Dave Brubeck chose not to celebrate his 85th birthday quietly at his home in the Connecticut woods. Instead, his wife, children and grandchildren joined him for a sold-out concert at London’s Barbican Centre, where some 2,000 fans serenaded him with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday,” accompanied by members of his jazz quartet and the London Symphony Orchestra.
The jazz legend, who was feted at the close of the Tuesday concert with a piano-shaped cake, could easily rest on the laurels of a storied career that has made him one of America’s most honored musicians. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a National Medal for the Arts awarded by President Clinton, and even an honorary doctorate in sacred theology from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, for his religious choral music.
But Brubeck says he’ll let others decide on his legacy because he’s too busy doing what he loves most — playing the piano and composing.
His latest CD, “London Flat, London Sharp,” finds Brubeck rearranging older tunes, such as “Unisphere” and “Cassandra,” while introducing challenging new pieces for his quartet. Despite the frailties of age, he performs 60 to 70 dates a year, mostly with his quartet, whose musical skills have reinvigorated him.
“I have always had great musicians in my groups, but this current group could be the best,” Brubeck said in a telephone interview from a Baltimore hotel prior to the start of his European tour. “There is something very special about (alto saxophonist) Bobby Militello, (drummer) Randy Jones and (bassist) Michael Moore.
“We can have the worst travel day in history and at the end of the concert all you hear is laughter from the dressing rooms,” Brubeck said. “I love that, and it’s reflected in the improvisations — very spontaneous, very creative and very, very inventive. ... Every night is an adventure.”
Moore says he’s worked with other veteran bandleaders who became mired in nostalgia, but Brubeck is different.
“I was amazed at just what a great improviser in the true sense of the word he is,” said Moore. Brubeck always tries something new every night, Moore said, adding, “As frail as Dave is in some ways, he’s still as powerful as he’s ever been when he sits down at the piano.”
Brubeck did reminisce on his 2004 solo piano CD, “Private Brubeck Remembers,” a collection of World War II-era standards and Brubeck originals, with a bonus interview CD on which he recalled his wartime experience, including his time in Nuremberg in 1945 as a private and bandleader in Gen. George S. Patton’s army.
The CD led Nuremberg’s mayor to invite Brubeck to perform a concert on Nov. 16 commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
In 1945, Nuremberg had a notorious reputation as the site of the annual Nazi party rallies at which Adolf Hitler spread his message of hatred. But just after the war, Brubeck sent an opposite message when his Wolf Pack band reopened the Nuremberg Opera House on July 1, 1945, playing popular standards as well as some of his first jazz tunes, including “We Crossed the Rhine,” based on the rhythm of trucks hitting metal pontoon bridges as they entered Germany.
Brubeck’s swing band included an African-American trombonist, making it one of the first integrated units in the then-segregated U.S. military. And they played jazz, a music banned by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels as “subhuman” art because of its African-American origins.
“Jazz is about freedom within discipline,” said Brubeck. “Many people don’t understand how disciplined you have to be to play jazz. ... And that is really the idea of democracy — freedom within the Constitution or discipline.”
Brubeck says his wartime experiences inspired him to compose extended religious works touching on themes of peace, civil rights and social justice. In September, he premiered “The Commandments,” a choral fugue based on the Ten Commandments, which he started to write after he was nearly killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I saw and experienced so much violence that I thought I could express my outrage best with music,” said Brubeck, a convert to Roman Catholicism. “It takes a situation like the Bulge to make you really think about what God was trying to tell us.”
Brubeck says many jazz fans have little knowledge of the second career he launched as an orchestral and choral composer in 1967 after disbanding his classic quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. In the ’50s that combo popularized jazz on college campuses with Brubeck becoming the first modern jazzman featured on Time’s cover.
“People have no idea of how many different types of music and involvements I’ve got going on,” said Brubeck. “They are compartmentalized ... and they know me for what category they’re into.”
A high point of his current European tour came at the London birthday concert when four of his sons— Darius (keyboards), Chris (electric bass and trombone), Dan (drums) and Matthew (cello) — stepped out of the audience to perform Brubeck’s classic “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Darius Brubeck then premiered his composition “From All of Us” as a birthday present.
“They are carrying on the tradition and I feel great about that,” Brubeck said. “My mother was very interested in becoming a concert pianist and decided that if she didn’t do that she should have her children become involved in music. It’s the continuation of her desires.”
Brubeck and his wife, Iola, also established the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific, where they met nearly 60 years ago, to encourage the next jazz generation by offering college-level fellowships, a summer jazz colony and an annual Brubeck music festival.
Brubeck says he has no intention to quit touring despite the difficulties of life on the road.
“There must be something very attractive for a musician to keep doing this because it’s a very hard life and it gets more difficult the older you get. But can you name me one musician who didn’t keep going almost as long as he could?”