'Tis Sixty Years Since
Marking the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landing and the push which ended the Hitler years, this comes near being an ideal set for the (Dave) Brubeck groupie. There’s a second CD of autobiographical reminiscences in interview with (no kidding) Walter Cronkite. Cronkite had become one of Brubeck’s many fans during the pianist and quartet-leader’s high heyday, but hadn’t realised the army big band he’d heard in Nuremberg in 1945-46 had been under Brubeck’s leadership.
As a young man Brubeck had blood on his hands, as he told BBC radio in a valuable recorded memoir which (given past policy) might no longer exist. It was all due to his excessively aggressive attack on the keys. He also told the BBC his piano-teacher mother had finally conceded there was something to jazz when in the car she heard Art Tatum’s adaptation of Massenet’s “Elegie” on the radio. He tells Cronkite the tune was Dvorak’s “Humoresque”. (but that BBC broadcast was the first time I heard the unforgettable Tatum “Elegie”).
Brubeck’s a highly talented musician who fell on his feet not only when he was heard as a young soldier playing a piano that turned up, just to keep up the spirits of his companions de guerre. That time he was plucked out and put in a musical rather than fighting unit, and really at its head. A congenial colonel, subsequently promoted to general, had Brubeck’s army files removed to a place of secrecy, and improvised in other ways to keep Brubeck and the band he accumulated going and out of the firing line. Fortunately a family friend had received a letter from Brubeck dated after the date of death the army sent his wife (the mails were actually much worse during that wartime) on the basis of there being no available evidence of his continuous existence. The tale could appeal to fans of Slaughterhouse Five.
It’s amazing, including Cronkite’s false assumption that Brubeck’s father—a California horse-rancher—might have been joshing when he expressed lack of sympathy for his son’s proposal of a musical career. The guy didn’t warm ever to his youngest son’s subsequently successful product (he and horse-culture already having lost two older sons to the mother’s main interest o music). Brubeck is a sweet guy and not bitter about his father’s continuing plain lack of feeling: play me a cowboy song, you didn’t study veterinary medicine and follow me into the ranch—just as your older brothers didn’t either. At least give me some music I can like. It sounds like they loved each other.
Later in company with very notably Paul Desmond (an alto player singled out as the ideal jazzman by the very great swing cornetist Rex Stewart when he talked jazz for the British Broadcasting Corporation), big star Brubeck was, in general, publicly as famous as his then Columbia label-mates Duke Ellington or Miles Davis. He rivalled neither of them in musical inspiration, or spontaneity—far less genius—and among individual performing pianists he’s not George Cables or Elmo Hope, far less a composer/all-rounder like Jaki Byard. Desmond and he were as a combination on the edge of genius, and in the horribly many years since Desmond departed the essence of Brubeck has been a wide gamut of musical virtues and lifelong hard work.
The documentary film marking his 80th birthday a couple of years back had him playing a keyboard on a trestle, set up supposedly to let him exercise his upper parts while pedalling an exercycle. I liked the following scene, supposed to show him lying fully clothed on his bed to demonstrate that he could equally play piano in that setting in which Sir Thomas Beecham gave (he told a tenor who resisted singing lying down) some of his own “best performances”. Brubeck just cracked up at how ridiculous this bit of his own film was.
Overpraised he may be, certainly falsely hyped with the notion that he’s been one of the most influential jazz pianists these last several decades (unless in preventing the music from being invisible and thus that bit closer to inaudibility and non-existence). An honest talent who studied with Darius Milhaud and has had big musical ambitions, he’s not a pretentious man and emphatically no fake. His friendly fan George Wein draws a distinction between Brubeck’s winning of praise and his music’s actually being understood by many people.
Here, beside the tale well told (the talk CD is called a “limited edition”—the other one will, I imagine, stay out longer, alone). he’s in decent, relaxed but reflective form playing a couple of his own older compositions amid a set of tunes hundreds of his contemporaries played from sheet-music—as young men on leave from the army or airmen waiting for the summons, etc.; or in smaller numbers as survivors both of the fighting and the after-effects of military service.
This isn’t at all Glenn Miller gush and those fake great days hallucinated by the ubiquitous human folly of wishing to be young again because you’re as silly as you were back then. There’s a depth of burned-in feeling, and some sense of the wasted youth and lives of so many contemporaries. Quite a distillation. Some passages are Brubeck as he always was, others approximate to the quizzical, and “Lilli Marlene” is given a complex unsettling succession of reharmonisations. Now and then it turns into something else, and wins through to something positive and new. Yet it cannot escape being simply itself. That sort of fluctuation’s characteristic of this music.
“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” starts like amateur Fats Waller but gets merry and even faintly (only very faintly) Monkish from using Monk’s abbreviated stride methods. There are reminiscences of swing style piano throughout, with modernisations which also bring in darker shadows.
“We Crossed the Rhine” is a disturbing ostinato theme Brubeck tells Cronkite and us he based on the noise of lorries crossing the pontoon bridge at last into Germany. It has an ominous sound like Bach being turned into something iron and mechanical. Only the final physical barrier was overcome. The war went on.
“The Last Time I Saw Paris” has something of the nightmare music-box, and something of itself. There’s no cheap melodrama or wanton display. The whole thing’s emotionally complex, affectionate as well as hurt, and Brubeck’s musical sophistication doesn’t destroy an essential informality.