April 10, 2013

Personal Memories of a Jazz Legend: Dave Brubeck

What do you know about Jazz?

I remember being asked that question at age 14 and thinking: “In all honesty, not much.” Then again there was this amazing rhythm stuck in my head. It had not the usual four, but five beats per bar, and it was so catchy it just wouldn’t leave my easily distracted teenage imagination alone.

The song I learned was called “Take 5” by saxophone player Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. To me the song was like my own little secret; a great song surely few people knew and I learned it frantically (it wasn’t easy) so I could play it and help it get out of my head and into my little musical life. Naturally once I started playing it I realized not only did others know this famous piece of jazz, but that it was also one of the most influential and commonly played instrumental songs of all time.

Next came “Blue Rondo a la Turk” based on a street rhythm which was so exciting to play I could hardly wait to practice it. I remember loving the feeling of knowing I could, with my own hands, play something so epic and rhythmically exciting. My then clumsy fingers resisted for months but at last it was mine!

I recall being in Winnipeg a few years later and having the chance to hear him play live and of course I took it in an instant. The visual that followed has stayed with me ever since. I can still picture the audience cheering as the then 80 or so year old Brubeck walked oh so slowly across the stage with the aid of a walker looking fragile and weak. It seemed to take forever then he finally sat on the bench. The audience held its breath, afraid perhaps the slightest motion would cause this poor frail man to fall over. And then…..his hands began to fly. Music exploded from his piano with the virtuosity of a young man. The last laugh was indeed his!

Although I was sad to hear of his passing, I also felt so happy to know he had lived such a long and influential life. Thank you Dave Brubeck and your quartet for opening my eyes to the world of jazz, for opening my ears to the most exciting rhythms I had ever heard, for challenging my hands to move beyond their young age, and for making obscure time signatures kinda cool. Passionate musical nerds like me will forever be grateful.