On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.
This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.
Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”
Brubeck has avoided faculty meetings to this day, and his classically-influenced jazz has duly drawn some criticism from academic purists. His 1961 jazz musical The Real Ambassadors is a quintessential anti-purist work, involving collaboration with Louis Armstrong to address subjects from Civil Rights to the Cold War. Textual complexity makes The Real Ambassadors especially intriguing listening.
A more grandiose, four-square example of Brubeck’s mixing of genres is his 1969 cantata The Gates of Justice, which contains musical settings from the Old Testament, Hillel the Elder, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Rerecorded in 2001 for Naxos with a resonant tenor soloist, Alberto Mizrahi, who serves as Hazzan for Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, Brubeck’s Gates of Justice is no less than an attempt to reconcile African-Americans and Jews. Its 1960’s-era social ambitions may belong to a more idealistic age, but Gates of Justice’s kaleidoscopic range puts it in the category of good crossover music, like the best of Leonard Bernstein. When Brubeck performs, he does not tread lightly on the keyboard; yet in life, he always treads the path of righteousness.