• A Celebration of the Life and Music of Dave Brubeck

    May 12, 2013. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

    Just before 4:00 Saturday afternoon, thunder clapped outside St. John the Divine on Amsterdam and 113th St. Inside, Dave's widow Iola Brubeck spoke, her voice steady, strong and lower pitched than I expected. She and Dave were married for 70 years. Since her husband's death, Mrs. Brubeck and her family have received and read hundreds of letters, she said, and the word JOY kept popping up. They planned this celebration to capture some of that joy.

    She went on to say (paraphrasing) that she and Dave first entered this cathedral on Duke Ellington's birthday, April 29, 1976 - two years after his death. The event was called Ellington Forever. The Duke Ellington Orchestra played, Mercer Ellington directing, with the Youth Symphony Orchestra and a choir, a constellation of guest artists, a United Nations of diplomats, and First Lady Betty Ford in attendance.

    Brubeck_croppedAn arc from Duke through Dave touched down on us yesterday in this, the world's largest cathedral, full of people from stem to stern. We gathered for stories and music. Sirius XM's Mark Ruffin hosted. Twenty-eight musicians performed, sharing the Brubeck impulses toward justice and joy.

    Dave and Iola's daughter Cathy told us how she would dance, crash and twirl around the living room as her dad and brothers played. She introduced  Matthew, Darius, Chris and Dan Brubeck on cello, piano, bass and drums and "Cathy's Waltz." Then in a smooth sequence varied groups offered a Japanese melody, a blues with lyric by Iola, piano duet on "The Duke," "The Golden Horn" composed on the Turkish phrase for "Thank you" featuring exceptional moments from Renee Rosnes and trumpeter Randy Brecker, and a movement from Dave's ballet Glances. Chris and Dan Brubeck were recurrent players on bass and drums.

    In letters read by Dave's producer Russell Gloyd, Mayor Bloomberg and President Clinton both noted that the first jazz concerts they ever saw were Dave Brubeck concerts. (Me too. Milwaukee. 1965?) Clinton wrote that - at age 15 - after he persuaded a dear friend to drive him 50 miles to see Brubeck, "I went home and practiced until my lips bled." In 1994 Clinton presented Brubeck with a National Medal of the Arts.

    Eugene Wright, the bassist and sole survivor of the Dave Brubeck Quartet of 1958-67, played "King For A Day" with Darius Brubeck on piano. Dave was quoted as saying that Wright had a "Jackie Robinson kind of dignity." Wright's full, round tone is still a joy, 45 years later. In 1962 President Kennedy invited the Brubeck Quartet to play at a party for White House interns. Tony Bennett joined them with no rehearsal on four tunes. Columbia Records recently discovered the tapes, misfiled, and on May 28 will release this momento from Camelot. From it we heard "There Will Never Be Another You," fast and swinging and present, and Tony Bennett stepped up to say that when he sang with Dave at Newport, the New Orleans Festival and Montreal, it was always spontaneous and unexpected.

    Branford Marsalis interpreted "For Iola" on soprano, a beautiful reading. Chick Corea was the only pianist to play alone, "Strange Meadowlark." Young graduates of the Brubeck Institute in California played "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and there was a great short session on "Blues for Newport" with the tick tock of a clock built into the melody.

    St. John the Divine is so reverberant that Iola - in her welcome - suggested that music from the 1985 performance of Dave's Mass to Hope might still be present in the space. I hope it is true of yesterday's shared joy as well.

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