By Ames K. Swartsfager
Last week my wife kidnapped me and drove me to the Litchfield Jazz Festival 2010, which was really held in Kent, CT, to hear Dave Brubeck play a 90th birthday concert at the event. They featured another Brubeck Quartet and I could hardly wait.
I had met Dave way back in 1955 at a little musician’s dive in San Francisco called “The Cellar.” Jazz musicians from all over would come to this small bar for after-hours jam sessions. Any man must have his horn with him to get in. Any woman was always welcomed.
Although I was only seventeen, I would go there now and again intrepidly carrying my Tenor Sax. No, I never had the guts to try to play with these musicians. When asked I’d make a dumb excuse (my lips were sore, I had a cold, etc.).
I sat there enthralled listening to really fine West coast musicians like Cal Tjader, Jack Teagarden, and Paul Desmond among others. One night Brubeck came in and sat in with Desmond. What a musical experience!
Sometimes a group of my fellow high school musicians would sneak into the Black Hawk nightclub after school to hear the quartet rehearse. I loved the way that the group would pass around musical phrases, change them and serve them on a musical platter to the listeners. Not just Dave and Paul, but the bassist Eugene Wright and even drummer Joe Morello would take up their game of “toss the progressions.”
Later I heard him give a lecture on Jazz and Music at a Canterbury group (Episcopal College group) at Berkeley. Where Dave, the best I can remember, equated the creativity of Jazz and a way God continues his revelation and creativity on earth.
The trip to the festival, only 45 miles from home, took two hours on two lane highways, which in Connecticut is the way of life. Each minutes seemed an hour as I drifted back to the early days of Brubeck and his quartet. I could hear them playing in my mind and thought we would never get there on time.
As we walked onto the grounds of the festival at Kent Prep School, a car drove in and the police told us to wait. The car stopped in front of me and I saw a very old man sitting in the front seat. It finally dawned on me that this was Dave, hardly recognizable from the handsome young man with dark hair and the heavy black plastic framed glasses I had known. I had just time to say “Hi. Mr. Brubeck, when a lady shoved me out of the way calling “Hey, Dave!”
I still had high hopes and was rewarded with Brubeck started to play. He definitely still had his God given creative ability.
A large man with an alto sax began to play with him and I started down a long road of disappointment. He seemed to be trying to outplay Dave, and instead of playing the laid back west coast cool jazz, he was playing the east coast style of seeing how fast he could play chords. That he had fast technique was not in question, but what he was playing did not seem to connect with what Brubeck was playing.
The drummer, definitely not Joe Morello, played with sticks. Morello seldom used sticks; he used brushes so not to overpower the interaction of the other players. But this man seemed to be contending for the lead roll in the Quartet.
The bass player was fairly good and did try hard to toss the melodic lines, but either he was overpowered by the drummer or his amplification needed adjusting.
This was not the Dave Brubeck Quartet I had known.
Time had passed and Dave Brubeck was 90; Paul Desmond, my alto sax hero was dead; Joe Morello, 82, is teaching drums, and Eugene Wright, 87, is retired.
“You can never bring back memories 55 years old and make them live again,” I thought on the way home. “Perhaps I should place those memories in a dark corner of my mind and make way for new ones.”
I have a laugh. Judy, driving home on the same curvy roads, asked me what I was laughing about.
I was just wondering if Dave, looking out the window of his car, recognized me later and said, “That is not the kid I knew in San Francisco. He’s an old man now.”
© 2010 Ames Swartsfager