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In Memoriam: Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

For whatever reasons, Dave Brubeck is often overlooked by purists when recounting the greatest artists of jazz. But his legacy is nearly as impactful as any artist of the last century, and his music easily as inspiring.

Brubeck, always smiling.

I first encountered him when I was 18 years old. He was a featured artist on VH1’s “New Visions Jazz,” hosted by Ben Sidran. Mr. Brubeck was performing a couple of standards (“I Hear a Rhapsody” and “These Foolish Things”) at a jazz festival in Florida; and even I, with my then limited capacity to understand the subtleties of jazz, was dazzled by they way he could evoke orchestral textures from a piano. In a subsequent interview, he was asked how he felt about playing the old fan favorites dozens of times per year, for years on end. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t recall his answer as one of the first lessons I learned about being a performer. He said that he was fortunate to be playing music for so many people, and for so long, and that if people wanted to hear “Take Five” for the 200th time, it remained his job to play it for them, and to do so with as much intent and fervor as he ever did.

Another of the several lessons I learned by listening to his music was that a style is represented by its distilled essence, not by its most frequently used techniques. To illustrate: “Blue Rondo a la Turk” is one of the greatest blues pieces ever written and performed, and without adhering strictly to the incessantly repeating twelve-bar form. Today, remember Dave Brubeck in hindsight the way countless students and fans enjoyed him in person — by taking delight in the impeccable structure, exhibited both on the page and in improvisation, in the music of Brubeck’s classic quartet, who were matchless both in their knack for craftsmanship and in their appeal to humanity’s basest feelings.

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