Dave Brubeck will turn 90 on Monday, and of all the tributes sure to flow his way, one of the most endearing will be public: the broadcast of an ambitious documentary film on his remarkably enduring career.
Airing at 5 p.m. EST Monday on Turner Classic Movies, “Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way” traces the arc of a life spent nobly in jazz.
Though the film has its flaws, including a few superfluous interviews and a sometimes prosaic approach, the poetry of Brubeck’s music and inspirational tone of his biography transcend the rough spots.
Brubeck has been famous for so long that even connoisseurs might be forgiven for believing they already know everything about the pianist. Indeed, the high points are familiar: his training under the brilliant French classical composer Darius Milhaud; Brubeck’s groundbreaking campaign to bring jazz to college campuses in the 1950s; his inspired collaboration with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond; his innovations in once-exotic time signatures (most famously in tunes such as Desmond’s “Take Five” and Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”).
But it’s the texture of Brubeck’s life and art — his devotion to jazz, his 60-plus years of marriage to the radiant Iola Brubeck, his ability to span secular and sacred genres — that gives this film its meaning and purpose. In the course of 85 quickly moving minutes, “In His Own Sweet Way” shows the vast reach of Brubeck’s career, which catapulted him to the cover of Time magazine in1954, as well as the more intimate side of his story. Ebullient performance sequences alternate with lovely family scenes; cogent musical analyses share the spotlight with illuminating commentary from Iola Brubeck and close friends.
What emerges is a portrait of Brubeck young and old, some of the most eloquent words originating, of course, with the pianist himself.
On Milhaud, who penned the first great classical composition steeped in jazz, “La Creation du Monde” (“The Creation of the World”): “He gave me directions: ‘Never give up on jazz.’” On how Brubeck came up with the volatile rhythms of “Blue Rondo a la Turk”: “I heard street musicians playing in Istanbul.”
On whether there are any rules in jazz improvisation (in response to a question from Walter Cronkite): “You bet your life there are. And the rules in jazz would just scare you to death. They’re so strict it’s pitiful. Just break one of the rules, and you’ll never end up in another jam session with the same guys again. Believe me.”
Alas, “In His Own Sweet Way” has its share of banalities as well. George Lucas, whose inclusion here seems odd, at best, opines: “That’s what art is — it’s the ability to transform emotion to another person.” (Thanks for the insight!) Pianist David Benoit, who mauls “Blue Rondo” in the film, outdoes Lucas in commenting on Brubeck’s bloodline: “It’s just an amazing family. They’re all musical. They’re all wonderful.” (Gosh golly!) And a sequence in which Benoit plays the piano while British pianist-vocalist Jamie Cullum slaps the instrument with his palms can most charitably be called laughable.
Yet for every clunker, “In His Own Sweet Way” offers sequences of real substance and emotional depth. An extended analysis of “Blue Rondo” illuminates the inner workings of the tune, while illustrating its impact beyond the borders of jazz.
And in a concluding sequence, Brubeck plays a solo version of “All My Love,” a tune he wrote as an anniversary gift to his wife. She sits next to him at the piano, her silvery hair elegantly pulled back, while a montage of black-and-white photos and videos from their life together plays onscreen. Beautiful.
Yes, much of “In His Own Sweet Way” comes across as a love letter to Brubeck, not only from those who discuss him onscreen but from director Bruce Ricker and Clint Eastwood, who served as executive producer (and has done more for jazz in Hollywood than perhaps anyone in recent decades).
This may not be the grittiest film portrait of a leading jazz musician, but for a 90th birthday tribute, it strikes many aptly tender notes.