Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Back Row Alto Remembers Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck: musician, composer, icon and family man, generous spirit. If there is one thing Dave understood completely and fully lived is that music is the universal language of brother/sisterhood and peace. Two stunning truths about Dave: his accessibility and his drive to make music. And what a legacy he leaves behind!

Crazy as this may sound, I performed on stage with Dave! If you see some copper red hair amongst the heads in the photo above, that's me!

Dave Brubeck came into the life of a singing group, to which I belong, the Pacific Mozart Ensemble. If PME Founding Director Dick Grant hadn’t had the audacity, nay the utter temerity (I am grinning as I write this), to contact Dave in 1996 about the possibility of performing one of his oratorios, Dave would just have been a cool jazz pianist, in my book. Definitely cool.

Well, after playing weeks of phone tag (Dave had a very heavy touring schedule) and experiencing several, by all accounts, lively phone conversations between Dick and Dave, as well as other people Dave works with, not only did we produce and perform Dave’s oratorio “The Gates of Justice” on our season, but we performed it with Dave and the Dave Brubeck Trio! What an exhilarating experience! Little did we know that those sold-out performances were not to be the end of our encounter with this lovely man and his beautiful wife Iola, but the start of a rich musical relationship. We performed “Gates of Justice” with Dave again, as well as “The Earth is Our Mother”, and were later invited by Dave to perform it with him at the University of the Pacific for the 2004 Brubeck Institute.

One of the things that continues to stun we members of this choral group, is just how much Dave enjoyed working with us. Every once in a while, Dick Grant would rush into a rehearsal, uncharacteristically late, saying, “I just got off the phone with Dave!” or “Dave wants us to try this!” (this accompanied by a quick dispersal of hastily photocopied music sheets). Every once in a while, we would all crowd into a recording studio to make tracks of one of his smaller choral pieces to send to his music publishers. Dave liked what we did, and wanted to do more with us. Were we thrilled? You bet!

 In 2006, for our 25th anniversary concert, PME commissioned Dave to write one of the “missing” movements for Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. Next thing we knew, Dave (who, all along, had been wanting us to record his choral music because he liked the way we did it) called, asking us to record his “Canticles”! So, we crowded, once again, into a church space, this time under the batons of both Dick Grant and current Music Director, Dr. Lynne Morrow, and turned on the microphones… How the next bit happened, I am not sure; Dick was on the phone everywhere, Lynne was talking to people here, Dave was talking to people there, and before we knew it, the whole project was picked up and transported to Skywalker Ranch, resulting in “Songs of Praise” on the Sono Luminus label, released in 2009.

Dave carried on his relationship with us by keeping in touch with both Dick (now Artistic Director Emeritus) and Lynne. Sometimes, Lynne would receive a phone call from Dave while we were rehearsing; Dave was just calling just to say hello to us! We would call him occasionally, too. Last year, we called at the start of our regular Monday evening rehearsal to sing “Happy Birthday” to him.

This September, our second recording of Dave’s choral music for Sono Luminus was released, “Brubeck & American Poets.” Though, I should really say, we recorded for Dave. Each piece on this new album is filled with meaning for both Dave and Iola. The pieces are snapshots, if you will, of their life together, of their times—in moments of serious reflection, joy, whimsy… snapshots of their times and ours.

So much more could be said about Dave than what I have written here. There have been books and articles written about Dave, a documentary film, and I am sure there is more to come. What I have to say won’t enrich the field of Brubeckology. What more could I really add to the truth that Dave was a nice and thoroughly unpretentious man, as well as a fabulous musician and composer of depth? When we performed with Dave, it was like a party. “Okay, kids, let’s make some music! It's gonna be great!” I recall him saying before one of our shows. And it was great! The minute he sat down at the piano, he lit up, like a kid opening a birthday gift! There was always music to be made and written! The feeling I always got, from being around Dave, was that music is all about community and bringing people together. And, wow, could he play the piano!

To say that this minor journey with Dave and his music has been an utterly fantastic experience doesn’t quite hit the mark, although it is true. To say that I feel lucky to have had him and his music flow through my life and witness is also not enough.

Dave and Iola, with their humility and graciousness, made us feel like family. We, who had the opportunity to get to know them through the music, love them for that family feeling, and we will always remember.

Elisabeth Eliassen