One of my heroes was the late Jazz legend Dave Brubeck. You might think that’s a bit strange for a photographer. After all, what does music have to do with a visually oriented person? But there are often times where photography can be musically inspired.
In photography, especially news photography, the improvisation of Jazz is especially appealing. There are times where I’ve covered an event that that I’ve covered a hundred times before and had to look for fresh and new ways of photographing the familiar. It’s akin to Jazz musicians vamping on a theme to come up with something new.
There are also times that a picture that you’ve pre-visualized in your head doesn’t materialize or something better comes along. It’s then you have to keep and open mind, think on your feet and improvise.
What first drew to Dave Brubeck’s work (as probably with everyone else as well) was his out-of-the-box approach to time signatures. While most others were still thinking in terms of 4/4, 2/4 or ¾ time, He was experimenting with beats that were unheard of in modern music, yet rather than being oddly avant garde, his songs were eminently listenable.
His biggest hit “Take Five” was written in 5/4 (5 beats to the measure, each quarter note equaling one beat). Another big hit “Blue Rondo ala Turk” was in 9/8. He wrote songs in 6/4, 13/4, among other offbeat tempos. My favorite song, “Unsquare Dance” is written in 7/4. It’s infectiously catchy and fun but it’s almost impossible to clap your hands to without concentrating at first. But once you get the hang of it it’s like discovering a secret password or handshake.
After working several years at the Record I was delighted to learn that Brubeck had ties to Stockton as an alum of the University of the Pacific and I’ve had the pleasure to photograph Brubeck over the years.
In 2001 I covered a concert where he played at UOP’s Faye Spanos Concert Hall in Stockton. There are some Jazz performers who have that Miles-Davis-play-with-my-back-to-the-audience-aloof attitude. Brubeck was not among them. He was 80-years-old back then but played with the verve and energy of a much younger man. After each song he’d be a bit out of breath from the exertion, but always with his signature huge grin on his face. He’d stand up and graciously acknowledged and of the audience’s applause. Then he’d sit back down and perform just as hard on the next tune.
Later that year Brubeck and his wife Iola handed over his archives to the University of the Pacific. It was a small ceremony of the official signing with the Brubecks and then Pacific president Donald DeRosa. This time rather than photographing from the anonymity of the audience, I actually got to meet Dave Brubeck. With that same big smile, he was modest, genial and gracious, like meeting like someone’s grandpa.
The next year at the Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony (named after him) he held a seminar with his son Chris for teens attending the week-long Jazz educational program at Pacific.When he spoke to the students, he stood there with his pants hiked up a little too high above his waist, reinforcing his grandfatherly image. He played with the intensity and enthusiasm that any of the youths gathered there would have been hard-pressed to keep up with. All with that irrepressible smile on his face.
In 2003, Stockton rechristened a street that runs through UOP after Brubeck in a ceremony on the steps of City Hall. During the event the Franklin High School Jazz Band provided some musical entertainment. Baritone saxophone player Rebecca Mooney, sitting next to Brubeck, stopped in a middle of the song and while the rest of the band continued to play asked Brubeck to autograph a piece of sheet music which he kindly did.
Over the years I hoped to photograph Brubeck again, but through the luck of the draw (or lack thereof) the assignments went to other photographers. I told myself that there would be other opportunities because it seemed someone of Brubeck’s enduring stature would always be around. Sadly that’s not the case. Dave Brubeck died of heart failure last week a day before his 92nd birthday.
A prodigious talent such as his will be missed but for me consolation comes from legacy of his music and the inspiration that it brought, the graciousness of the man himself and the memory of his great broad smile.