Today, IBIT strays somewhat from the topic of travel to mark the passing of an American jazz legend.
We lost Dave Brubeck today, and for anyone who grew up with a love and respect for jazz, the loss is immense.
If you’re of my generation and come out of New Orleans, jazz almost seems to be coded into your DNA. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and so many others.
You may even have jazz notes hanging like musical fruit from your own family tree, as I do.
But as a kid, I didn’t really connect with jazz on a gut level until I heard “Take Five” for the first time in 1962 — courtesy of an AM radio station in San Francisco.
I heard it while clutching a cheap plastic transistor radio the size of a small shoe, with “made in Japan” in raised letters on the bottom and a small, tinny-sounding speaker not fit for “elevator music.” The alternative was to plug in the somewhat uncomfortable oversized earphone, which in those days went into only one ear.
For me, none of that mattered. “Take Five” was the song that turned “cool” from a state of mind into a sound. More than that, it was the signal that my musical tastes were no longer those of a child — even though I still was one.
Most artists want to be known and respected for their body of work, not just one piece of it. In Brubeck’s case, though, it’s probably unavoidable, for “Take Five” is not just his song. It’s his signature.
I grew up thinking this was strictly an American thing, that we were the only ones who loved jazz. How wrong I was.
Black American musicians first exposed the rest of the world to jazz in Europe, just before and especially during World War 1, when Parisians listened to the Army bands of America’s racially segregated black units, a pattern repeated in Europe and occupied Japan after World War 2.
Which is one big reason why today, you can find a jazz club in the capital city of every major nation on Earth.
Another reason was the Cold War.
Back then, both sides tried to use culture as a weapon of sorts. When the Soviet Union was trotting out classical orchestras and the Bolshoi Ballet on worldwide tours as cultural proof of its superiority, Washington countered with the likes of Ellington, Armstrong, Basie…and Dave Brubeck.
Fast-forward to 1976. Tokyo, Japan. I’m sitting in a second-floor nightclub wedged into a small office building in the Ginza, drinking Kirin beers from a glass boot…and listening to young Japanese musicians playing American jazz.
Including Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
Soon after, I learned that there were countries all over the world with jazz radio stations — and even more, hosting their own jazz festival lasting days.
Montreal and Toronto, Canada. Paris and Nice, France. Copenhagen. Vienna. Montreux, Switzerland. Havana. Jakarta, Indonesia. Macedonia, Moldova, Algeria and Azerbaijan.
Jazz. For days.
Regular IBIT readers know I’m not big on traveling the world to experience American culture. My skin crawls at the sight of a McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee or all over the Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
For music, however, I make an exception.
I delight at listening to black African choirs put their own interpretations on black American gospel music. I truly enjoy listening to hip-hop and rhythm ‘n blues via London or Marseilles or Salvador in Brazil’s Bahia state.
Above all, I love hearing everybody’s spin on jazz.
Dave Brubeck was one of the geniuses who brought this uniquely American creation to the world, and the world has never let go of it, or him. Play this cut on the streets of almost any big city, anywhere, and someone will stop to listen. Not just because they like it, but because they know it.
David Warren Brubeck would have been 92 years old tomorrow. His music will live on a lot longer than that.
The good stuff never dies.