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31 August 2003

Star Telegram

The two faces of Dave; Dave Brubeck -By Wayne Lee Gay   Star-Telegram Classical Music Critic

Jazz pianist or classical composer?

Right now, Dave Brubeck's fame is overwhelmingly as the former. He is a true jazz icon.

But in the long run, even that heady title might not be enough. Though still unknown to most music fans outside classical circles, Brubeck's work as a composer could eventually predominate. To Brubeck, there's no particular reason to make clear distinctions.

"Music is music; it's all related," Brubeck explains in a recent interview, shortly before leaving for a West Coast concert tour with the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet. "Jazz is a little more syncopated, but Bach can make a wonderful swinging rhythm and make you want to dance."

The recent release of the two-disc Classical Brubeck on the Telarc label now adds substantially to his bid to enter the pantheon of serious classical composers. None of the material on the CD has been previously released.

Of course, recognition for his work is nothing new to Brubeck. At 82, he's been internationally famous for 50 years.

"He was absolutely one of the most influential jazz musicians of the second half of the 20th century," says Curt Wilson, head of jazz studies at Texas Christian University. "He helped institute the mind-set in which classical musicians became involved in jazz. His compositions are wonderful, and he was one of the most commercially successful jazz musicians of all time."

Although he became famous as a jazz musician, Brubeck was involved in classical music from the start. It's entirely possible that he would have made a career as a classical concert pianist had he not been cross-eyed as a child. He inherited musical talent from his mother, a pianist who had studied with the renowned British pianist Myra Hess. But because of his visual disability, he was unable to learn to read music, and turned to jazz improvisation at the piano as his primary form of musical expression. His crossed eyes were eventually corrected, but Brubeck, though he can notate music readily, never developed the skill of reading music from a page while playing.

Brubeck grew up on a California cattle ranch and entered the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific) as a veterinary major. He soon switched to music, influenced largely by listening to the newly composed and recorded Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich.

While an undergraduate, Brubeck met and married Iola Whitlock, a drama and literature major and "the smartest girl on campus," he says. Besides being a steadfast supporter of his career as a jazz musician and the mother of his four sons, Iola Brubeck, who continues to be at Dave Brubeck's side constantly, has served as the arranger of texts for all of his choral-orchestral works.

Military service in World War II followed quickly after marriage, with Brubeck being pulled out of a combat unit to serve as a pianist in an ad hoc jazz ensemble to entertain troops on the front line.

Standard encyclopedia articles state that, before going to war, Brubeck studied with Arnold Schonberg, the leading prophet of the strictly academic, highly dissonant compositional technique that dominated "serious" composition in the middle years of the 20th century. Brubeck explains with good humor that he had a one-hour lesson with Schonberg, during which the young Californian and the venerable German did nothing but argue.

Brubeck got along much better with French modernist composer Darius Milhaud, with whom he studied at Mills College for three years after the war and who had tremendous faith in Brubeck's promise as a composer.

"Milhaud gave me confidence," Brubeck says. Although Brubeck had missed out on the traditional music training for a classical composer, Milhaud "insisted that I become a composer."

Brubeck took Milhaud's advice -- sort of. Armed with ideas and a fluid keyboard brilliance, Brubeck organized the Brubeck Octet at the conclusion of his studies with Milhaud, and with his seven colleagues attacked the West Coast jazz scene in the late 1940s with a serious, experimental jazz based on original compositions and enriched with the compositional technique he had learned from Milhaud.

But jazz fans in the late 1940s weren't ready.

"The octet didn't get work," Brubeck says. "I had a family to support. I was told that if I'd put together a trio, I could get jobs at nightclubs. I quit playing my own compositions and picked up standard songs. We still did experimental things, but we used tunes that the audience knew."

And that was all it took. Brubeck's brilliance brought a wave of popularity, and he re-formed the trio into the Dave Brubeck Quartet. In the last years before rock replaced jazz as the primary music of the young, he became one of the most popular attractions on the national collegiate circuit.

He was still breaking the rules, however: He insisted on presenting concerts rather than accompanying dances, and he traveled with an integrated ensemble to the largely white campus audiences in an America that was still segregated. By 1954, at age 33, Brubeck, the jazz pianist who couldn't get gigs in California a few years earlier, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He was one of the most famous musicians in the world.

