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Dave Brubeck 1920-2012

Dave Brubeck, I think, gave all 19 hours of Ken Burns' "Jazz" on PBS its finest and most moving moment.

Brubeck grew up in the West. His father was a cattle rancher. It was his pianist mother -- who had been herself a pupil of Dame Myra Hess -- who taught her sons to play piano, but even there, Dave's poor eyesight as a child caused him to fake it (i.e. improvise) to fool his mother into thinking he could read music better than he did.

Brubeck told Burns' cameras that it was his father, though, who taught him as a very young boy about race in America. When a young Brubeck asked his father about the terrible scars he'd seen on the body of one of his father's black ranch hands, his father explained the racist burning incident that caused them. And then he told his young son "this must never happen" again.

At which point, an aged Brubeck -- he was 80 at the time of Burns' interview -- suddenly welled up and openly cried on camera from the memory -- of the original injustice or his father's adamance about eradicating it, we'll probably never know. (Probably both.)

Old men cry easily. Look at George H.W. Bush in his last decades -- especially compared to his previous ones. But Brubeck gave Burns' cameras something completely unexpected in a vast epic TV history of jazz. Yes, of course, Brubeck was a great jazz musician -- certainly a great jazz composer by any assay. But he may also have been that great rarity anywhere, a truly great human being.

He seemed almost universally liked in jazz, a world and a life known for producing salty folks seldom given to B.S. Even Miles Davs -- who famously said in one of his saltiest moments "Brubeck's piano makes me sick" -- liked Brubeck enough to socialize at Chez Brubeck when he was in the neighborhood.

Brubeck died today, one day before his 92nd birthday. He was an active musician to the end. He doesn't just leave behind a joyous legacy from the past, he leaves behind work that continues to live. Probably the brightest moment in the soundtrack of the current David O. Russell movie "Silver Linings Playbook" is the moment when Brubeck's delightful handclapping 7/4 beauty "Unsquare Dance" is played on the soundtrack.

It was never written to be background music for anything, mind you. But Brubeck was a truly great jazz composer -- an irresistible melodist ("In Your Own Sweet Way"), even when deploying his rangier ambitions. All those time signature experiments on "Time Out" and its offspring were never meant to be as popular as they instantly were, but that's what happened the minute the world first heard "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Three to Get Ready" and Paul Desmond's 5/4 classic "Take Five."

And when Brubeck actually wrote soundtrack music for something -- a mediocre and instantly doomed TV show called "Mr. Broadway," for instance -- the theme music was so riotously infectious that musicians still play it decades later, long after the show bit the dust.

He composed all manner of music as well -- religious music and symphonic music. The stack of gorgeous "Brubeck tunes" is as high as that of any other comparable figure. (Of which there are precious few of such longevity.)

And even those of us who had our doubts about the occasional rhino banging that came superimposed piano rhythms he learned from teacher Darius Milhaud had a change of heart long ago. We began to realize that when he wasn't doing that at the keyboard, he was an uncommonly fine jazz pianist, with great lyrical touch at the same time as a love for the more boisterous jazz piano traditions.

It's too easy to get lost in a remembrance of a jazz musician beloved by people who ordinarily had little use for jazz. Dave Brubeck, in jazz, was a musician whose glowing humanity may have transcended his own art form.

But it's also true that his recorded legacy and musical reputation are likely to inspire total reverence as long as there are ears to hear jazz, indeed all American music.

--Jeff Simon

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