Among all the geniuses, dilettantes, poets and thoroughgoing basket cases that populate the history of jazz, of all the personalities that we watched Ken Burns lionize beyond recognition on TV, no figure in the past half-century of music has cut a figure quite like Dave Brubeck. Born in California and reared on a steady diet of classical training and music-school improv, Brubeck was uniquely equipped to approach jazz from a new vector, and he did. In the late 1940s, he was among the first to explore the temperaments of polytonality in the piano, striking several notes at once to create a richer, deeper tone. He introduced a new sense of flexibility to the rhythm of jazz, and let the rhythms overlap. And with his career-long comrade, the altoist Paul Desmond, he introduced two new populations of innocents to the mysteries of jazz—namely, Californians and the entire American middle class.
But perhaps what was most unique about Brubeck—and remains so to this day—has been his aura of wholesomeness. While jazz greats around him were going crazy with fame, pitying themselves, or medicating their insecurities, Brubeck developed a public visage that was as normal as that of any neighbor of his day. He worked for decades alongside his wife Iola, a lyricist. He served as an activist, staging musical rallies for racial equality and social justice. When not penning cool jazz standards, he wrote religious works. And he felt genuinely uncomfortable when, in 1954, his face appeared on the cover of Time. Amid a generation of causeless jazz rebels, Brubeck was an organization man.
Imagine, then, what it was like to be his children. His sons Daniel and Christopher were whelped in a household framed equally with genius and guilelessness. They grew up with all the heroes of West Coast jazz sitting on the davenport. The 7/4 time signature was their first language. And they were encouraged from the beginning to be musicians, to be jazz musicians, and to play with their father.
Today, the Brubeck brothers tour and record under their own steam, but the influences of their upbringing are unmistakable. Drummer Daniel Brubeck carries on his father’s fascination with heterodox rhythms, tapping out beats in unusual tattoos. Chris, meanwhile, uses the piano, bass and trombone to chase after elasticity much in the same way that Dave did, whether he’s covering his father’s now-classic standards or carrying out his own compositions. And in the mix, you’ll pick up some strains of fusion, lounge, and even a bit of funk, reminding you that the children, too, are products of their time. If nothing else, when you hear the crisp and unpretentious strains of the Brubeck brothers’ reborn cool, you can know that they have come by it honestly.
The Brubeck Brothers Jazz Quartet plays the University Theatre this Friday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $14 general, $12 students. Call 243-4051 or 1-888-MONTANA.