I lost a friend last week and still feel the emptiness associated with grief of someone who touched me deeply.
Well, I say “friend,” but honestly those feelings of friendship were really one-sided, and based solely on one sharing of a very special summer afternoon.
Jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck died last week, Dec. 5, a day short of his 92nd birthday, suffering heart failure in Norwalk, Conn., not far from his home on his way to an appointment with his cardiologist.
My wife, photographer Mary Carty, and I had a chance to enter his home, meet his wife and real life partner, Iola, and sit down with him for a couple of hours to talk about his musical genius, his efforts to break racial barriers, cross national boundaries and build cultural connections, and discuss his unlikely finding (and living) of his Catholic faith.
I was and am a real fan, seeing him three times that year in concerts in Florida, New York, and Rhode Island, about 50 years to the day of the taping of his signature tune, “Take Five,” known the world over for its innovative rhythms. I respected so greatly his creativity and was inspired watching him as a rejuvenated elderly man playing like no one before, rocking his head forward in time with the pulsating, driving beat of the song, his face alight from the joy of the musical interaction.
I listened over and over through the years to his 1959 breakthrough album, Time Out, a recording that signaled the evolving complexity in jazz, and the first jazz record to sell more than a million copies.
I knew Brubeck changed the world of jazz and was featured on the cover of Time magazine, wrote a Catholic Mass, played for Pope John Paul II and presidents, including Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton, and was led to Catholicism after dreaming of a composition of the “Our Father.”
I learned that he received, among other awards: Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal, perhaps the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics; the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award; the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal of Arts award; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame and American Classical Music Hall of Fame; the Living Legacy Jazz Award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and, in 2008, from then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy for offering “a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American.”
For all of those reasons, I know that his death is a loss.
Yet, what my feelings of loss relate to the man, a real gentle man, that I met that afternoon, a person that let me and my wife into his personal space and welcomed us. He had a generosity about those he encountered, founded on a humility that he had a God-given gift that was to be shared. He offered a warmth, sharing stories of those from around the world influenced him and his music and how important those human connections of people from different cultures meant to him. And most of all, he radiated a joy of the music of a God-inspired creation that he tried, not to capture, but provide a few fleeting notes.
I will miss Dave Brubeck the man, and yet will keep a piece of that best of humanity to mind and to heart as I listen to his music going forward.
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Photo top: Before a packed crowd, Dave Brubeck plays August 9, 2009, at George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 in Newport, Rhode Island. PHOTO BY MARY CARTY