The iconic jazz musician receives an adoring biography as unconventional and compelling as its subject.
As music journalist Clark notes, Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced…optimistic, life-enhancing art.” The author eschews a standard, chronological narrative in favor of a forensic analysis of classic Brubeck cuts like “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo á la Turk,” “Unsquare Dance,” and many more. Just as many jazz greats used modest chord progressions to underpin their masterpieces, Clark employs a throughline of his own involving the 10 days he spent interviewing Brubeck on tour in the spring of 2003 to achieve something beyond the run-of-the-mill biography. The author is “riffing” like his musical idols when he writes about Brubeck’s penchant for “polytonality” and “polyrhythms.” A typical example of his exhaustive musing: “Laying arpeggios on thick, Brubeck recapped his theme as Benjamin’s ‘arco’ bass seesawed through the texture, spiraling around the rich chromaticism with an intense throbbing tone that projected like a whole section of cellos.” However fascinating his subject’s artistry may be, delving so deeply into the DNA of Brubeck’s decadeslong musical catalog does have the potential to alienate more casual music fans. Thankfully, Clark also hits all the right biographical notes along the way, including Brubeck’s time in the Army; his early days studying at Mills College in Oakland under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud; his efforts to steer clear of mobster Morris Levy, who was heavily involved in the 1950s jazz scene; his defiance of Jim Crow segregation in the South; and his deft leading of his Dave Brubeck Quartet to superstardom. The mix of musicology and biography allows Clark to paint an imitate portrait of Brubeck as a man of great personal and artistic integrity, and that may not have been possible if the author had simply stuck to a traditional score.
A nontraditional biography that sings despite its studious blocks of theory-heavy dissection.