Jazz great Dave Brubeck in Wilton, Conn., on the eve of his 90th birthday. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Wilton, Conn. — — Most people who have never lived in Connecticut imagine that the whole state is exactly like Wilton. It's not, but driving toward the town where Dave Brubeck lives, you understand why this dream never dies, especially in late autumn when every tree seems almost mythic in its chromatic display and every pitch and roll of the rural, straight-from-the-calendar-page landscape yields views that can either fill your heart or break it gently.
You can easily love this area of the world in the same unfettered way the whole world seems to love Dave Brubeck. Jazz may not occupy the center of the musical universe at the front end of the 21st century, but even people who know little, if anything, about jazz know who Brubeck is. And what they know, they like very much. Through more than 60 years of recordings and performances at colleges, concert halls, festivals and nightclubs all over the world, Brubeck put forth a body of work — as pianist, composer and bandleader — that is as accessible as it is ingenious, as stress-free as it is rhythmically emphatic, as open-hearted as it is wide-ranging.
Brubeck turns 90 years old Monday and the occasion will be marked with the premiere on Turner Classic Movies of Bruce Ricker's documentary "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way," executive-produced by Clint Eastwood. Columbia Records, which enjoyed a fruitful, hugely profitable relationship with Brubeck from 1954 to 1970, just marked the occasion with the release of a two-disc set, "Legacy of a Legend," whose selections, as with past Columbia archival projects involving the Brubeck catalog, were supervised by Brubeck.
All this celebratory activity has been tempered somewhat by the pacemaker surgery Brubeck had in October. His recovery was so unexpectedly protracted that he had to postpone previously scheduled performances. (You figure that it had to have been a pretty serious problem for someone so devoted to making his gigs that he once did 120 straight days of travel for concert dates.)
"It was tough," Brubeck says of the procedure, which was supposed to have kept him hospitalized overnight but led to an 18-day stay. "They had to go into muscle instead of skin … and that caused all the problems."
The dark-haired, owlish countenance that was once among the most recognizable faces in music has become pale, almost snowy white. (One imagines he could be a wizard, a nonagenarian Harry Potter in some alternative universe.) He speaks and moves more delicately and deliberately than he did even a decade ago. But there remains in Brubeck an aura of amiability so radiant that it seems to compete with the sunlight flooding his living room, in ways that are almost as immaculate and breathtaking as the country surrounding his house. Instinctively, one looks for the piano. It's one step below the parlor area in a space where anyone else with an instrument, even a trap set, can jam.
From this area of the house, an assistant brings out a promotional poster of a now-defunct series of CDs, Columbia Jazz Masters, on which caricatures of these masters crowd together on a tiny stage. In the process of identifying the icons depicted on the poster — notably Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday — it strikes the observer with a poignant force that the only one in this picture among the living is the studious, buttoned-down young fellow with horn-rimmed spectacles seated at the piano nearest to Holiday.
So, of course, one asks him first about Lady Day. "I toured with her years ago. She was a wonderful singer, but her health was so bad. She didn't take care of herself. And her manager wouldn't give her money to stay in a hotel, so she'd sleep in the band bus."
It may take Brubeck longer than it used to for him to reach back for a recollection. But when he does, it unravels with vivid detail, whether he's remembering a club date from the 1950s or talking about his childhood in Stockton, where his father wanted him to go into the family business of cattle-ranching.
"I'd always go home from college to work with him on the ranch. And this one summer I said to him, 'You know, I have a job, playing in a club. I would like to do that. You have plenty of cowboys.' He said, 'Dave, I can't see you leaving this life and playing in a smoky nightclub. You could be out in the fresh air. I think you're making a big mistake.' But I went and it was a big disappointment. He never lived to see me make it as a musician. So I don't know if he would have approved in the end."