Dave Brubeck

When my classical piano teacher realized I wasn't going to be much into practicing classical music, and was more beguiled by pop, rock and jazz music, she tailored her instruction method appropriately. Alongside the classical stuff I just wasn't going to practice (which was stupid of me, but I was ten), she taught me the more abstract theory of chord composition. The triads, seventh chords, diminished chords, augmentation, everything you play in the fakebooks. Which was great with me -- since all the sheet music songbooks I was buying at the time contained guitar tablature above each staff with the chord name right there, I didn't have to play the exact notes in the left hand anyway! Forget the longhairs! Always looking for short cuts.

But when she introduced me to jazz, she obtained a songbook designed for young, developing pianists. It was a collection of Dave Brubeck compositions, organized around an international theme ("Brandenburg Gate," "Nomads," etc.). There weren't any chords in this book; I had to play everything as written. I believe I eventually did go back and figure out what the chords were and wrote them on the songbook itself -- something I still do today. That was elemental in Brubeck's world. Even though Paul Desmond could wail in improvisational solos, Dave maintained an adherence to European composition practice.

Not long after I got that novice's Brubeck songbook, I got one designed for advanced players. It contained "Blue Rondo A La Turk," completely transcribed note for note. Talk about intimidating. The staff music looked like an EKG machine that someone was slapping over and over. "Blue Rondo" became a lifelong obsession for me at that point. It is one of two piano figures that I have practiced compulsively, nearly every time I sit down at a piano, to try and finally master. (The other is the piano introduction to the "Brenda & Eddie" segment of Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," which I think I just nailed for the first time the other day.) It's a physical challenge. I don't believe there's a single person in the world who can play that song without one flub, especially now that Dave Brubeck's not here.

I suppose there's some reasonable point in the most common argument against Brubeck's legacy, which is that the mechanics, the mathematical precision and variances, might have run a little counter to the free, independent nature of jazz. You weren't supposed to do that. But the whole history of jazz is driven by historic moments when someone did something they weren't supposed to do. I never thought the clash between European and African traditions in Brubeck's work resulted in confusion or atonality. It always made sense. I would have loved to interview Brubeck, because the story of how he came to bridge those two worlds must contain a lot of history.

Brubeck also seemed like the happiest jazz musician alive. I've seen very few pictures of him where he isn't smiling from ear to ear. I would think there would be a lot of career satisfaction from doing exactly what you want and for doing it as long as he did.

Jazz is great because you can bring any approach you want to the music, and it stands at least a fighting chance to turn out a great piece. You can write nothing down and just shout chords to the band -- or not say anything -- and it could work. You can script out a strict melodic progression, and it could work. You can do almost anything you damn well want with jazz. That's why I have never quite been able to abandon it as I've played rock, country, metal, folk, R&B, or anything else. And the first great proxy teacher I had was Dave Brubeck. I think he still has a lot of future students who are standing in line right now.

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