Dave Brubeck made jazz cool
“Dyspepsiana” Illinois Times
December 27, 2012
Thanks to television and magazines and shortwave radios and LP records, anyone who was obliged to live in Springfield in the 1950s and ‘69s didn’t have to spend much time in Springfield. As a teen, I spent evenings in Greenwich Village via live jazz recordings like Herbie Mann’s 1961 At the Village Gate or ventured to Ontario, to the Stratford Jazz Festival, where The Dave Brubeck Quartet performed in 1957.
The latter recording, and Brubeck, was the topic of this column from 2012. It’s more about Brubeck than about me or Springfield, and probably oughtn’t to be among my Illinois pieces. It earned a place with this: “The Music Shop on Fifth and the record department in the basement of Sid Ackerman’s store on Adams were, like Harry Potter’s Platform Nine and Three Quarters, portals to magical places.”
I hear you’re mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes, I like him too
He’s an artist, a pioneer
We’ve got to have some music on the new frontier
– “New Frontier” by Donald Fagen
When I was in high school I had a taste for jazz that, like every else about me at that age, consisted of enthusiasm almost perfectly uninformed by experience. My state-worker father had borrowing privileges at the old state library, and out of curiosity I checked out a jazz version of a wine sampler in the form of a compilation LP consisting of tracks from each of the winners of the first annual Playboy Jazz Poll in 1957. On Side 4, Track 1, was a tune called “Pilgrim’s Progress” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which had been recorded live the previous August at a festival in Stratford, Ontario.
I kept our portable record player on the stool I used as a bed table and pulled it as close I could to my pillow. That way I could hear it without disturbing the rest of the family—and, with my head thus wrapped in sound, the rest of the family couldn’t disturb me. That way I could fly away and spend 9 minutes and 13 seconds in the audience in Ontario on a warm summer’s evening.
I made the trip many times. Over the years since, I thought of that track the way a guy thinks of an old girlfriend, if he’s lucky enough to have had a girlfriend whose company he liked that much. A couple of years ago I learned that the track had been reissued on CD. Hearing it again was like meeting an old flame, only without having to listen to the dull stories of the years in between. Best 12 bucks I ever spent.
To teenagers like me in the Springfield of the 1960s, The Music Shop on Fifth and the record department in the basement of Sid Ackerman’s store on Adams were, like Harry Potter’s Platform Nine and Three Quarters, portals to magical places. Among other reasons, that’s where I bought the LPs by the Brubeck quartet that for me were heavily laden with treasures from faraway worlds.
In the series of albums that got too much prominence in his obits, he essayed tunes based in what are to Western ears exotic and tricky rhythms from Eurasian folk music, Maori drums and Turkish street musicians that Brubeck heard while on State Department cultural tours.
From their liner notes I learned that Brubeck had studied with Darius Mihaud. (Where’s the encyclopedia?) His classical training made him suspect in the surprisingly closed community of jazz, which was determinedly unschooled. As for the album covers, the time series LPs featured works by abstract expressionists (what’s that?) Joan Miró (never heard of her), Franz Kline, and Sam Francis, each a painter new to me.
As the lyric quoted above suggests, Brubeck was an icon of the 1960s, more specifically the early ’60s of Kennedy and jet travel and stereo sound, when it was briefly hip to be young and cosmopolitan. Call it white, call it West Coast, call it modern—Brubeck’s jazz for us was about opening up to the world at a time when black jazz was beginning to close up on itself.
There is some truth to the sneer that Brubeck made jazz safe for white college boys. (Those college boys, all growed up, seemed to have written every encomium I read about him.) Jazz is expressive of the subculture of those who play it, as two minutes of listening to any Latino jazz player will make clear. Whites did the same, and the subculture they were both adapting to and creating in the 1950s was celebrated and, to some extent, created by the original Playboy magazine.
Oddly, given the role that the magazine played in marketing it, the mostly West Coast jazz of the period was jazz without sex and without danger. Dressed in suits and having the stage manner of accountants at an audit, the Brubeck band was one of the first to present jazz as if it really was what so many critics said it was, which is America’s classical music.
On Dec. 5 Brubeck died, as pianists in their nineties tend to do. He was extolled as a good man and a brave leader of an integrated combo in a still-segregated America, and was also an underrated composer of tunes. Too few obits mentioned his service in giving a platform to alto player Paul Desmond; I occasionally find myself thinking of Brubeck as Desmond’s piano accompanist—which the modest Brubeck, to his credit, often did himself.
It mattered to me not at all that he did little of lasting musical influence in the final years of his life. What mattered was his influence on me in the first years of mine. For a lot of us growing up in his heyday, he was one of those teachers you never forget. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.