Dave Brubeck was an enormous influence on my early jazz listening, and—along with his sidemen Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond—probably the only white jazz musician I listened to until Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea broke out on their own. If Brubeck was a jazz ambassador, taking American music to the Soviet Union and beyond, he was also an ambassador for a white kid in Canada, exploring. He looked like my dad. He was so square, he was hip.
I thought, okay, this music is universal; everyone can contribute. It was a big, open tent. That was an important thing to learn early on.
Skip forward 45 years or so, and I found myself working as the media relations resource for Ottawa's jazz festival one summer, with Mr. Brubeck slotted to headline our festival, accompanied by the entire National Arts Centre Orchestra before about 15,000 people on a spectacular summer evening. The concert was remarkable, but my best memory comes from earlier in the day.
Most headliners let their bandmates do the heavy lifting during soundcheck. The really big names sometimes don't show up at all. And if they are living legends in their late 80s?
I don't think we expected to see Dave Brubeck onstage that afternoon, yet there he was with his quartet, soundchecking as the hot summer sun beat down on the stage. We expected a rudimentary 15 minutes at most.
He started off wearing a jacket and white shirt, standard fare for anyone's elderly grandfather. But the soundcheck went on and on, his band working out nuances on pieces they must've played hundreds of times. The leader kept making adjustments, asking his guys to play things again.
The coat came off. The white shirt came off. There was Dave Brubeck, looking like a superannuated Bruce Springsteen in his undershirt, working his band hard through a full rehearsal. Smiling. Happy. Showing me that the joy of music is a gift you can keep forever.
So many lessons. So much memorable music.