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Perennially cool Dave Brubeck

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck roars into his 90th year like a young lion.

By Roderick Nordell/ Contributor / December 29, 2010

Dave Brubeck played at the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., Aug. 10.

Joe Giblin/AP/File

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The documentary broadcast on Dave Brubeck's 90th birthday Dec. 6 brought it all back. The title, "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way," set the tone. I remembered much that was shown, and I recalled much that was not shown.

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In it was an expert compendium of scenes from Brubeck's personal and professional life, put together by Bruce Ricker, with Clint Eastwood as executive producer (and broadcast on Turner Classic Movies). It showed Brubeck with the galaxy of musicians who played with him; with Iola, his wife and frequent collaborator, and his friends and family; and with the teacher, French composer Darius Milhaud, for whom one of their sons is named. Now young musicians can find stimulating programs at the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific where Dave and Iola met.

I remembered Brubeck from years before, sitting in a jet with a lap full of music manuscripts. Drumming student Dan Brubeck, 12, sat in the next seat showing how he could play three beats on one knee and two on the other. Not a bad talent for one who'd be surrounded by his father's universe of odd time signatures. They were on the way to the Mexican jazz festival where Dave would have to rehearse and Dan and other members of the family would be left in my care for the day.

That was then. Now Dan is a well-known drummer, and the music that Dave was working on has joined his sacred works. "Walk while ye have the light," the baritone sings. "The Light in the Wilderness" became the title of the oratorio that had its Cincinnati première in 1968.

This month, Brubeck played with his jazz quartet. It's not the classic one going back to the 1960s: Paul Desmond, alto sax; Gene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums. It's one he has kept alive with different personnel, playing for a full house at New York's Blue Note. Maybe he was heard by some of the same people who saw him on the cover of Time in 1954 – before Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk were there.

Brubeck has composed many kinds of music. But he has kept on performing, as fans will remember, says jazz impresario George Wein in the documentary. Composing, performing, doing good works in his own sweet way have not only pleased his section of the jazz public but have also led him to honors such as the Kennedy Center Awards in 2009.

In 1952, Brubeck told me that jazz required getting ready. "I simply love everybody and everything." But he felt that jazz musicians needed enough technical background to draw on the same musical devices as classical musicians. His octet's record "Fugue on Bop Themes" was selected by Aaron Copland for a long-ago lecture course at Harvard University.

That's Brubeck, maybe hitting a fallow period but springing back fortissimo or otherwise. As for variety in the past, it should be evident in newly packaged records such as "Legacy of a Legend" released in December.

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