Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Remove Images

'Taking Five' to recall two musical passings

by Bruce Johnson

May 09, 2013

How is it possible to discuss two of music's great artists when they seem to be such polar opposites? Both are men, pianists and made major marks in the 1950s. And their marks were indeed considerable.

Is it necessary to discuss both in the same context? In this case, yes, because both died recently, and each produced his own form of artistic revolution. As a point of pride, I recognize both as examples of American genius.

Dave Brubeck, who died in December a day short of his 92nd birthday, changed the sound of jazz and made it mainstream.

Van Cliburn died in February at age 78. He was the 23-year-old Texan who won the International Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow in 1958, becoming an American hero. His recording of the "First Piano Concerto" was the first million-selling classical record, eventually reaching more than three million.

It's hard to write about art without waxing personal. The exits of these artists have caused reflection on how I came to where I am and why music means so much to me.

The irony is I am no musician; I simply love music and have done what is possible both in and out of my profession to encourage it.

The 1950s were years of fundamental change in America and in my life. I began teaching at age 30 in 1957. In those first years two music events influenced American culture. In addition to Van Cliburn's winning the Tchaikovsky competition, the Dave Brubeck Quartet released the album "Time Out," and "Take Five" became the first jazz single to sell more than a million records.

Commercial considerations aside, it is hard to describe the way music stirs emotions and demands all of our senses. When Van Cliburn's recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto went public, we fell in love with this American who was beating the Russians in their own game. He played with animation and ardor. He allowed Americans to share in the power and energy of Russian music. All this at the height of the Cold War, and just eight months after Sputnik. I still recall the renewed sense of pride and elan his performance generated.

What an experience to accompany this not-so-young first year teacher trying to get his bearings. I will not forget the six-foot-four 160-pound Texan with the shock of sandy hair who gave us an instant shock of warm patriotic pride during the Cold War.

Things worked a bit differently with Dave Brubeck. I've never quite caught on to his unusual rhythmic ways. "Take Five," as it took the pop world by storm, seemed an anomaly. Rhythmically it was in 5/4 time, which has been called "a defiant time-signature." Just try to keep all that straight. You can easily lose your way in quintuple rhythm. Yet there is a provocative, irresistible tug to the thing.

But there are ironies. The first is that Brubeck does not have a solo —he always has solos. Alto-saxist Paul Desmond's first and last choruses frame the tune's centerpiece, which is Jo Morello's drum solo. But something's missing: it's that figure Brubeck keeps playing over and over and over through the five-minute piece (get it? take five!).

Sorry, I can't explain how and why it works. I wouldn't want to recount the number of time I have heard it — "Take Five" was used in Badger High commencements twice (part of the slide-narrative-music projects which replaced commencement speakers (1961-85)). Yet every time I play "Take Five" it comes on as fresh as spring.

It is impossible to compare the music of Brubeck and Van Cliburn. Why should anyone want to? Music is its own invention, and it doesn't much matter who the musicians are as long as they are well prepared and give us something. And there was plenty of that going on back in the middle of the 20th century. The music of these two American icons will surely survive the 21st century too.

Johnson is a former Badger High School teacher.