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Dave Brubeck Still Pushing the Envelope : Jazz: The pianist will be one of the featured artists in KLON's 'Jazz West Coast' celebration.


When Dave met Paul the first impression wasn't much better than when Harry met Sally.

Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, that is.

Not that the meeting didn't have possibilities. Brubeck was auditioning for an Army band in a last-ditch effort to avoid being sent overseas in the mid-1940s.

"They sent in some guys to jam with me," recalls Brubeck, "and Paul was one of them."

Fresh out of college and very much the musical radical in those days, Brubeck kicked off that jam session perennial--the blues in B flat.

"I probably wanted to show off a little bit," says Brubeck, with a chuckle, "so when we started, I played in the key of B flat in one hand and the key of G in the other. I guess Paul reacted to that."

"Reacted" may be an understatement. What Desmond actually says is that he thought Brubeck was "stark-raving mad."

Given the rarity of polytonality--composing or playing in more than one key simultaneously--in the jazz of the '40s, Desmond's response was understandable. Still, first impressions aside, Desmond and Brubeck soon managed to get their musical attitudes into sync, and the resulting partnership was one of the most lastingly productive in all of jazz history.

"When we actually got around to playing with each other," adds Brubeck, "it clicked immediately, which was kind of funny, after that first reaction of his. And, you know, after a while he got used to me doing those weird things."

But Brubeck was not the only musician on the West Coast at the time who was pushing out the boundaries of the jazz envelope. His excursions into polytonality were part of an explosion of imaginative jazz ideas taking place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the period from the mid-'40s to the early '60s.


Jimmy Giuffre's experiments with rhythm and time, Gerry Mulligan's piano-less quartet, Shorty Rogers' briskly swinging small-group jazz, the hard bop of Teddy Edwards and Hampton Hawes and the avant-gardisms of Ornette Coleman were a few of the other directions explored during that nearly 20-year time period lumped together under the convenient label of "West Coast Jazz."

This Thursday, Friday, Saturday and next Sunday, Brubeck will be one of the featured artists in radio station KLON's "Jazz West Coast"--a celebration that surveys much of the music from that era. Other prominent artists in the virtually nonstop programs include Mulligan, Rogers, Giuffre, Bud Shank, Gerald Wilson, Pete Rugolo and Buddy Collette. The event also includes a performance by a Stan Kenton alumni band, a Lighthouse All-Stars Reunion Jam Session, premieres of new works by Herb Geller and Bill Holman, jazz film screenings, jazz photo exhibits and panel discussions on everything from the historic music of Central Avenue to record companies.

Brubeck's appearance at "Jazz West Coast" comes at a particularly auspicious time in his career. Recently, he was one of 16 distinguished American artists receiving the National Medal of the Arts. CD collections of his work with Desmond are being released in growing quantities, and Telarc Records has just issued his first solo piano album in 40 years. At 73, still fully active as a performer and composer, he has had the kind of success that few jazz artists can hope for.

"I don't think any of us had the remotest idea that we were part of anything world-shaking," says Brubeck of that "West Coast Jazz" era in a conversation from his home in Connecticut. "At the time, it seemed as though the most important thing to most of us was to be able to play the music, get any kind of place you could to live out at the beach. Paul actually lived once in the cloak room of an old hotel out in Santa Monica."

But Brubeck may be too modest. Although he has, in the intervening years, become one of the most popularly acceptable jazz musicians in history--recognized and honored around the world--in the '40s and early '50s his music dealt with cutting-edge ideas and experimental chance-taking. Fresh from study with French composer Darius Milhaud, and eager to apply a whole range of classical techniques to his jazz playing, he (with Desmond) was one of the earliest adventurers in contrapuntal improvisation, unusual rhythms and modal melodies.

Perhaps because of his wide-ranging interests, Brubeck was not fond of the "cool jazz" label that quickly became associated with the music of the period.

"I never got that whole 'cool' thing," he says. "At least not as it applied to our group, and to a lot of others. I mean we were doing things in the early '50s--like "This Can't be Love" and 'Look for the Silver Lining" and some of the things that were recorded from broadcasts we did--that are still my favorites. And to call them 'cool jazz' is just ridiculous. Because if you listen to them, they were the furthest thing from cool. But we just got stuck with that name."

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