Dave Brubeck, 82-year-old grand old man of American jazz and recipient of a special award at tonight's BBC Jazz Awards, is in a sunny mood. It's July 4, and his country house in Connecticut is full of friends. He has also just been for a walk, the first since injuring his knee while recording his recent solo album Indian Summer.
When Brubeck had teh accident in March everyone told him to put off the recording, but he kept going. "It hurt like hell by the end of the day, but I just wanted to do it." The result is a lovely, ruminative survey of his favourite standards, plus some new compositions, including Autumn in Our Town. I remark that it has a modal, Eastern European melancholy. "Well, that could be," he says. "You know I listen to a lot of Bartók. I think his String Quartets are the greatest things ever written in that medium."
All this gives a clue as to what's kept Brubeck on the road and composing in a musical field littered with depression, drugs and even suicide. He's the eternal optimist, and loves to praise: he would much rather talk about the great qualities of the players in his Quartet and Octet from the 1950s, or the latest whizz-kid to enter a jazz college at Pacific University called the Brubeck Institute.
This absence of demons, plus his astonishing popularity (his 1959 album Time Out was the first million-selling jazz album) displease some who think jazz can only be made by tormented âmes maudits. But the idea that this popularity implies that Brubeck's work is easy listening doesn't bear even a fleeting acquaintance with the music. There's a rough-edged dissonance and invigorating energy in his earlier piano playing, coupled with a steel-wristed technique. This energy goes hand-in-hand with a naive delight in music's raw materials, especially rhythm. His recordings of Unsquare Dance and Take Five are classic examples of the way Brubeck can give an irresistible swing to an irregular time-signature.
He believes this love of irregular rhythms comes from his teenage years on a 45,000-acre ranch in California, managed by his father. "I would spend days out looking after the herds in the mountains. You get used to feeling different rhythms in your body, trotting rhythms and galloping rhythms. I remember a little motor we used for pumping water to the cattle, and it had this fascinating rhythm I would listen to for hours."
Those years spent mixing with Mexicans and native Indians nurtured a great appetite for non-Western music, an influence on Brubeck from the start. "I wrote an article for Down Beat magazine in 1949 where I said the future of jazz lay in bringing all the world's music into itself," he says. "People thought that was a crazy idea, but that's the way jazz has become."
Within a decade, the musical cowboy had become a sophisticated jazzman, thanks in part to the GI Bill, which gave a free education to ex-servicemen. He enrolled on a music course at Mills College in California, where he encountered the French-born Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. "I thought about becoming a classical composer, but Milhaud said, 'No, stick to your jazz. You're an American; it's your heritage.' It's the best advice anyone ever gave me."
Now, 60 years on, he's bemused to find he's an institution: "I feel like I'm getting a lifetime achievement award every month!" For the BBC ceremony, he'll be playing with the Guy Barker Big Band in a live satellite link-up from New York.
He'll be performing his two best-known recordings, Take Five, and Blue Rondo à la Turk. Obvious choices, but Brubeck doesn't mind. "How could I get bored? They come out different every time I play them."