Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brubeck's "Time Out:" Acadacemicizing Jazz

This month, the world lost two incredible and historically important musicians. Doubtlessly, I have nothing but love and respect for the music and life of Ravi Shankar, but Dave Brubeck was an important personal influence. By extension, Brubeck influenced virtually every student to whom I have had the pleasure of teaching jazz.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s unlikely hit Take 5 (written by saxophonist Paul Desmond) from their 1959 album Time Out is a rare beast in the jazz realm. Its infectious melody, which effortlessly flowed over a seemingly un-swingable time signature, allowed the tune to cross over into mainstream popularity. Hiding complexity within accessibility is a surefire way for a song to earn my adoration, so Take 5 had huge appeal.

Dave Wolpe’s big band arrangement of this standard became a regular presence in my jazz pedagogy for years. Of course, putting it in the set list meant that I had to teach drummers to swing in 5/4, which was a long-term goal often wrought with frustration. Almost always, however, the song’s appeal won out. In retrospect, Take 5 doesn’t remind me of specific students I have taught as much as the whole experience of teaching big band to high schoolers for over a decade.

Looking back on that experience, I see now that in my early years I taught the song with a relatively superficial understanding. When I added Time Out to my jazz collection for the sake of study, I gained a much deeper appreciation for the song and the statement it was trying to make. As a whole, the album a historical step towards academicizing jazz. Jazz's improvisational conventions were developed in the loosely structured jams of the after-hours Dixieland and dance bands. The angular, through-composed, odd-timed experiments of Time Out would most likely not be found popping up at 3am in a New Orleans club. The harmonic structures of the pieces, however, along with the melodic vocabulary of their improvisational aspects, certainly place the album firmly within the jazz tradition.

Take 5 was the initial hook for me, but when I listened to the album in full, I became fascinated by many of the songs, not the least of which was the album’s Turkish-inspired opener Blue Rondo a la Turk. Calvin Custer released a big band arrangement of this tune and I added its kaleidoscopic duple and triple rhythmic structure to my 4 year pedagogic cycle. This one also became a band favorite.

Brubeck stood at the nexus of a variety of cultural forces. As a white musician applying intellectual and multicultral concepts to an African-American art form forged in practical settings, it seems like another example of dominant cultural ideology appropriating a subcultural style for profit. I think that there were certainly cases in the history of jazz where this happened, which was a justifiable source of racial tension. There were also many white musicians, however, that had the utmost respect for jazz tradition, and their interest in contributing to that tradition was generated by a genuine love of the style. Dave Brubeck, I think, fell into this category.

Since I have been teaching middle school, I have not had the regular opportunity to teach high concept songs like the ones found on Time Out. For young jazz musicians, learning to hold a blues form is difficult enough without having to deal with weird time signatures. Right before Brubeck's passing, however, my piano player, without any prompting from me, sat down at his piano and knocked out Take Five’s familiar rhythmic introduction. Inspiring - now to start in on that drummer…..

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