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Wild About Brubeck…But Not This Biography

He's an American jazz legend who deserves a definitive, investigative treatment. Philip Clark's new book isn't it.
Dave Brubeck Quartet Portrait

Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, by Philip Clark, DaCapo Press, February 2020, 403 pages

I do not remember a time in my life when Dave Brubeck’s music did not provide the soundtrack. Indeed, his music is inextricably tied up with my own life. Some of my earliest memories come from staring at Brubeck’s album covers—Time Out and Time Further Out by S. Neil Fujita and Joan Miro, respectively—and trying to make sense of the abstractions. And, as family lore goes, even as a kid I loved dancing to music such as “Take Five,” even waking up the entire household in the middle of the night by blaring the stereo system at full volume.

As was the case with probably many of us of my generation, Time Out was one of my father’s favorite albums and Brubeck one of his favorite musicians, rivaled only by Herb Alpert. To this day, I have stacks and stacks of Brubeck CDs and boxsets, and his music plays throughout the house and the office. Maybe not daily, but certainly weekly. When my older brother, Todd, and I get together, we still talk Brubeck. Even now, as I pour through various prog and jazz albums, I’m always on the lookout for Brubeck’s influences.  

As a case in point, Pat Metheny’s latest, From This Place—arguably this jazz master’s best—reflects widely and deeply the compositional structure of Brubeck’s best album, 1964’s Time Changes. The resemblance is simply too obvious to ignore. Even the theme is critical. Brubeck’s album was inspired by a short story involving two cellmates and a crust of bread. The religious essence of the album is blatant, with Brubeck trying to find that which ties all humans together, regardless of ethnicity or race. It is, for all intents and purposes, a meditation on human decency and divine agency. Metheny’s latest calls us to be the best we can expect of ourselves as Americans.

In 2012, when Brubeck died around Christmas time of that year, I vowed that I would one day write a biography of him.  Despite preliminary research and reading, I’ve really not dived into this project, but Brubeck remains a profound part of my life, nonetheless. 

Two stories from Brubeck’s own life mean everything to me.

First, at Ronald Reagan’s last summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, held in Moscow in 1988, the Reagan administration insisted that Dave Brubeck represent America as her greatest cultural achievement. Brubeck’s producer, Russell Gloyd, recognized this grand achievement for what it was. “You have to put this in perspective,” he argued. “There was Perestroika, the whole awakening of the Soviet Union, the whole concept of what was taking place at that time in world history. This was the first time there was hope of a real chance for an understanding between the East and the West,” he continued. “For Dave to be the representative artist meant everything to everyone who was close to us.”

The atmosphere was tense. Reagan was exhausted from his trip, Gorbachev’s security was worried about assassination plots, and it was a ridiculously hot and humid day in Moscow. “I walked in thinking that this was the hardest room Dave had ever had to work in his life,” claims Gloyd. After a number of lackluster diplomatic niceties in the stuffy room, Brubeck walked up to the piano, sat down, and started playing “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

“It brought down the house,” Gloyd reports. “People were up and cheering. I’ll never forget Bob Dole—he looked like a little kid. He had his one good hand raised above his head like he was at a football game. He’d turn around, and there was a Soviet general, loaded with medals, doing the same thing! They looked at each other like, ‘You like Brubeck? I like Brubeck! We like Brubeck.” It was, Gloyd notes, “the greatest single twenty-minute set in his life.” The Cold War became much less frigid that day.

Second, though he came from a Presbyterian family, Brubeck converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult. “I never had belonged to any church. I was never baptized before,” Brubeck remembered. “I was the only son in the family who wasn’t baptized a Presbyterian. It was just an oversight.” To be certain, religious music—from the African-American community as well as from the white/European community—had always intrigued and influenced him. He wrote liturgical-jazz pieces about Easter, Christmas, and Martin Luther King. 

