“Milhaud started every lesson with us playing boogie woogie,” says pianist-composer Dave Brubeck. Jerry Lee Lewis would be pleased. Long before concert hall appearances and jazz festivals, Brubeck would play small smoke-filled clubs like the Black Hawk. Places that some audience members would be pleased to brag that they had visited once or twice, Brubeck frequented several nights a week. Clint Eastwood saw Brubeck at the Black Hawk at a time when he had to lie about his age to get inside.
Turner Classic Movies premiered Bruce Ricker’s documentary, Dave Brubeck: In His Own Way, on Monday, December 6, 2010—Brubeck’s 90th birthday. Eastwood serves as executive producer. The film chronicles the beginnings and highlights of a career of over 70 years that continues. Brubeck played over 50 gigs in 2009 and several in 2010.
Brubeck benefited from the G.I. Bill to study music with French composer and conductor Darius Milhaud (who himself had studied with Erik Satie). Viewers learn about the evolution of Brubeck’s trio into a quartet when Paul Desmond finally convinced the leader to let him join the group. It turned out to be one of the legendary collaborations in the history of jazz. The stories of drummer Joe Morello and Eugene Wright are told as well. Vintage clips of significant performances are included along with present-day interviews and taped interviews (Walter Cronkite). What was it with the “Roy Orbison” glasses? In most of the clips, everyone in the quartet wore black horn-rims except Wright.
Significant time is given to Brubeck’s family life and the support he received from his wife and six children. (Wife, Iola, booked his numerous college campus shows.) A noteworthy segment is dedicated to the most played jazz song and biggest selling jazz single in history, “Take Five.” Brubeck talks about how the song came about, opportunities for improvising, and how it is still their most anticipated selection in every performance (by the group and audience alike).
With big names like Eastwood and Brubeck, it’s surprising that other celebrities were involved for what amounted to cameo appearances (Sting, Bill Cosby, George Lucas). Clips from interviews with numerous industry types, other artists, and footage of Brubeck et al through the various stages of his legendary career are the heart of the program. The editing seems jerky and without rhythm.
Brubeck explains in a vintage interview that “Rhythm is the international language, not harmony or melody.” This film may not have it, but Brubeck does, in a wide variety of time signatures. Watch for Dave Brubeck – In His Own Way eventually on DVD and check TCM.com for future re-plays.