Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time Out for a Jazz King

I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of jazz great, Dave Brubeck.  I'm not going to share his biography here; it's extensive and found all over the Internet.  Google him, and you'll get more that a million hits, including his own website,

I got to see him in concert 10 years ago.  He came to Emory in Atlanta to do a workshop with students there, and gave two evening performances; one with the students singing and playing, and the next night, it was just him with his jazz quartet.  The quartet concert was the one I attended.  I was amazed at this man's artistry and pure joy of music.  He was 81 or 82 at the time, and was assisted to his seat at the piano.  That was the last time during the evening that I though about his age.  As soon as his fingers hit the keys, his face lit up, his hands moved with speed and accuracy, and the pure thrill of music poured out of him.  It washed over those of us listening, and we were caught up in his joy. 

I didn't know much about jazz music until I met my husband. I mean, I knew the term, but it wasn't something I experienced with any knowledge or thought.  My dear man, who grew up in Mississippi and did midnight runs to New Orleans to soak up music in the clubs, began teaching me about his favorite jazz musicians.  Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Modern Jazz Quartet, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae, Duke Ellington, Gilberto, Jobim, and Dave Brubeck all became part of my genre definition.  The first time I heard the album Time Out, I was swept away by its sound, style, and for me, magic. I guess I have become a West Coast Jazz kind of girl. The Brubeck sound was definitely a huge contributor to that distinct style. 

Perhaps the most recognizable piece associated with Brubeck (actually written by alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet) is "Take Five."  The lilting, lifting, soaring sax and unusual 5/4 time signature captures imagination.  It is one of the reasons Time Out went platinum, the first ever jazz genre album to do so.  However, much as I love all of Time Out, I have another favorite Brubeck piece.  Many don't know that he composed choral sacred music.  His jazz modern Catholic Mass "To Hope" is interesting, but may not be for everyone.  Within this Mass, he composed a simple mezzo soprano solo that has been tugging at me ever since I heard it on Marian McPharland's radio show interview with Brubeck several years ago.  "The Desert and the Parched Land" is a direct quote from one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Isaiah 35: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak. Say to those that are frightened: Fear not, be strong, here is your God."  To me, the simplicity of the accompaniment, the beautiful lifting to the final 'here is your God" moves me in ways I can't explain.  I can, and have, listen to it over and over again.  Maybe someday I'll get to perform it.  It will take effort to do without becoming overwhelmed.

So, thank you, Dave, for your talent, innovation, insight, spirit, and pure joy of music.  We will listen, remember, and be thankful while our toes tap, fingers drum, and heads bob to your cool jazz.

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