December 29, 2009
Dear G.U.C.I. Alumni:
I’ve been thinking lately about the year 1960. It was a big year for me. I entered high school that year, I saw Pete Seeger for the first time that year, I put on a football helmet for the first time. It was in 1960 that I would hear the jazz album that would direct my musical interest for the next fifty years.
A couple of years earlier my parents moved us from the north side of Chicago back to the family reservation on the west side of town. But, I still got on the El often to return to Rogers Park to see my best friend Gene and spend time in the old neighborhood. It was on one of those trips that Gene told me that his uncle had left him the keys to his apartment and that he wanted to go spend the weekend there. It was a different world then and my parents had no problem letting me go with Gene. So, two fourteen year olds go off to spend a weekend alone in an apartment on Waveland Avenue in Chi town. Perfectly normal, right? Well it was kind of normal.
My buddy Gene was a budding jazz fan and brought a few albums for us to hear on his uncle’s record player. That’s when I heard it. I’ve been listening to it ever since. Gene showed me an album cover with some weird abstract art on it and said, “Wait ‘til you hear this.” The album was “Time Out” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I never heard anything like it. It was thirty-four minutes of energy, improvisation, changing tempos, swinging and not swinging and then swinging again, jazz. I’d soon learn that Paul Desmond was the alto sax player in the quartet whose unique sound would uplift and haunt you at the same time; and that Joe Morello was the drummer who could actually play a melody (in any time frame) on the drums. We must have listened to that album twenty-five times that weekend. I had the two best known numbers, Blue Rondo ala Turk, and (of course) Take Five, imbedded in my psyche by the time I caught the train home.
Later I bought the album. I wore it out, literally. I bought it again, then once more before it finally came out on CD. Last month “Time Out” was re-mastered and re-issued along with a DVD of the Brubeck Quartet to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its first release. It’s magnificent! It’s the music that led me to investigate and fall in love with jazz. It started with “Time out” and expanded chronologically in both directions from traditional jazz to swing to be bop to modern; from Armstrong to Goodman to Basie, to Davis, Pepper, Getz, Rich, et al. It started with that abstract art album cover and my buddy, Gene saying, “Wait ‘til you hear this.”
Brubeck is being honored tonight on the Kennedy Center Awards program. I owe him a deep debt of gratitude; and to my buddy, Gene.