Dave Brubeck died on 5 November, missing his 92nd birthday by just one day; the planned birthday party became a wake. Of all the people who played the piano, he was the one who influenced me most. I started university in 1954, and was already playing piano in socials and birthday parties. Before long (and having turned 18) I started playing in pubs, eventually formed a band (with which Peter Allen had his first paid gig), and hoped that if university didn’t pan out well, I might make a living with the piano.
And that hope was generated by David Warren Brubeck (I’ll bet he was never called ‘Wozza’), whose sound, touch and compositional skill simply dazzled me. Somebody at uni had a 45 rpm of Brubeck with his quartet, and two short numbers. I don’t remember what they were, but I was so taken with the style that I searched in Sydney for anything done by them. In time I came on Jazz Goes to College (1954). It was a possibly illegal American import and I paid a lot for it. I still have that record, but its sound quality now is lousy because it has been played so much, probably with a sapphire needle that had well passed its use-by date. The tracks were live recordings of campus gigs, most of them at the University of Michigan, where I was in 1965, and quickly found where he had played. It was holy ground to me.
The excitement of that recording is palpable. Everything he did was musical. He wasn’t a flashy pianist, and for a long time he couldn’t even read music. He managed almost to get through a conservatorium education without what you would think was a totally basic skill, but his improvisational genius, his memory and his ear made up for it. To enter the best Brubeck numbers is to enter a sound-space that keeps you joyfully listening for what is, and anticipating keenly what will be. He loved odd time signatures— one of his best-known pieces,’Take Five’ is in 5/4. His band had two black musicians, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass, with Paul Desmond and Brubeck himself as the two whiteys. He kept the band together for fifteen years, and refused to play anywhere all members of the band were not welcome and equally respected. I never liked the saxophone much until I heard Desmond, who was one of the greats.
I was not by any means the only young pianist who was captivated by Brubeck. I met others similarly attracted, and we would argue about which was the best track. I had half a dozen of his records when the recognition came that I was never going to be anywhere in his class, and that even to be tolerably good would require my starting all over again. My band broke up when I left town, and as a serious PhD student in Canberra I had neither time time nor the contacts to start again. I discovered Rosalyn Tureck and the Bach partitas, and moved from cool jazz to cool baroque, discovering on the way the Jacques Loussier trio, who combined them.
I had only six Brubeck records in my collection, and they were all of the quartet, one of the most musical and proficient jazz ensembles of all time, in my opinion. But if I had gone on collecting Brubeck discs, I would now have more than 120. For he disbanded the quartet in the late 1960s, and moved into mainstream classical music, with concertos, large choral works and sacred music. I confess that I haven’t heard any of it. He was a simple guy, who had one wife, didn’t do drugs, didn’t hit the bottle, became a Catholic in later life, and died well respected and much honoured.
The ABC played some of his tracks on the day after his death. It was moving to hear them again. They were once a most important part of my life. Jazz is mysterious stuff, and some people just have it. He was one of them. President Obama said that you couldn’t understand America unless you understood jazz, and that you couldn’t understand jazz unless you understood Brubeck — or something like that. That’s a high honour, and others would put Louis Armstrong or the Duke ahead of Brubeck. And he, a humble man, was embarrassed when Time magazine put him on its front cover in the 1950s, arguing that Ellington should have been there before him.
It is said that in Heaven the angels play Bach when God is around, but when he’s away, they play Mozart. Brubeck will combine well with each of them.