Thursday, December 13, 2012

Brubeck and Shankar: Genius Past 90

When an artist remains creative into his or her tenth decade there is a temptation to overstate the person's importance. Longevity has a way of clouding, or perhaps just softening, our critical view. In that regard, Eubie Blake and Doc Cheatham grew in stature with each passing year prior to their forestalled deaths. In essence, they seemed like stand-ins (on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and other high-profile venues) for one-time peers who actually had more of an impact, but had the misfortune of living shorter lives.

Ravi Shankar and Dave Brubeck—united in deaths just a week apart and several biographical details—were exceptions. They were vital, creative and influential until the very end.

If my memory serves, I heard Shankar sometime in the early '60s, courtesy of some of my parents' more adventurous friends. If it didn't really register for what it was at the time, that exposure laid the groundwork for easy acceptance of the sonic texture of the sitar when The Beatles incorporated it into their music a few years later.

I wrote last week of how Brubeck opened me to the concept of jazz as a place where the races could come together creatively. In that same way, the tonality of Shankar's music alerted me to the reality that there was a huge world beyond the western music I heard on a daily basis. What's more, Shankar's music was—prior to hearing Charlie Parker—my first exposure to other-worldly virtuosity. It helped me put rock guitarists in perspective. When my friends gushed over Eric Clapton, I pointed them to Shankar. Checking back on his appearance to open the Concert for Bangladesh, I was reminded of the frisson I felt in those days. As an example, dig the blazing exchanges between Ali Akbar Khan and Shankar at 4:36 and 4:51. If George Harrison took inspiration from Shankar's sound, surely guitarists like Duane Allman and Dickey Betts picked up an idea or two from riff trading like this.

Live exposure to Shankar was hard to come by where I grew up, but I took my mother—then, about 82—to see Shankar one night. We still talk about that concert as one of the times that our musical tastes met; a rare occasion.

In contemplating the death of these two giants so close together, I'm struck by a similarity that overshadows the fact that both men produced highly musical offspring. Both Brubeck and Shankar felt the sting of critics who labelled them as sell outs, thanks to their widespread popularity. In Shankar's case, it was more of a challenge, because it attacked him at the level of ethnicity and national pride. It happened early—an ego-shattering experience, he recalled—when he was performing with his brother's dance troupe in the mid-'30s, and then again, when The Beatles swept him up in their wake.

Both Brubeck and Shankar remained true to themselves and toughed out the criticism. They didn't buckle, and by overcoming their challengers they opened their music to much wider appreciation. Last week, Facebook was flooded with testimonials of how Brubeck opened musicians to new worlds beyond what was accepted in jazz, and those types of comments are now flowing for Shankar, too.

One other product of living 90-plus years is that people begin to take you for granted. Until you're gone. Only in retrospect, as we re-examine the careers of these giants, do we realize how much of the world as we know it was shaped by their contributions.

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