Opinion: Take five, remember a legend
DetailsWritten by Tyler Kieslich Hits: 770
Dave Brubeck died this Wednesday. In a different time, news of his death would elicit something stronger than a few heartfelt eulogies on jazz blogs and publicly funded bastions of liberalism.
Ask any baby boomer who went to college in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Back then, it was possible for a jazz musician to get played on Top 40 radio. It was possible for a nice guy like Brubeck to change the world with his own measured brand of radicalism.
Brubeck was one of the great ambassadors for jazz; he graced magazine covers, played television specials and would generally become one of the most recognizable musicians of the era. That kind of notoriety might mark Brubeck as some kind of mainstreaming square, especially considering his quiet nature and friendly public persona. But make no mistake: Soft-spoken genius is genius nonetheless.
His biggest hit, “Take 5,” was named so after its 5/4 time signature. It appeared on an album, 1959’s “Time Out,” which caused quite a stir with Columbia Records’ marketing department, because Brubeck decided to do all originals and didn’t care that the songs weren’t exactly built for dance halls. But people, especially college students, danced anyway, and Brubeck would build a career touring universities and starting quiet revolutions in rhythm and sound.
The ‘50s and ‘60s were the age of the record company: Hits were cranked out of the monolithic halls of mega-studios like Columbia and Motown as if on an assembly line. Brubeck’s success as a jazzy rabble-rouser was important in a time defined by singles and song publishers. He proved that an album full of original tunes in odd time signatures could be commercially viable. It was an important moment for jazz; profitability is always the last obstacle for an art form to mature.
His career certainly was helped by the brilliance of the other players on his greatest albums. Drummers like Alan Dawson and bassists like Eugene Wright augmented Brubeck’s own prowess as a bandleader and pianist. But as an individual, Brubeck was of the rare caliber of artist that could claim to have personally moved his art form forward into another era.
The kind of mythologizing that defines Ken Burns’ “Jazz” documentary (and much of the filmmaker’s work in general) seems at times to have been a kind of false prophecy. The conclusion of that film was, essentially, that long after the American empire disappeared from the earth, surely baseball and jazz music would be remembered as our culture’s great gifts to the world.
Jazz doesn’t enjoy the same kind of prominence it did in Brubeck’s day, but that doesn’t mean his influence can’t be felt — in electronica, in hip-hop, in pop, even in metal.
Later on in his career, Brubeck would dabble in gospel and classical composition. He kept working into his 80s and 90s, long after the celebrity of his earlier career had quieted down. It’s hard not to think he liked it that way.