Though he had written a number of albums and pieces on religious themes, the greatest expression of his Christianity came when Our Sunday Visitor (headquartered in Huntington, Indiana) commissioned Brubeck to write a Mass. He, in very Brubeck fashion, entitled it, To Hope! A Celebration, and performed it—with Gloyd conducting—at Washington National Cathedral. The premier music review website, Allmusic, writes of it:

This stunning work incorporates jazz interludes into the hypnotic Responsorial “The Peace of Jerusalem” and “Alleluia,” a particularly challenging section for the choir. The vocal soloists are impressive; tenor Mark Bleeke’s feature “While He Was At Supper” is especially moving. The overall effect of this beautiful work is absolutely stunning; it resists being labeled in any one category, it is simply great music.

Fundamentally optimistic about the human experience, Brubeck had said in a commencement address in 1982: “What is really important in the community, in the worst of times, is often music. It’s the cement for the community that holds it together, and the thing that gives it hope.”

Sadly, neither of these stories can be found in Philip Clark’s just published “biography,” Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time (New York: DaCapo Press, 2020). Though the cover proclaims this to be “the definitive investigative biography of jazz legend Dave Brubeck,” there is not a single mention of Brubeck’s 1988 trip to Moscow or his conversion to Catholicism. Just how definitive is this biography by Clark? Bizarrely, Brubeck is not even born until page 302.

When I first learned of the existence of this book—on February 19—I purchased it at a Books-a-Million within a few hours of the news. Rather than wait for the cheaper Amazon.com version, I had to have the book immediately. I was thrilled it existed, and I dove right into it. Alas, rarely have I been so disappointed by a book.

When it comes to writing—on a sentence by sentence basis—Clark is outstanding. According to the dust jacket, he has written for a vast number of music periodicals as well as for the London Guardian and the London Times. There’s no doubting his grammar or style. But when it comes to composing a book of this length, he is, to be polite … lacking.  It turns out that Clark knew Brubeck relatively well and had interviewed him a number of times in the last twenty years of his life. Though we learn nothing of Brubeck’s Catholicism or his trip to Moscow—both so essential to his life—we do get editorial comments such as

As the bus breaks for the London border, with the motorway to Brighton stretching ahead, [bassist] Moore falls into earnest conversation with Iola Brubeck. Heads nod remorsefully, then Moore’s grotesque caricature of President George W. Bush’s nervy Texas drawl hits a manic crescendo reminiscent of an operatic made scene.

Or, this tidbit: 

As I wrote all these years later, that Brubeck’s accounts of his country’s gravest shame should have such damning relevance to Trump’s America felt unbearably poignant and tragic—time overlaps, but it is also cyclic.

I am certainly no fan—in any way, shape, or form—of Presidents Bush or Trump, but I very much fail to understand why these things matter in a biography of Dave Brubeck, who was so much better and worthy of so much more than what Clark presents in this book.

Clark is at his best in the book when not writing the biographical parts. He excels at explaining Brubeck’s techniques, his influences, and his influence. During parts of the book—especially the section on Brubeck’s influence on rock and progressive rock—I was riveted. Clark is also good when it comes to Brubeck’s defying the horrific racialist laws, habits, and customs of much of 1950s and 60s America. Brubeck was not only an optimist in his view of humanity, he was deeply humane in his understanding of the dignity of the human person. He never backed down from what he believed correct, and his actions on race relations are nothing short of heroic in his own lifetime.

If you’re looking for a fan-boy appreciation of Brubeck’s talents and his understandings of race relations, Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, is a fine outing. If, however, you’re looking for the “definitive, investigative biography of jazz legend Dave Brubeck” run as far away from this book as possible. One of the greatest talents to come out of 20th-century America, Brubeck deserves so much better.

Until someone actually does the critically hard work of looking closely at Brubeck’s life through his music as well as through his letters and papers and getting into the very bright and endlessly creative soul of Brubeck, no definitive biography yet exists. The best book on Brubeck remains Fred M. Hall’s It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story. It’s an excellent book, and the stories above come from Hall’s work.

Or, just listen to Brubeck’s music. He poured himself into his art—into every note.

Bradley J. Birzer is author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth as well as The Inklings: Tolkien and the Men of the West (forthcoming, ISI Books).