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Dave Brubeck: Small Groups, Large Stature

Jack Bowers By

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Dave Brubeck wasn't really a big-band kinda guy; in fact, he was seldom seen in groups larger than four or five. On the other hand, he was an extraordinary musician, one whose influence will no doubt be felt for generations to come. Brubeck, who remained active almost to the end of his life, died December 5 in Norwalk, CT, one day before his ninety-second birthday. The particulars of Brubeck's long career are well known, so there's no need to dwell on them here. He was the last surviving member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which reanimated small-group jazz in the '50s and '60s and recorded Time Out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, which included the hit song "Take Five," written by the group's alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond (although Brubeck always maintained that he was its co-author). While not every critic was a fan of Brubeck's music or his pianistic style (described at times as heavy-handed, bombastic or non-swinging), his fans far outnumbered the critics, and their approval and loyalty kept the Brubeck quartet in the upper echelons of jazz groups until it was disbanded in 1967. Brubeck continued to perform later in life, with other groups (he had formed a quartet with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1968), as a solo act, a conductor, and at times with his musician sons: Darius, Chris, Dan and Matthew. In 1999, Brubeck was named an NEA Jazz Master, and ten years later received the Kennedy Center Honors for his contributions to American culture. One thing that becomes clear in reading about his life is that Brubeck was as well-liked as he was talented, and that is saying a lot. He was also a tireless advocate for racial equality and integration, which says even more. Brubeck was married only once, to the former Iola Whitlock, a union that lasted for seventy years (Iola is among his survivors). Dave Brubeck's body of work is enormous, from jazz to classical, and it may be some time before its depth is plumbed and its singularity wholly appreciated.

Why Jazz Happened

I recently received in the mail a copy of Marc Myers' new book, Why Jazz Happened, which was obviously sent by someone who wasn't aware that I neither read nor review books. I do, however, read blogs including Myers' popular "Jazz Wax," and can say without pause that he is an excellent writer who is extremely knowledgeable about jazz of all stripes and eras. The book, which covers the years between World War II and Watergate, is described in a press release as "the first comprehensive social history of jazz." In other words, it places the music in context, outlining and analyzing the cultural forces that helped shape the music and gave rise to various post-war styles. It is written from the "inside out," encompassing numerous interviews and comments by musicians, producers, promoters and others who were on the scene and knew in detail what was happening. Publishers Weekly sums it up nicely: "In this energetic and captivating tale, Wall Street Journal music critic [Marc] Myers enthusiastically chronicles the many social, political, legal and monetary forces outside of music that shaped the evolution of jazz. With impeccable timing, Myers provides a steady backbeat of stories [about] the development of music from bebop, jazz-classical and West Coast jazz to spiritual jazz, jazz-pop and jazz-rock fusion . . . Like a great jazz recording, Myers's first-rate social history pulls us into its complex rhythms and harmonies, casting its mesmerizing spell." And that's as close as I'll come to reviewing a book, except to say, Marc, I hope it sells at least a million copies.

Closer to Home . . .

On December 7, Betty and I returned to Albuquerque's Manzano High School for a concert featuring the school's two jazz ensembles and the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra with guest artist Mike Williams, the lead trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra. Williams also performed with the high school bands, which played well for director Brad Dubbs, soloing on Doug Beach's "Plunger Power," the Louis Armstrong staple "What a Wonderful World," and the Maynard Ferguson favorite, "Gonna Fly Now" (a.k.a. the theme from Rocky).

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