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2009 Kennedy Center Honors Dave Brubeck

2009 Kennedy Center Honors: Jazzman Dave Brubeck

On the day he turns 89 Dave Brubeck will be a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor, just another award that confirms his status as the great living jazz legend.

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By Ann Gerhart
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dave Brubeck turns 89 years old this Sunday, and he gets this birthday-party favor to hang around his neck, a trifle of a thing, really, a rainbow-striped ribbon award to join all the other degrees and honors trailing the great living jazz legend.

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Never thought it would happen, Brubeck says. Why not? He smiles. He shrugs. Who knows? It's lovely, he's pleased, it will be a nice evening, "a last hurrah," says Iola, Brubeck's wife of 67 years and his collaborator and lyricist.

They are in a hotel suite in Minneapolis, he in stocking feet, white shirt, khaki dress pants and suspenders, doing this interview, she in black sweater and slacks, silk scarf about her neck, peering at a laptop at their autobiography, now in progress for at least a decade. An easy, slow afternoon late in the autumn of a remarkable life and partnership. If you were scoring at home, perhaps you'd open with a reverie in waltz time, each note a lingering, almost melancholy kiss.

Brubeck would be good with your intro for maybe 16 bars.

Then he and his sidemen would crack that ballad wide open in a hard-charging, swinging version in a time signature you couldn't hope to count out, you'd just have to close your eyes and hold on. That is how Brubeck is. That is how he plays. That is how he lives, in stubborn and sunny defiance of all conventional rhythms of jazz and age itself.

An afternoon in a hotel room will yield to a night in a club, on this night in early November at the intimate Dakota jazz supper club in downtown Minneapolis, five sold-out sets over three days, the audience jumping to its feet in ovation after every one, no set the same, ever, among four guys who have been playing together for years.

"Last night," he says, "we even played something we don't know!"

What possible tune could the Dave Brubeck quartet never have played together before?

"After 'I Cried for You,' I called 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame'! Sounded pretty good, too!"

"You know my team is in the World Series?" I prompt, and we both cry out the punch line to the old bar piano player joke: "No, but hum a few bars and I'll fake it!"

Brubeck grins widely, rests his huge hands on his knees. Of course there is no way to stump this piano player. The man has been performing and composing, improvising freely across genres for some 70 years, mixing jazz with sacred and classical forms, recording hundreds of times, with his original quartet, whose 1959 "Take Five" improbably became the first million-selling jazz single of all time; with his own sons; as a soloist and with chorales and full orchestra. He continues to compose with urgency, scribbling on manuscript with pencil. With his son Christopher, he's tweaking the score for a multimedia work about the photographer Ansel Adams that the Baltimore Symphony will present in February; there's also some piece for 20 cellos.

Sitting in a Kennedy Center opera box in his tux listening to everybody else play his music is not his favorite way to spend a night. He wants to play. He lives to play.


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