Dave Brubeck: It’s a Raggy Waltz

8 Dec

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck’s Gone With the Wind

Seventeen years ago I came home from Europe to learn, over brunch via the New York Times at the News Cafe on South Beach, that Don Pullen had died. When I told my then-girlfriend, now my wife, she misunderstood me and thought I had said someone was pulling her leg.

When I explained that Pullen was a jazz pianist, she looked at me as if she had bitten into her grapefruit thinking it was an orange.

She wasn’t unsympathetic, only uninterested. Over the years, whenever I would mention a notable jazz performer had died — Mal Waldron, Johnny Griffin, Lionel Hampton, Don Cherry, Ray Bryant, Hank Jones — I would get the grapefruit look. And think of Don Pullen.

So last week, mere hours after Dave Brubeck’s death a day before his 92nd birthday, she called to ask why I hadn’t shared the news. Naturally, I thought of Don Pullen. And saw the grapefruit look on the other end of the phone.

Even she wanted to know about Brubeck, and nothing, of course, could illustrate the difference between the pianist and any living jazz musician: Brubeck was so famous non-jazz fans knew him, and so popular they liked him.

We saw Brubeck a few years back in our small Southern beach town, where a colleague says folks like both kinds of music: country and western. Maybe that’s one reason why Brubeck was so popular: he brought his music into places others thought arid for jazz.

Brubeck was frail of walk that night, but when he sat at the piano, no one in the building was more devilish.

He could be inspiring — how many 86-year-olds are still working, let alone touring? — but he also could still be inspired. He talked about an upcoming visit to Poland and another he had made nearly 50 years previous, when he said the Poles let him know the jazz he played symbolized the freedom they lacked.

He had gone on a goodwill tour during the Eisenhower years, which was fitting — every Brubeck show was a goodwill tour. Being the most popular kid in class and the edgiest is normally mutually exclusive, but not for Brubeck. He sold records — Take Five, written by the quartet’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond, took off — without selling out.

“Dave Brubeck told me one of the greatest, funniest stories I ever heard,” the bassist Christian McBride said on his Facebook page after Brubeck’s death. “Upon meeting Miles Davis, Miles said to him, ‘Dave you sound great. You swing your a** off. I don’t know about them other m***f**** you got with you, but YOU sound great.’ ”

McBride wrote that Brubeck “always got a big laugh from that story.” He didn’t say if Brubeck filled in the blanks. Maybe that was left for Brubeck’s fellow pianist, Eric Reed. From ericreed.net:

“When I was 4, my Aunt Barbara gave me an inch high stack of used vinyl records that she purchased for about 25 cents from a flea market. Included in that stack was Dave Brubeck’s “Time Further Out”, recorded May/June 1961. When I put on the first track, ‘It’s a Raggy Waltz’, it struck a chord with the funny, adventurous side of my ‘old soul.’ That’s all I knew; here’s what I DIDN’T know then:

“I didn’t know that this record was over 10 years old.
“I didn’t know that Mr. Brubeck was a leading force in the ‘Cool Jazz’ era.
“I didn’t know that he, along with Max Roach, was a master of odd time signatures.
“I didn’t know that Dave Brubeck was White and Modoc.

“I didn’t know any of that, and I didn’t care.”

Like Potter Stewart’s obscenity, even a young Reed knew swing when he heard it, even if he couldn’t define it. And maybe that’s not a bad legacy, if a simple one. Dave Brubeck swung. And didn’t miss.

Below is a link to It’s a Raggy Waltz, which made an impression on a young Eric Reed. From allmusic.com: “. . . this piece isn’t exactly a waltz or a rag but a choppy piece with constantly shifting accents that don’t predictably fall where the listener expects. It had immediate appeal on concert dates . . .”

source: ericreed.net, allmusic.com

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