One of the Jazz greats has died just short of his 92nd birthday. There are notices here, here and here. One I found particularly interesting in throwing light on my own jazz 'education' is John Fordham's obituary in the Guardian. Fordham writes:
[Brubeck] was a figure simultaneously feted and mugged by ecstatic fans and infuriated purists during the years between 1954 and 1966 – the time when his catchiest and most deftly composed records were pop hits.
Like the Modern Jazz Quartet, which enjoyed similar commercial success in that period, Brubeck's music flattered and engaged the young white middle-class, and particularly the student population, much as the classical-sounding clarinettist Benny Goodman's work had done in the mid-1930s. Brubeck intertwined jazz swing with time-signatures that looked like algebra, and mingled standard song-forms with rondos and fugues. All kinds of music fans who would have hated to be seen with a jazz album owned Brubeck records in the 60s, just as they own Diana Krall, Jan Garbarek or Keith Jarrett discs today.
But if Brubeck's success, and the repertoire that achieved it, could be fighting talk among music-lovers 40 years ago, now time, and the eclecticism and fluid collaborations of a shrinking world, have healed his estrangement from the jazz audience. Brubeck's pieces are now recognised for the harmonically subtle, melodically devious and original works they are, and his most classically oriented works (such as the soft-winds Bach tribute Chorale) as triumphs in a treacherous territory in which short-changing jazz or dumbing-down symphonic composition is very hard to avoid. The Brubeck debate eventually vanished into the archives, and his real gifts – as a composer, and a charter of new rhythmic waters as inventive as the brilliant bebop drummer-composer Max Roach – came to be appreciated for what they always were.
Unlike Goodman and his college audience triumphs of the 1930s, Brubeck discovered his jazz in the postwar world – in a very different climate, which initiated the unusual chemistry of his music by a very different route. Jazz, pop and dancing were synonymous in the 30s. But Brubeck emerged a decade later, after the more cerebral and exploratory modernist idiom of bebop had profoundly influenced the music.
To make jazz popular again, to haul it out of the bare-bulb, hipster-subculture cellar it had holed up in during the late 1940s, would require a different approach.
One of the first jazz albums I owned was Jazz Goes to College, with the fine opening track 'Balcony Rock'.
Back in Bulawayo (late 50s, early 60s) Dave Brubeck - with Paul Desmond! - was among my early favourites, along with the Modern Jazz Quartet (also mentioned by Fordham), Armstrong, Ellington, Beiderbecke, Goodman, Blakey, Mulligan and more. But then, in England, I came across some of those 'purists' for whom Brubeck and the MJQ were, somehow, not proper jazz.
The moral of the story is: beware of purists.