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Legendary Piano Man

Jazz great Dave Brubeck remains creative well into his 80s.


Reached at a Chicago airport, heading for a big band performance at University of Southern California after a very successful night with the Chicago Symphony, Brubeck is disinclined to give an oral preview. "You should get the recording ["Classical Brubeck" (Telarc)]," he advises. "If you listen to it, you'll get a better idea than anything I can say now."

Drawing on everything from Gregorian chant to gospel, with strong echoes of Bach and space for jazz improvisation, the music resists easy categorization. It's conducted by Brubeck's collaborator/manager Russell Gloyd, who faces the daunting challenge of preparing large numbers of singers and instrumentalists to present this eclectic work at each venue.

"We are ready to do whatever we have to do to play in different situations with wonderful local musicians," Brubeck says. "Usually it's a symphony, but we also have music for jazz bands."

At 84 the pianist might be expected to be resting on his laurels rather than touring. Brubeck grew up in a musical family on a California ranch. He was an infantryman in Patton's army, but a music-loving officer replaced his rifle with a piano, and he was charged with forming a band to entertain the troops. But Brubeck stayed with the spearhead, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and composing a song inspired by the rhythmic rumble of trucks crossing a pontoon bridge across the Rhine into Germany.

His postwar groups embodied the California jazz ideal of expressing sophisticated concepts with cool clarity. A long-lasting partnership with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond made the Dave Brubeck Quartet arguably the most popular band of its kind. (Miles Davis reportedly signed with Columbia in the hope that he could do as well.)

The quartet's seminal 1961 album "Take Five," a seemingly uncommercial experiment in odd time signatures, became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. A series of rhythmically unconventional "Time" albums formed the high-water mark of his popular career.

Brubeck disbanded the quartet in 1967, in part to focus on composed, often religious works. Starting with "The Light in the Wilderness," a history of Christ, and continuing through concertos, ballets and oratorios, he fuses classical structures and jazz improvisations in works that are intellectually ambitious and frequently moving.

In the years since, he's composed music and performed for the pope, played several times in the White House, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received countless other awards. ("I just got an honorary doctorate in religion," Brubeck says, "so people know my sacred music.") He traveled the world, along with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, and then wrote "The Real Ambassador" to celebrate the value of cultural exchange.

The others are long gone, but Brubeck remains vital, reaching past the universal toward the eternal, one of the few remaining great artists of the Greatest Generation. S

Dave Brubeck plays at St. Edwards Catholic Church, 2700 Dolfield Drive in Chesterfield County, May 5 and 6.Tickets cost $39 and can be purchased at or by calling 272-2948.

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