Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Brubeck at 90: In His Own Sweet Way

In 1936, Benny Goodman made history, hiring Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson for the first racially integrated combo to perform openly together in America. Twenty-some years later, it still raised some eyebrows when Dave Brubeck brought the African American bassist Eugene Wright into what would come to be considered his “classic” quartet. It cost Brubeck a number of gigs, but he stuck with his principles. That integrity partly explains why Brubeck remains one of the most popular and respected artists in all of jazz--and then there is his music. Brubeck, the man and the artist, take center stage in Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way, Bruce Ricker’s documentary profile executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, which premieres on TCM this coming Monday.

If you only own one jazz album, (shame on you, but) there is a fifty-fifty chance it is Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Every track is a classic, but unquestionably the best known is “Take Five.” Though actually penned by alto-saxophonist Paul Desmond, Brubeck has played at nearly every gig since the record released. Yet, Brubeck assures viewers he always looks forward to playing it to see “how far out are we going to go.”

In fact, Time Out is a perfect example of how tricky it is to classify Brubeck’s music. With each composition written in an unconventional time signature, it clearly reflected an experimental impulse, yet it sounds safely grounded in swing when compared to the avant-garde “free jazz” that would follow. A Californian of hearty rancher stock, Brubeck is also often lumped in with the so-called “West Coast” or “Cool” school of jazz. However, Brubeck’s driving rhythms and muscular attack stand in marked contrast to Cool Jazz’s milder tone.

In assembling Sweet, Ricker is blessed to have such a wealth of archival material, from high profile interviews with the likes of Walter Cronkite, to an early appearance in a Darius Milhaud documentary while Brubeck studied under the revered French composer at Mills College. Appropriately, most of Ricker’s original footage was shot around a piano, with either Brubeck or Eastwood (the Chair of the Brubeck Institute’s Honorary Board) holding court with other admiring musicians (like David Benoit and Yo-Yo Ma) to discuss the pianist-composer’s legacy. Yet, nothing beats watching and listening as Brubeck and Kansas City legend Jay McShann jam on a blues.

Brubeck continues to lead an eventful life, but Ricker is able to shoehorn in most of the major highlights, including his WWII service and the goodwill tours he later undertook for the U.S. State Department, which in turn inspired The Real Ambassadors, a jazz book-musical Brubeck and wife Iola wrote for Louis Armstrong. Though viewers do not hear as much of it, Sweet also discusses Brubeck’s sacred music (including a commission for Pope John Paul II), as well as his eventual conversion to Catholicism.

Perhaps though, the strongest aspect of the man that Ricker captures is Brubeck, the husband and father. Indeed, he and Iola Brubeck seem to have an enduringly beautiful romance, while he also clearly maintains close relationships with his grown children, four of whom followed in his footsteps as accomplished musicians in their own right.

Sweet might be conventional in its approach, but considering they have Brubeck’s engaging personality and his extraordinary body of music to work with, why get complicated? The only thing really missing is Brubeck’s performance of “A Raggy Waltz” in Basil Dearden’s All Night Long, an eccentric but appealing retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello in the world of British hipsters and jazz musicians, but TCM rectifies this oversight by airing it prior to Sweet’s debut at 3:15 EST. East Coasters without Tivo should contrive an excuse to leave work early on Monday (12/6) to get a double dose of Brubeck in two very different but highly entertaining films. New Yorkers can also catch Sweet’s world premiere this Saturday (12/4) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.