12/07/09

Dave Brubeck at the Kennedy Center Honors

It’s only once in a blue moon that the Kennedy Center Honors, the Washington institution’s annual lifetime achievement awards for American performing arts, salutes a jazz musician. The last instance was in 1996, when Benny Carter was honored—and that, allegedly, took President Clinton’s intervention, since the revered-in-jazz Carter was unknown to most of America. This year, however, the Kennedy Center found that rare overlap of genuine innovation and popular acclaim in Dave Brubeck. The pianist and composer was feted in Washington on Dec. 6, his 89th birthday, at a ceremony (taped by CBS for broadcast) attended by a cross-section of Hollywood royalty and D.C. power players including President and Mrs. Obama, Vice President Biden and House Speaker Pelosi.

Brubeck was part of a five-person honor roll that also included rocker Bruce Springsteen, opera diva Grace Bumbry, comedian and film director Mel Brooks and actor Robert De Niro. The tribute to Brubeck was the evening’s second (after De Niro’s), with a presentation anchored by fellow pianist Herbie Hancock.

“Dave Brubeck is the reason I don’t have a day job,” Hancock began, detailing how he’d intended to become an electrical engineer before hearing Brubeck’s music. He also highlighted the importance of Time Out, Brubeck’s most famous and revolutionary album. “Time Out was a whole different spin,” Hancock said. “That a jazz record could top the charts was amazing, but when you think about those difficult time signatures? Americans can’t dance to 5/4!”

“Dave was the wizard of West Coast jazz,” he added. “Cool as cool can be.”

After a short film celebrating Brubeck’s life and work, from his father’s California ranch to his quartet with Paul Desmond to his elder statesmanship, mistress of ceremonies Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg took the stage to announce an all-star musical tribute: a quintet featuring trumpeter Jon Faddis, altoist Miguel Zenón, pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Bill Stewart. They played a few of Brubeck’s best-known tunes, beginning with “Unsquare Dance” and “Kathy’s Waltz.” Faddis stood out from the group on these, playing shining virtuosic lines at breakneck speed against Zenón peppery bebop phrases. On the CBS monitors, Michelle Obama could be seen gently swinging in her seat.

When it came to Brubeck’s biggest hit, “Take Five,” the ensemble grew considerably. A curtain rose to reveal the U.S. Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors, a group of 13 horn and reed players, who joined the quintet in an impressive arrangement of the tune. Then, on a sliding stage, came a piano with Hancock in the driver’s seat, soloing in a typically complicated and breathtaking harmony. (McBride later confessed that he was lost within one bar.)

The ranks swelled yet again for “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” This time the new arrivals were Brubeck’s four sons—Darius (piano), Chris (trombone), Matthew (cello), and Dan (drums). With 22 musicians onstage, it sounded like a full (and sublime) symphony orchestra was soaring through the 9/8 groove, particularly with McBride and Matthew Brubeck (who played a splendid arco solo) now forming a string section. Just before the song closed, the whole group segued seamlessly into a chipper rendition of “Happy Birthday” that led right back to the “Blue Rondo” coda.

“He’s 89 years old today,” Hancock had said of Brubeck in his intro, “But when he sits down to play, he turns on that smile and loses 40 to 50 years just like that.” Though Brubeck wasn’t playing, the smile he flashed as his tribute ended was at full blast. Its rejuvenating powers weren’t an exaggeration.

The Kennedy Center Honors ceremony will be broadcast Dec. 29 on CBS at 9 p.m. EST.

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