We’ll Miss You, Dave Brubeck: Why Jazz Is Still Awesome

photo by Mark Wohlrab

I spent an inordinate amount of time in my youth making loud noises. They tended to be melodic and nice to hear, but it took time to get there. It’s where my appreciation for good music, practiced musicians and beautiful melodies stem from. In other words, I was a band geek. From the ages of 8 to 22, I played the saxophone nearly every day and sometimes for day-long stretches. It became the essence of what it meant to be me and I couldn’t imagine what life would be like without that ever-present desire to play.  In time, other things took precedence over my need to play the saxophone, and that desire slipped out of my mind and into my memories. I still dabble on occasion, but it’s mostly just a faint vision of who I once was and I look back on it fondly.

One memory of that time forever locked in my brain is a trip I took to the gritty part of Dayton, OH (there are quite a few of those, trust me) while in college. I entered a jazz club for the first time with the rest of jazz band-mates. Soon after taking my seat, I was entranced by the incredible talent and whimsy of a pianist I’d heard perform many times but never in person — one Dave Brubeck.

I’ll admit something pretty embarrassing: I don’t like a lot of jazz music. I’m not talking about that awful crap you hear in an elevator or the mall. (That you can just toss away because it doesn’t count as music and it’s a poor bastardization of the real thing.) It takes a trained ear to appreciate much of real jazz simply due to its complexity. For most people, it’s honestly difficult to hear the layers of the music unless you understand the reasoning behind it. Having tried my hand at jazz saxophone (and this is when I was a practiced musician), I can honestly say playing off the cuff and riffing is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever attempt as a musician. It takes far more creativity and talent to improvise than to perform from a written piece — your brain works at an entirely different level.

That being said, there are a few artists that I really love. Among those are Charlie Parker, Coltrane and, of course,  Brubeck. Seeing him perform that night in the darkly-lit, smokey, velvet-draped room made an impact on me. I can love music up close as an artist or from afar as a fan, but really being able to see someone with such incredible talent as they perform is like seeing a painter in the midst of his creative process or watching a sculptor chip off that first bit of stone from a solid block… it’s enthralling.

Sadly, Dave Brubeck passed away today. This is my love letter to him and I hope it will resonate with some of you out there. Even if you think you don’t like jazz, give it another try. You never know what you might hear and what you might experience the next time you give it a listen.

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