Dave Brubeck has been on the road for more than 50 years. He has been playing his biggest hit, Take Five, at each stop for at least 40.
He'll be playing it five more times for Canadian audiences when his quartet moves onto the festival circuit that's now up and running across the country, taking his place with -- among others -- his fellow Americans James Carter and Charlie Haden, Holland's Ab Baars, Denmark's Fredrik Lundin and the Canadians Susie Arioli, Jane Bunnett, François Bourassa, François Carrier and Molly Johnson.
You'd think Brubeck would find all this travelling a tough go at the age of 81. But no. The distinguished pianist and composer still does about 80 concerts a year. "I love to play," he explains in a telephone interview from his home in Wilton, Conn., "and my group loves to play. That's half the battle right there."
Matters of health are, naturally enough, always an issue at Brubeck's point in life; on recent tours, he has had to deal with pneumonia and the effects of Lyme disease. But music apparently has restorative powers. "If you're at the point where you're thinking, 'Gee, I feel lousy,' you get out on that stage, the adrenalin gets going and pretty quick you feel better."
As far as the obligation to play Take Five every night is concerned, he's sanguine. The tune -- written by the Brubeck quartet's alto saxophonist of the day, Paul Desmond, in what was then the unusual time signature of 5/4 -- broke the Top 30 on Billboard magazine's singles chart in 1961. It has been the pianist's signature piece ever since.
You'd figure he and the band would have tired of the tune after so long. Again, apparently not. "We approach it with great anticipation," Brubeck says. "It's different every night; we're not playing the same tune every night, we're playing a different tune every night."
The same melody, surely? "Where it starts and stops," he agrees. "The rest is different."
But always in 5/4, right? "No," he counters with a mischievous chuckle. "There are all kinds of counter-rhythms against the 'five.' Sometimes we don't know where it's going to go."
Sure, he's saying all the 'right' things -- the way Diana Krall says all the 'right' things. But there's no reason to doubt his sincerity. After all, he could retire at any time if he wanted. What more does he have to achieve, what further honours has he yet to acquire? (He started early, making the cover of Time in 1954.) There's even a new Brubeck Institute of Jazz Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. It's the jazz equivalent of a presidential library, with Brubeck's personal archives as its core holdings.
It's an impressive collection, between his recordings and his compositions, the latter ranging from his most popular jazz themes -- notably In Your Own Sweet Way and Blue Rondo à la Turk -- to his oratorios.
And what would the young Brubeck, who attended what was then the College of the Pacific in Stockton, have thought had someone told him of all the things that he would accomplish in the next 60 years? The young Brubeck would not have been surprised.
"I'd hate to tell you how much confidence I had in myself," he recalls, sounding rather sheepish at the memory.
A lot or a little?
"I had a lot -- with no good reason except the estimation of older musicians when I was a kid. If they were really good musicians -- a Duke Ellington or a Stan Kenton -- they like me. They heard something. And that made me think that maybe I had a lot to offer."
The French composer Darius Milhaud, with whom Brubeck studied in Oakland, Calif., in 1946, thought so, too. "I couldn't even read music when I studied with Milhaud. He said, 'You've got to be a composer, but it's too late for you to have a European [that is, classical]background, like most of my students. You've got your own background and you're going to have your own thing.' He was right."
Brubeck's "thing" has in fact been a little of many things: jazz of course, classical music and even a remarkably prescient smattering of what's currently known as world music. You can find it on his most popular LP, Time Out (Columbia) from 1959, and you can still hear it on his latest CD, The Crossing (Telarc).
"In an interview in 1949 -- in Down Beat -- I said that jazz was like a sponge and it was going to pick up every culture that it was exposed to and bring it into the jazz idiom. The critics didn't know what I was taking about."
Now they do.
"Now they do," he agrees. "You see, I didn't think I was doing anything new, because from the beginning that's what jazz did. Most people don't realize this. The first theme of St. Louis Blues was a tango. Where'd that come from? Jelly Roll Morton talked about how much the French opera house in New Orleans influenced his music. And Tiger Rag -- that was a Belgian march."
Flash forward, then, to Time Out and to Brubeck's own Blue Rondo à la Turk, which married a classical form to a rolling 9/8 rhythm that he first heard on the streets of Istanbul during a U.S. State Department tour in 1958. It would take jazz another 35 years to return to the Balkans for inspiration.
Brubeck was also in the lead on another, perhaps ultimately more significant front when he broke through the prejudices held against jazz by the classical and academic worlds. That's as much a political victory as anything else; the Brubeck Institute of Jazz Studies, for one, wouldn't exist now without it.
"When I came up, there wasn't a school in the country that had jazz studies. I think [the Brubeck quartet]helped open that door. We played at many of the great conservatories across the country. They'd give me an old beat-up piano; there'd be a great piano right there backstage that I wouldn't be allowed to use. Those kinds of things have all changed."
Now, of course, he gets the best instrument in the house.
"It's a different world now," he continues. He's still talking about jazz in academe, but he could also be referring to jazz in general. "I think we helped open it up."
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, completed by saxophonist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore and drummer Randy Jones, will be performing at jazz festivals in Toronto (June 24), Edmonton (June 26), Victoria (June 28), Vancouver (June 29) and Montreal (July 6).