The world has seen many jazz greats go after long struggles with health issues and old age. It started with Miles Davis in ’91 – slowly fading before the eyes of a loving audience and eventually succumbing to a stroke. More recently, with the passing of Oscar Peterson, the technical wizard of the piano and unofficial heir to Art Tatum, I remember seeing him play live a few months before his death, being helped to the stool by his guitar player, his hands without the dexterity they once had. Barely mumbling through a microphone, I had to lean forward in my seat, at the acoustically perfect Roy Thomson Hall, just to make out what he was saying.
It’s easy to underestimate greats of this magnitude at the twilight of their lives, but when push comes to shove they sit down and still play music that would make even the most talented young musician today stare and listen slack-jawed at the pure genius of their idols playing. Thus were the twilight years of the late and great Dave Brubeck who passed away on December 5, a day before his 92 birthday.
Brubeck will be forever remembered for his 1959 album, Time Out, which introduced something never heard before in Jazz: odd meter. Its signature track Take Five was one of the first instances (if not the very first) to utilize 5/4 time. Everybody loved it. The album hit No. 2 on the 1961 pop charts and proved that even the casual listener could wrap their head around something as complex as the 9/8 Rondo A La Turk. The long list of accomplishments attributed to Brubeck is well known and his influence expansive. It is nearly impossible to try and list them all.
After losing such a giant innovator, the only thing we can do is look back over his body of work and remember the performances long lost to the annals of smoky bar-rooms and frilly concert halls. Writers from far and wide will tell stories about his genius and compassion. Legends will be made of his exhaustive schedule in his later years, and how he still played after learning of the tragic death of his son. He will be exalted for his large-scale classical works and small combo performances, but through all this, all that will be concrete about his existence will be the music he left behind. This is the good luck that we find ourselves in today. The joy of looking back at a life well lived, and a body of work from a master.