubeck at the piano and his friend and foil, the alto saxophone master, Paul Desmond, that gave the quartet its distinctive flavour. Brubeck was a fiery, uncompromising improviser: dissonant, unsentimental, rhythmically daring. Desmond was the mirror opposite: light, lyrical, witty, with a sound, he famously said, “like a dry martini”.

Each made the other better. “Paul and I seemed to have some kind of telepathic communication,” Brubeck remembered. “We could anticipate each other’s thoughts to the uncanny extent that we could even make the same mistakes and then correct them, in the same way, together.”

They made no mistakes that evening, at least none that we could detect. The university students seemed mesmerized. As a jazz-starved 17-year-old American, I was transported, though a recently published fragment from Paul Desmond’s terse, acerbic diary for that date suggests that from his point of view things hadn’t gone quite as well as I had thought: “bomb musically,” he wrote, “at least for me and Dave, [on] account of piano so flat [there was] no hope.”

Still, it was on that 14-nation tour that Brubeck and Desmond encountered musicians in Bombay and Madras — and in Istanbul, Turkey — whose intricate rhythms helped inspire Time Out, the first jazz album ever to sell a million copies. It included two tunes, Take Five in 5/4 time and Blue Rondo a la Turk in 9/8, that every jazz fan of a certain age can recognize within two bars. Those irresistible recordings and scores of others like them, always rooted in the blues but often incorporating unorthodox time signatures and unexpected elements borrowed from the classics, introduced hundreds of thousands of young people to jazz.

Brubeck was the son of a California rancher. He learned to make his own music because his mother, herself a classical pianist, thought listening to the radio was lazy. He was trained in the classics, but the French composer, Darius Milhaud, told him that “if you’re going to express America, you’ve got to have the jazz idiom in your music”. That was all the encouragement he seemed to need. He formed an octet, then a trio, finally his quartet, and focused on playing at colleges and universities where jazz had rarely been taken seriously before. Thanks in large part to him, that began to change.

During the racially sensitive 1960s and ’70s, jazz writers sometimes dismissed Brubeck as just one more white musician getting rich playing music largely created by black artists. But black as well as white fans flocked to hear him and Brubeck was never so proud as when he learned that the great Harlem pianist, Willie “The Lion” Smith, had heard one of his records in a blindfold test and said of him, “[H]e plays… like where the blues was born…”

There may have been an element of cynicism involved in Washington sending jazz musicians around the world to counter Soviet charges of American racism, but there wasn’t a hint of it in Dave Brubeck. Jazz was “the music of freedom” he insisted wherever he went, and he lived his whole life according to that belief. Eugene Wright happened to be black. Brubeck refused to play in South Africa because Wright was not welcome there, would not appear before a segregated audience anywhere, and once walked off a network television show because he saw that the cameras had been set up to keep viewers from seeing who was playing bass.

No one better understood the debt he owed to earlier generations of black musicians than Brubeck, and he considered Duke Ellington both a close friend and the greatest of all American composers. When Time magazine put Brubeck’s portrait on its cover, Ellington himself knocked on his hotel door to tell him of the honour. Brubeck’s first reaction was profound embarrassment. “I wanted to be on the cover after Duke,” he remembered. “Fortunately he was the next musician they gave that honor to.”

From time to time, Brubeck’s efforts at blending jazz with other forms seemed strained. He could be heavy-handed and relentless at the keyboard, did sometimes sound, as the writer, Garry Giddins, once wrote, as if he were “moving furniture”. But his sheer joy in the pleasure of making music won through more often than not. He loved what he was doing, loved listening and responding to whoever was playing with him, and for decades audiences loved him for it.

A few years ago, my wife and I went to hear him again. He was in his late eighties then. He tottered a little walking onstage and we worried that he might finally have grown too old to play. We needn’t have. Once he’d settled at the keyboard he played more delicately, more economically and lyrically than he had in the past, but he radiated the same effervescent joy, seemed just as delighted to hear and respond to what the far-younger musicians in his latest quartet were playing, as he had been when listening to their predecessors.

Afterwards, we had the good fortune to have dinner with him and his wife, Iola, in Manhattan. I reminded him of the Delhi concert more than half a century before. He seemed a little startled to learn that a New Yorker like me had been there, but his eyes lit up at the memory. “That was a great night,” he said, beaming. Dave Brubeck had thousands of great nights and anyone lucky enough to have shared any of them with him will always be grateful.