Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

A musician may have a career spanning decades – most jazz musicians do – and still be defined by one moment. Whatever else they may have done, this one period or style becomes fixed as their reference point in the popular consciousness. For Dizzy Gillespie, it's "A Night in Tunisia", his cheeks puffed out, the bell of his horn tilted 45 degrees upward; for Duke Ellington, it's probably "Take the A Train". With Dave Brubeck, it's unquestionably "Take Five".

The problem with this easy pigeonholing is that the controversy or hubbub that surrounded the breakthrough can become an association as strongly fixed as the style for which the artist made their name. So the mention of Brubeck will always prompt knowing and slightly dubious sighs in some quarters. His use of classical allusions and unusual time signatures – 5/4, 7/8, or 2 plus 2 plus 2 plus 3 – earned him the suspicion of those who felt he wasn't a real jazz musician.

This was, in part, due to the audiences (often white college kids) Brubeck attracted when he burst on to the scene in the Fifties. As one British critic put it: "It is difficult to convey the intensity of the furore of devotion for the Dave Brubeck Quartet displayed by tremulous acolytes who had, until that very moment, mysteriously managed to control their passion for jazz to the extent of not bothering with it at all. Tens of thousands of people who all their lives had believed Bix to be some kind of breakfast food and Ellington the victor of Waterloo, suddenly discovered that overnight the grace of art had been bestowed upon them. They enjoy being offered titles such as 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' because the implication is there that they understand blues, rondos and even Turks."

The suggestion that Brubeck is a classical pianist dipping his toes in the jazz pond is one that has clung to him ever since, and a half century on he's fed up with it. "That's the furthest from the truth," he told me recently. "I was a jazz joint player trying to work for scale – that's the minimum wage – which I didn't get for years. What I wanted to do was learn to be a composer." Brubeck studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, where it seemed that master and pupil both admired the other's talent. "Each lesson would start with him saying, 'Make boogie-woogie.' And then he'd say, 'I wish I could do that!' He said you can be a composer, but you must do it your own way."

Brubeck has been doing it his own sweet way ever since, undeterred by any who have voiced their reservations. "If I gave you a list of who liked me, where would I start? Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans, Gil Evans." And he's working harder than ever. "I've just had eight concerts in a row," he said when he arrived for his recent British tour. "Four days of non-stop performances in Stockton, California, then we drove from Stockton to San Francisco, caught the plane to Frankfurt and transferred to Vienna." There his Easter Cantata was on the programme for Easter Week. "We got a half-hour ovation afterwards; they just wouldn't stop. It's been the toughest and most exciting two weeks of my life."

The young Dave was earmarked to be a cattle rancher like his father. "He was the champion roper in California. If you ever saw [the TV show] Bonanza, that's the closest you can get to father. He had tremendous drive." That's one thing Brubeck isn't short of either. At 82, he can still lasso the audiences in by the thousands – and, yes, get them to clap along in 7/8.