Wilton columnist: Dave Brubeck across the decades
WILTON — The Brubecks and Wilton have had a very special relationship for more than half a century. Family ties brought the Brubecks here as Dave’s rapidly rising career with recording contracts in New York City and performances all over the then-more-heavily-populated eastern U.S. and in Europe meant either continuing long absences from his family or a move eastward from his California ranching roots.
Dave’s eldest son Darius was the kick-off speaker two weeks ago for the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society’s annual American history series, this year on the history of jazz. Darius offered many interesting observations on his father’s life from earliest times onward in a broad national and international context. He and his brothers had played at the library the previous weekend in a performance that coincided with the Brubeck family’s donation of Dave’s collected works to the library, transforming our town into a destination location for study of the history of jazz.
Darius began his series presentation by quipping, to much laughter and encouraging applause, that he’d feel a lot more comfortable sitting at the Steinway across the stage in the library’s Brubeck Room. Instead, from the podium he eloquently addressed the centrality of service for the greater good in Dave and Iola’s lives. As he did so, it was evident why Darius has had such a significant role in the musical academic world as well as in the composing and performance world.
Darius described how Dave sought to bring people together across our nation and the larger world. Dave was part of that greatest generation who wanted to see the mistakes of the past that had led to catastrophic global war (crippling reparations and isolationism fueling demagoguery and fascism) replaced with vision and hope. Dave himself had had a significant wartime role not as the infantry sharpshooter he was trained to be but rather as director of a jazz band for Patton’s Army that he assembled from troops in the replacement depots. His musicians were both black and white; as he did throughout his life, Dave made no distinction but looked always for the most talented.
The U.S. military was not integrated until after the war; so this was radical stuff, but the brass looked the other way. In any event, Dave — as became his consistent liet motif — simply went ahead and did what was right. His band was a great morale builder even as it made a profound statement on race. Dave would do the same stateside post-war when he would not perform at southern venues that wouldn’t accept his African-American band members. His unrelenting actions carried a profound message, one that he later amplified in compositions designed to help heal racial and other tensions here at home.
In the larger world, Dave’s State-Department-arranged tours beginning in the 1950s carried him across eastern Europe, the Middle East and southern Asia, and by the mid-1980s he was doing concerts even in the Soviet Union. Jazz was an amazingly unifying force across the world in the postwar era, presenting the breadth of American cultural variety at a time when we were known mostly for our military and industrial might.
While only a 10-year-old, Darius saw the impact his father’s performances had on audiences otherwise so different as to defy cataloging. Yet Dave needed only to sit down at the piano with his band to transform differences into commonalities drawing people together. Audiences around the world loved the genius of his composing and performance of course, but there was also something absolutely magnetic about Dave himself: a charm, grace and depth of character that simply radiated.
Even in his very late years when his movement to the stage at an Arts-at-St. Matthew’s concert was necessarily slow, once he sat down at the piano he was utterly transformed! His hands flew in brilliant improvisation, and his face reflected the ineffable joy that performance brought. And for Dave and Iola, his magnificent sacred repertoire (often graced with her moving lyrics) was every bit as important, maybe more so, than his secular works known and loved as they are around the world.
Those of us present a decade and a half ago at the performance of Dave’s Mass aptly titled “To Hope, A Celebration” in Our Lady of Fatima’s sanctuary — that was fully packed notwithstanding a snowstorm — heard that glorious masterwork in all of its luminous majesty. That’s part of the privilege of being a Wiltonian in the age of Brubeck. And the next Brubeck generation is demonstrating, to our great collective joy, that the Brubeck age continues unabated.