NEW YORK — `JAZZ isn't dead yet,'' two-fisted piano player Dave Brubeck said recently. ``It's the underpinning of everything in this country. Whether it's a Broadway show, or fusion, or right on through classical music, if it's coming out of the US, it's not going to survive unless it's got some jazz influence.'' Brubeck has been prominent on the jazz scene since the 1940s. His talent as a pianist is legendary. He was also a powerful force for renewed interest in jazz in the '50s and '60s. A Time cover story on the rebirth of jazz in 1954 focused on Brubeck. And he revolutionized the music in 1963 with the wild time signatures on his million-selling album ``Time Out,'' from which emerged the jazz classic ``Take Five,'' written in 5/4 time.
``Jazz stands for freedom,'' says Brubeck. ``It's supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don't be a perfectionist - leave that to the classical musicians.''
To some extent, though, Brubeck has joined the classical artists. He studied with French composer Darius Milhaud in 1946. And throughout his career he has been a soloist with symphony orchestras. His sacred choral music has been performed around the world.
Brubeck says he got interested in writing sacred music when he was in the army in World War II.
``I started growing up in a hurry and taking a lot of the philosophy I'd heard from church as a kid a lot more seriously - especially the Ten Commandments - and wondering how `Thou shalt not kill' could be so absolutely ignored. It took me until I was in my 40s to write what I was thinking as a young soldier.''
The work that came out of that thought was the oratorio ``The Light in the Wilderness,'' based on the temptations and teachings of Jesus.
After he played at the Gorbachev-Reagan summit last spring in Moscow, Brubeck was impressed by the progress that has been made toward the Commandment ``Thou shalt not kill.''
``I had the feeling that we're closer. ... Here we are - trying to love our enemies, and look how much has moved in a right direction. Christ [Jesus], being the inspired man that he was, knew that this is the only answer.''
Dave Brubeck is a true jazz ambassador. He has played for every President of the United States since John F. Kennedy, and has traveled around the globe, soaking up the music of other cultures. Long before ``Graceland,'' Paul Simon's collaboration with South African musicians, Brubeck was influenced by the music of Africa. In fact, he says the inspiration for ``Time Out'' and its follow-up album, ``Time Further Out,'' came from an early recording of African music.
``It was entitled `The Dennis Roosevelt Expedition Into the Belgian Congo,' recorded in 1946 - that's when they took the old acetate machines into the jungle.''
Although Brubeck has often been overlooked as a jazz innovator, and some have criticized his piano style as heavy-handed, he and the late alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, along with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright, formed one of the most successful quartets in the history of jazz. In particular, Desmond's yearning lyricism proved the perfect foil for Brubeck's percussive approach.
``As the leader, you must fill in where your group needs strength,'' he said. ``If Paul had been percussive and raucous, you'd have heard how lyrical I am. Paul would have played an endless ballad that started at the beginning of his life and went to the end. But I used to egg him on, and sometimes he'd get a little angry, but I knew the side of him that was also rhythmically wonderful.''
That famous quartet came to an end in 1967. After a few years of a new quartet with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Brubeck began to tour with his musical sons, drummer Daniel and keyboardist Darius, and trombonist/bassist Chris as ``Two Generations of Brubeck.''
Dave Brubeck's current lineup consists of Randy Jones on drums, Chris Brubeck on electric bass and trombone, and Bill Smith on clarinet. Their most recent recording, ``Moscow Night,'' was recorded live on their 1987 Soviet tour; and even more recently, Brubeck played on the CD ``Big Band Hit Parade'' with the Cincinnati Pops Big Band Orchestra under Erich Kunzel and an all-star lineup that included Cab Calloway, Gerry Mulligan, and Doc Severinsen.
``If I told you all the people that have secretly told me I've influenced them, you'd never believe it, and you'll never see it in print, either.'' But among those who admired Brubeck's playing were bop piano master Bud Powell and avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. ``Cecil Taylor used to come in [to hear me] night after night,'' says Brubeck. ``You get a string of the innovators of the next generation and start talking to them, and you'll see what they were listening to.''