Dave Brubeck died a few days ago. He was one of my musical idols, a constant presence in my life since I was first introduced to his music by my father when I was a child. The quartet’s breakthrough album Time Out was part of the soundtrack of my youth, along with the standards of Gershwin and Cole Porter, the scores of The Sound of Music, The Music Man, South Pacific, and the music of The Beatles, The Doors, and so many others. What a gift to grow up in a house filled with such a variety of music! We also listened to Chopin and my sister and I eventually learned to play classical music on the piano. But my lifelong love of jazz began with the sounds of Dave Brubeck.

The thing that stands out about Brubeck to me is his uniqueness. He’s been criticized for the blockiness of his chord-playing, for the quartet not being “swingy” enough. Critics will always find something to criticize. What I hear is a man playing his way – in other words being his authentic self. When you listen to his music you can hear commitment and authenticity. Brubeck’s wayof playing is like a person’s speech characteristics– his unique style of expression. You would know it anywhere.

When I was about to graduate from Music for People’s Leadership Program, I had a conference with one of the program heads, David Darling. One thing he said will stay with me forever. Speaking about facilitating music improvisation workshops, he told me, “You don’t have to do it the way anybody else does it. No matter how much you admire another facilitator, you have to find your own way.” A simple idea that you don’t find in practice so much in this world.

Another quality I admire about Brubeck is his musical sense of adventure. He explored unusual time signatures, poly-rhythms, and poly-tonality, creating rich sonic experiences for his listeners. You can hear his love of Bach in fugue-like passages, such as the one he plays with saxophonist Paul Desmond in their recording of Somewhere. He wrote many different kinds of music – sacred music, choral pieces and other genres. He didn’t play it safe by staying with what he knew how to do, but he constantly pushed the envelope. That can be a scary thing, but Brubeck made it sound exhilarating. In some recordings that exhilaration is palpable, and you might even hear a few minor finger slips. Apparently he felt that passion was more important than the illusion of perfection.

On one particularly beautiful track from Trio Brubeck, an album he made with his sons, Dave begins playing Over the Rainbow as a piano solo. Almost before you realize it, the arrangement accomodates two keys simultaneously. The sound is strange and beautiful. Then Chris joins in on the trombone, and Danny’s sensitive drum backing creates an easy communion among the musicians. We are there, in sympathetic harmony, part of the whole. We have accepted Brubeck’s invitation to explore a new place where we’ve never been–and when we return, we are different than before.  

Thank you, Dave.