Nonagenarians just aren’t what they used to be.
The start of one’s 10th decade used to be a moment for seriously slowing down. The great pianist, composer and bandleader Dave Brubeck, who celebrates his 90th birthday on Dec. 6, has marked the occasion by playing a short season at the Blue Note club in New York, and winning the poll in Downbeat magazine for “Jazz Group of the Year.”
“Isn’t that something?” he exclaimed when I talked to him last week. This must be a record: It’s 60 years since Brubeck and his band first won a Downbeat Poll. What’s his secret? He obviously just loves playing music. That’s clear from the BBC Arena documentary, “In His Own Sweet Way,” coproduced by Clint Eastwood (broadcast tonight on BBC Four. Jamie Cullum’s Radio 2 show features an interview with Brubeck on Dec. 7.)
“The worst thing about the life of a jazz musician on the road is getting to the gig,” Brubeck says in the phone interview. “Once you’re there and playing, it’s marvelous. I played two concerts last weekend, and they both went wonderfully. I hadn’t played for three months with my group. It was the greatest feeling to be back.”
A doctor once advised Brubeck not to retire from performance on the grounds that he plainly looked in better shape after performing than before. He agrees. “I have more energy at the end than I do at the beginning. You can be so beat up that you can scarcely walk on stage but when you get to the piano the excitement kicks in, you forget about being tired.”
Learning by Osmosis
Energy, intellectual and physical, is one of the identifying marks of Brubeck’s music. He has the rhythmic drive of jazz and blues, yet also was at one point, in the 1940s, a pupil of the French composer Darius Milhaud (who, to further complicate this intriguing case of cultural cross-fertilization, was earlier inspired by jazz). “I learned by osmosis, just from being around him,” Brubeck says. “He’d say, ‘Dave, you’re going to be a composer!’ We were good friends.”
Another of Brubeck’s associations -- with the alto saxophone player, Paul Desmond (1924-77) -- was one of the most memorable musical partnerships in jazz. Brubeck provided the propulsive power and adventurous complexity; Desmond an airy, melodic grace. “He just wanted to play with me,” Brubeck remembers, “and I thought he was the greatest.”
The Brubeck Quartet with Desmond wasn’t formed until after Brubeck had a swimming accident at Waikiki Beach in 1950 that almost left him paralyzed. Previously, he had been successful with a piano trio, but after the injury Brubeck felt he needed another soloist to share the load.
Note to Paul
“It took me months to be able to play again,” he says. “I wrote to Paul from the army hospital in Honolulu that if I could get well I would start a quartet, and he carried that note with him in his wallet for the rest of his life.”
The combination of Brubeck, Desmond, bass player Eugene Wright and the brilliant drummer Joe Morello formed the classic Brubeck group, which in 1959 made “Time Out,” one of the most famed of jazz recordings. An exploration of such unusual and potentially ungainly time signatures as 9/8 and 5/4, it should have been esoteric, yet was a success (indeed, a platinum disc).
Rhythm, Brubeck has speculated, is the universal human language. The inspiration for some of his most memorable music has been rhythmic. Brubeck’s beautiful piece, “The Duke” came to him in 1954 while he was driving his car through the rain. “The beat just fits the rhythm of a windshield wiper going backward and forward,” he says.
Then he sings it -- and I can hear the pleasure in his voice.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)