Jazz legend Dave Brubeck passed away this morning. There have already been a few diaries but Dave had an impact on me that few people have had. As a musician myself, he was a musical hero, of course, but he was also my neighbor and a long-time, extremely generous member of my community. His music was a part of my life since I was born, but I only recently learned of the many dimensions of his amazing life.
My father was a unique human being. He was first and foremost and wonderful father and husband. He was also an artist, a huge fan of music, and a bit of a baseball & football fanatic. Although my dad made his living in graphic design as an art director and eventually starting his own successful company, in his work, he was always an artist first. He loved to work in charcoals, pen & ink, and oils. He love to work on projects related to music, often finding ways to bring music or musicians into a project for which no one had even considered doing so. He played trombone in middle-school, but never picked up another instrument until he was fifty when he learned how to play the fife and joined a very popular and fun fife and drum core. He played until he passed away two years ago at seventy from a heart attack and was buried with his fife's and his stein.
My father took me to see Brubeck when I was seventeen. It was a concert on the green in New Haven, CT. It was the first "real" jazz concert I'd ever been to. Dave's son Chris was playing bass with him, too. I knew all the tunes they were playing and being a young, aspiring musician, I was taking it all in, enjoying every minute, every note. Seeing Brubeck live, hearing and seeing jazz played by giants, experience true improvisation for the first time was a major turning point in my musical life. Being there with my father, who was also named Dave, seeing Dave Brubeck playing with his son, Chris, also made a huge impact on my life personally, although I didn't really know it at the time. It would be almost 25 years before I saw Dave Brubeck play live again.
A year after that show, I was headed up to Boston to Berklee College of Music where I began my professional musical life. My professional musical career was a wonderful time of my life filled with many successes and struggles, but no regrets. All too stereotypically, having a family is simply very difficult for a musician who spends an awful lot of time on the road and you want to see your children grow up. I did, so I changed gears and got into digital media which is not that interesting of a story.
Fast forward to 2008. I and my family moved into a new town in CT. We moved there for the schools and the strong sense of community the town had a reputation for. The town also had a well respected library and my wife took our youngest there frequently. One day she told me about the Brubeck Room at the library which it turned out was a small, but good sized, acoustically wonderful oval shaped space for performances or lectures. Brubeck had donated the major portion of money so that it could be built. My wife also told me there was a jazz series going on and that the Brubeck Brothers band was playing in a couple of weeks. I got tickets immediately.
The night of the show, I was amazed at how many people showed up and that there was an overflow room where you could watch via video feed that was sold out as well. Fortunately, I had bought reserved seats and was three rows from the stage. I didn't know what to expect as I didn't really know much about the Brubeck Brothers other than that Chris Brubeck played bass and trombone. They were absolutely amazing, especially Dan Brubeck, one of Dave's sons, who plays the drums. Wow, just wow.
After the first few songs, Chris spoke and welcomed everyone and told us that their keyboard player couldn't make the gig due to a family crisis (which was true). But not to worry, because he knew a guy that could sit in and he'd be there shortly. A few tunes later and yes, I'm sure you guessed it, Dave Brubeck himself stepped up to the stage to play with his sons. I was flabergasted. He was only two rows up and a few seats over from me the whole time.
The show was amazing to say the least and is one I will never forget and have treasured the experience ever since. Dave played as brilliantly as he always has, no sign of age in his playing at all. The pure joy of playing with his sons was clearly expressed all over his face and his playing. He also shared the same enthusiasm and joy for the non-Brubeck musicians as well. The high point was when Chris grabbed his trombone, leaned over to tell his father that he wanted to play a particular tune. Dave looked at him with a big, but surprised smile and said "What?, are you sure you want to play that?" Chris was sure and he told us it was a tune for which his mother, Iola, had written lyrics for which is something she often did. It was also a tune that Dave hadn't played in years and one that they had never played together before. In fact, Dave was surprised that Chris even knew of it. Chris started out playing the melody solo on trombone and Dave soon joined in. No charts, no arrangement, nothing worked out in advance, just pure jazz and a pure and beautiful moment between father and son. I wish I could remember the name of the tune, but no one I knew at the show could remember either. It could have been any song. Everyone was so moved by the moment, that that's all we remember. And that's all that mattered.
After the show, I got to meet and talk with Dave, Chris and his wife Iola. He was as gracious and generous with his time as everyone will tell you. It was just one more unbelievable moment in an unexpected and moving evening. A year or so later, Dave Brubeck was honored locally and played a set at the Stamford Center for the Arts. Through friends in our community, I was lucky enough to get tickets including for the reception before the concert. Of course, I invited my father to join me. I had called him after the show at the library and we had many talks about Brubeck and music since in a way that we hadn't since I was young.
Unfortunately, my father was very ill and couldn't make the Stamford show. I would have loved to witness my father meeting Brubeck, but I had already learned a great deal from meeting him myself. Turns out Dave Brubeck and my father Dave were very similar men. Both loved their family more than anything else, both love music and art, both had fought for civil rights, both had lived rewarding lives. But the biggest similarity between the two men was their pure and generous spirits, both willing to lend a hand, or an ear, or an opportunity to anyone they met.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled into this sleepy little town I now call home and to bring full circle an experience that began over 30 years ago with my father and I and our shared love for music. It is simply irreplaceable. Dave Brubeck's passing today, in a small way, feels similar to my father's in that my father's passing reminded me of Brubeck, and led me to listen to all of his recordings that I have. Today, I'm flipping through my father's portfolio he left me, in a room where a few of his charcoal sketches are hanging, and listening to my father's recordings with his sea shanty singing group (that sang from here to Switzerland). Later, I'll be listening to Brubeck again.