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Dave Brubeck at 90: 'I'm very fortunate'

The still-active jazz legend is being celebrated with a Clint Eastwood-produced documentary on TCM and a CD retrospective.

December 05, 2010|By Gene Seymour, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Such anecdotes invariably turn up in "In His Own Sweet Way," which uses archival footage; vintage interviews with Brubeck (including two with the late Walter Cronkite); testimonials from sources as varied as Bill Clinton, George Lucas, Bill Cosby and Stanley Crouch; and, of course, many musical interludes on- and off-stage to present as comprehensive a life story of Brubeck as you'll find anywhere. The film goes into his experiences during World War II, when his effort to racially integrate his Third Army jazz orchestra in a segregated military proved almost as perilous as being lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge.

The artistic triumphs are covered, of course: his groundbreaking college concert tours in the early 1950s that shot him to fame; his experiments with time signatures and polytonality. Then there are the personal triumphs, most conspicuous of which is his long and happy marriage to his wife, Iola, whom he met while both were attending what is now the University of the Pacific, where the Brubeck Institute of Music is based. (Eastwood is its honorary board chairman.) He also was a success at being a father, with four of his sons — Darius (named for his mentor, French composer Darius Milhaud), Matthew, Christopher and Daniel — all becoming renowned musicians in their own right. (You can see them in the film playing their father's music at the 2009 Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts concert where he was honored along with Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro and Grace Bumbry for lifetime achievement.)

The Sony two-disc set amplifies the artistic story as it pulls together pieces from the label's 16-year cache of Brubeck recordings, most of which encompass the epoch-making "classic" quartet of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring bassist Gene Wright, drummer Joe Morello and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, which served as a lucrative laboratory for Brubeck's aggressive assaults on rhythmic limits. The set includes such chestnuts as "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Summer Song" (as vocalized by Armstrong on the now out-of-print 1961 recording of Brubeck's seriocomic "jazz opera", "The Real Ambassadors") and the indelible, inevitable "Take Five." (Quick! Who wrote it? Brubeck, you say? Wrong! Desmond did.) Some glowing rarities distinguish this retrospective, including a never-before-released live performance of "Three to Get Ready" by the classic quartet at its last concert before disbanding in December 1967. (Brubeck wanted to do more composing than touring, a resolution that didn't last longer than a couple of years. Still, that legendary quartet would stage several reunions up until Desmond died of lung cancer in 1977.)

After listening to these and other Columbia tracks recently, jazz critic Gary Giddins said he liked "the best of them as much or more than ever. It's so much the sound of that era. And there is cheerfulness, a love of playing jazz, of inventing stuff that is rare in any period."

Through it all, Brubeck, as the title of the film implies, retained a sweetness of temperament that some of his critics found too good to be true. Yet his sense of fair play was genuine. Take, for instance, Brubeck's reaction to being put on the cover of Time magazine in November 1954, following his triumphant series of college concerts. Most people would say, at such a moment, "Wow! I'm on the cover of Time!" Brubeck's immediate reaction was something like: "Gee. How come I'm on the cover of Time magazine before Duke Ellington had the chance?"

It was Ellington, with whom Brubeck was touring at the time, who first showed Brubeck the Time cover. "Seven in the morning, there's a knock at the door and there's Duke handing me the magazine and saying, 'Dave, you're on the cover.' He was happy for me, but I was just so disappointed because it should have been him. They got around to him finally a couple of years later. But …it just bothered me."

Brubeck paid his own lasting tribute to Ellington with one of his most famous compositions, "The Duke," a solo version of which can be heard on "Legacy of a Legend." In a way, the tune is a tribute to both Ellington and his other musical hero, composer Milhaud.

"I was using polytonal chords on the bridge, and I wanted to call it 'Milhaud Meets Ellington.' I was inspired to write the melody when I took my son Christopher to preschool. And coming back, it was raining, and I had the windshield wiper on. And I started thinking as the blades were going back and forth.…" And he begins to sing the melody as his arm mimics a wiper, "Bah-dum-bahdum-bah-da-ba-daaah.… When [pianist] Marian McPartland first heard it, she said, 'Dave, you've written the best bass line of any song.'"

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