Success has its perks, and for Brubeck they included the freedom to experiment. He broke loose in a big way with the 1959 LP release of Time Out. Classical composers had explored polytonality and odd meters for decades, so those techniques came naturally to Brubeck and his band.

In the decades since 1959, our ears have grown accustomed to tunes such as Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk and saxophonist Paul Desmond's Take Five. But these pieces from Time Out were daringly experimental at the time and caused sleepless nights for record company executives. This time, however, experimentation proved the right move for Brubeck; Time Out became one of the most successful jazz releases of all time, and Desmond's Take Five became one of the classics of American music.

"Brubeck's fame as a jazz pianist tends to eclipse his significance as a classical composer," says pianist John Salmon, a Fort Worth native who has become a leading advocate of Brubeck's concert music. "But the fact that he became famous as a jazz pianist never kept him from wanting to be a classical composer."

Though he aspired to be a classical composer all along, the world first became aware of that side of Brubeck in 1968 with the debut of the choral-orchestral oratorio The Light in the Wilderness. Iola Brubeck arranged its biblically based text.

Since then, Brubeck has produced a number of religious works, and has, through his experiences as a composer, become more religious himself.

His glittering, jazzy setting of the English version of the Catholic liturgy To Hope!, written in 1980, provided a landmark in Brubeck's religious life. The text provided to him omitted the Our Father section; at the premiere, a priest suggested to Brubeck that this omitted section of the service should also be set to music as part of To Hope! Brubeck replied that To Hope! was complete as it stood, and dismissed the idea.

Shortly afterward, while vacationing in the Caribbean, a complete setting for orchestra and chorus of the Our Father text came to Brubeck in a dream, he says. He added the section to the score, and, influenced by the experience, decided to become a Catholic.

Much of Brubeck's serious concert music is completely composed and notated in a traditional fashion, but many works -- including the Mass setting -- have sections that call for jazz improvisation for keyboard or jazz ensemble. On most recordings, Brubeck and his quartet provide the jazz combo; Brubeck says that he hopes that a fine jazz ensemble improvises at appropriate points in performances that he's not personally involved in.

Though Brubeck's concert music has received generally favorable critical and audience response since it first appeared in the late 1960s, logistics and the financial challenges of putting together the complex combination of orchestra, chorus and skilled jazz ensemble that many of Brubeck's works demand, along with a tendency toward conservative programming, have kept him from entering the main orchestral repertoire in the United States.

Still, recognition of Brubeck's position as a classical and jazz composer continues to grow. The Brubeck Institute, which houses memorabilia and provides grants for undergraduate jazz musicians, has been established at the University of the Pacific, Brubeck's alma mater. And the Stockton Symphony in Stockton, Calif., has become a center of live performances of Brubeck's music.

"Like Ives, Brubeck doesn't fit in any conventional timeline of music history," says Peter Jaffe, music director and conductor of the Stockton Symphony. "He soaks up influences. I think many of his works, both jazz and concert music, will have a long life."

It's this distinctive melding of influences that gives Brubeck's classical music its distinctive sound. A section that sounds like a Bach chorale may flow imperceptibly into a moment that resembles midcentury "cool" jazz, pointing out the amazing similarity between the two styles. A rigidly traditional setting may burst into an energetic jazz improvisation, mixing with religious texts for a stunning emotional effect, as in the Alleluia movement of To Hope!

Brubeck doesn't mind being a bit ambiguous himself about his place in the scheme of music history.

"I'm a jazz musician," he says. "Sometimes I say I'm a composer who plays the piano."

As a combination of jazz musician and classical composer, Brubeck may have an even larger presence in the future of music than in his own time -- even if he causes musicologists to scratch their heads for generations to come.

"There is no way you can categorize Dave Brubeck," says Russell Gloyd, a graduate of the University of North Texas who conducts most of Brubeck's orchestral collaborations. "Future generations will experience Dave's music in a different way -- as with Bach, the music will have to tell the story. If you can't have Dave himself, the music is the next best thing."

He's long been touted as an innovative jazz pianist. A new double CD shows has chops as an equally inventive composer.