Book review

Philip Clark – “Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time”

Philip Clark – Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time
(Headline, 464pp., £25. Review by Chris Parker)

“You can’t understand America without understanding jazz, and you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck” – thus did Barack Obama pay tribute to the great pianist/composer on the occasion of his receiving the US’s top arts award, the Kennedy Center Honors, 6 December 2009. Jazz writer Philip Clark takes this statement as the natural starting point for his biography, skilfully but unaffectedly interweaving painstaking analysis of Brubeck’s music – its effect on contemporary jazz, its reception by critics and fans, its evolution over a half-century career – and pithily perceptive snapshots of American social and cultural change, so that Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time delivers all that is promised by its punning title.

 

Clark was an ‘embedded’ journalist on a ten-day UK Brubeck tour in 2003, so his book is able to draw on extended interviews, but while many chapters begin with Brubeck reminiscences, these serve largely as triggers for Clark’s own explorations of his subject’s life and music. While a self-confessed Brubeck fan, Clark is scrupulously even-handed in his assessment of the pianist’s artistic importance, readily contrasting his own positive reactions with those of contemporary doubters, such as Ralph Gleason and Ira Gitler, and being unafraid to enter the densest thickets of musical analysis to facilitate his aim of “journey[ing] straight to the heart of the music”.

Clark begins his story in 1953, when the Dave Brubeck Quartet was touring with Charlie Parker, so that “explaining where Brubeck’s music stood in relation to Parker’s” becomes a defining theme, the apparently startling (but fundamentally misleading) contrast between the two men’s approaches returned to repeatedly, in various guises, in the succeeding pages. Brubeck’s (earlier) octet and trio music, his (later) brief association with Gerry Mulligan, his electric (and eclectic) explorations alongside his musician-sons, his acclaimed later live and solo recordings – all are thoroughly and entertainingly assessed, but the true meat of the book is, unsurprisingly, to be found in its account of the classic quartet: Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello. Fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses are provided by judiciously selected quotes from producer supreme Teo Macero and the only surviving quartet member, Eugene Wright, and the details of the band’s stints at Birdland and other clubs, and of their experiences touring the segregated South with a racially ‘mixed’ personnel are as absorbing as they are enlightening.

With its chapter titles (“On the Road”, “Underworld”, “Another Country”, “Invisible Man” etc.) cleverly selected from US literary classics to introduce Clark’s respective themes, A Life in Time is that rare beast: an uncompromisingly analytical study that absorbs and entertains, illuminating both its subject and his social context. Only criticism: relatively sloppy proofreading (‘principal’ for ‘principle’, ‘poured over’ for ‘pored over’, ‘that’ for ‘than’ etc. etc., not to mention ‘Edward Hooper’ for ‘Edward Hopper’), which does strike a jarring note in an otherwise excellent read. Recommended, both for fans and (perhaps more importantly) for the yet-to-be-convinced.

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