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Dave Brubeck: The Unsquarest Jazz Cat

Posted: 06/12/2012 11:48

I once read an interview with Jamie Cullum in which he was asked which jazz albums had most influenced him.

His first choice would be one of mine, too: Harry Connick Jr's soundtrack to 'When Harry Met Sally...'. His second choice, however - Miles Davis's 'Kind Of Blue' - was the reason I remember the interview.

Because Cullum said that the reason he knew that album, and was influenced by it growing up, was that his parents had owned it. And there was no way I could imagine my own parents ever owning a copy of 'Kind Of Blue'.

Granted, Jamie Cullum is nearly 10 years younger than me - and so his parents are in all likelihood 10 years younger than mine. (As a child, for example, I used to ask my mum what it was like when The Beatles were first big, and she would always remind me that she was, in fact, a young mother at the time, and not a screaming teenage girl).

But regardless of age or generation, the main point is: my parents are no hipsters. I grew up in a house where Radios 3 and 4 were the order of the day, where the music I heard was usually classical, and where Friday night tea - and it was always tea, not dinner - would be served up to the strains of the 'Weekending' theme tune.

As a kid, I'd sit crosslegged on the floor of our dining room, sifting through my parents' record collection, trying to find any gems that I would like. And being a kid, a 'gem' was, of course, something fun. Not Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, as lovely as its evocation of bucolic life was. (This was before I was old enough to buy my own records, of course - although my family's copy of the soundtrack to 'Mary Poppins' was, most definitely, MINE.)

And one day, in among my mother's classical albums, my mother's MGM musical soundtracks (which I still love to this day) and my jointly mother-and-father's Peter, Paul And Mary singles, I found one record that I immediately and completely fell in love with.

That record was the single 'Unsquare Dance' by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

I would listen to it on loop. I would clap along to it (and delight in getting that 7/4 clapping right). I would smile at the laughter at the end of it. I would dance to it... Although not like this:

Yes, one reason that Dave Brubeck was so important, so loved and will be so sorely missed, is that he was the unsquarest jazz cat ever to be liked by squares.

My parents didn't listen to jazz - the closest they came to it was being in possession of an Eartha Kitt album - and yet they owned 'Unsquare Dance'.

It is, admittedly, one of the least jazzy tracks to be released by a jazz artist - and by my calculations, my parents were each a sprightly 24 years of age when it came out. But like 'Take Five' - Brubeck's biggest hit, of course, and the tune he will always be remembered for, despite it not being his composition - it was a few minutes of pure rhythmic and melodic joy. As such, it appealed to those who wouldn't normally classify themselves as jazz lovers - and it's exactly this aspect of Brubeck's wonderful music that made his 1959 record 'Time Out' (which features 'Take Five') the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

Relistening to 'Time Out' in the last 12 hours or so since I learned of Brubeck's death, I've been reminded how every single track on it is simply wonderful; and struck by how the classical-style opening to 'Blue Rondo A La Turk' would, in fact, appeal to my classical music-loving mother. Just as she would also probably love a track of his I've only just discovered (a natural result of a) a musician dying and then b) everyone sharing tracks of theirs on Twitter): 'Autumn In Washington Square', which in parts sounds like a Chopin nocturne.

Honouring Dave Brubeck at the Kennedy Center in 2009, Barack Obama said:

"You can't understand America without understanding jazz. And you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck."

Both statements are true, of course. But what's also true, and really very wonderful, is this: you don't have to understand jazz to understand the music of Dave Brubeck.

 

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