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Dave Brubeck & Leonard Bernstein: A Collaboration of Genius
Highlighting one of the great mergings of jazz and classical music
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
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This edition's essay spotlights the meeting of two major figures of 20th-century American music: Dave Brubeck and Leonard Bernstein. The LP that resulted from their collaboration is as good as can be imagined but is puzzingly under the radar. I hope my essay encourages you to check it out if you're not familiar with it.
Coming later this month will be an essay celebrating of the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s return to the live stage on May 1, 1972 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In early May, I plan to write about Bobby Scott, a jazz pianist who was an even better pop singer.
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Dave Brubeck and Leonard Bernstein are two of the most important popularizers in their chosen fields of music. They were also omnivorous; their work and interests expanding well beyond the world of jazz for Brubeck and the world of classical for Bernstein. In addition to being one of leading exponents of West Coast jazz, the so-called “cool” school, Brubeck, in later years, wrote oratorios, cantatas and other liturgical works, and Bernstein, in addition to being the first consequential symphonic conductor from North America, wrote for Broadway, the screen, the symphony and was a champion of music education through his televised appearances on Omnibus and his storied series of Young People’s Concerts. He was also well-versed in jazz, often inserting moments of decidedly un-classical syncopation into his compositions, such as in the final movement of his ‘Serenade, after Plato's “Symposium”’ or in the Masque segment of his second symphony, ‘The Age of Anxiety,’ and was also able to coax the New York Philharmonic, of which he was its music director from 1958 to 1969, to really swing, such as in the ‘Hoedown’ portion of Aaron Copland’s ‘Rodeo.’ As a contrast, Brubeck’s piano solos often had a sharp, digressive approach that suggested a concert pianist letting his or her hair down.
It was only proper then that Brubeck and Bernstein would eventually cross paths, and they did in December 1959 as part of a series the Philharmonic was running during its 1959-’60 season examining the concerto form. The program note for the series provides a good working definition of the concerto: “a composition in which one or more soloists engage in musical interplay with an orchestra.” For the fourth part of the series, Bernstein was to conclude with a piece by Brubeck’s brother, Howard: ‘Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra.’ Preceding it on the program were Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concerto No. 4,’ Mozart’s ‘Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365,’ with the piano team of Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale as soloists, and following an intermission, the considerably more obscure ‘Concerto for Viola, Strings and Percussion,’ composed by Robert Starer.
For Howard Brubeck’s piece, Dave Brubeck’s quartet would be playing with the Philharmonic. The quartet that took the stage at Carnegie Hall between Thursday, December 10, and Sunday, December 13 (Thursday’s and Saturday’s concerts took place in the evening while the Friday and Sunday performances were matinees) was Brubeck’s most famous. Drummer Joe Morello’s crisp, precise attack, bassist Eugene Wright’s rock-solid bottom and altoist Paul Desmond’s dry yet ever so innately lyrical tone contrast with Brubeck’s piano to create one of the most identifiable sounds in small-group jazz. The quartet was a perfect blend in which Desmond and Wright brought the cool, Morello the fire and Brubeck the cheerful anguarlity. A mere day after the final concert, their latest album, Time Out, was released, the first of their explorations of time signatures outside of traditional 4/4 that went a long way to securing their place among the jazz elite.
At the beginning of 1960, the Brubeck Quartet and the New York Philharmonic immortalized their collaboration on record. The resulting album, the wittily named Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein, is among the most direct efforts of third-stream music, melding the classical and jazz worlds into a unified whole. True to the aim of the Philharmonic’s spotlight on the concerto, the Quartet, as a whole and individually, play off the orchestra, also as a whole and as individual sections, such as the strings, brass and woodwinds. Howard Brubeck adds a wrinkle to the typical three-movement concerto construction of a fast, slow and a concluding fast movement by adding an additional slow movement prior to the finale.
In the program note for ‘Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra,’ the composer states: “The work is to a large degree a theme and variations technique. The forms are mainly jazz forms. There is some variance from jazz structure but this has been handled in a manner which permits the jazz musician to work as he normally works, in the realm of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic variations on a basic set pattern.” He adds: “It should be noted that the work is so constructed that the combo would be free to add solo improvisation to be decided upon in advance by themselves and the conductor. However, only the fact of their use would be decided upon in advance; the nature of the improvisation and its duration can be left to the imagination of performer and sensitive conductor.” Judging by the timings of the performances of the work in December 1959 preserved on the archived version of the concert program, the quartet and Bernstein agreed that the work should take about 20 minutes to perform. The version recorded in the studio goes a little longer: just a hair over 21-and-a-half minutes.
The opening movement, an Allegro (indicating it is to be played at a brisk tempo) is a showpiece based around a fanfare-like phrase introducing the variety of sonic colours to be explored throughout the work. In a way, the movement belongs to Morello, who answers the opening, momentus phrase of the orchestra with the first of many fills—first, on brushes and then, on sticks. Few among this peers, perhaps only equalled by Roy Haynes, had as precise an articulation as Morello, immediate and direct on the beat with a logic and flow that suggests that rhythm was hardwired into his very being. Desmond and Brubeck have multiple moments to solo against different combinations of the Philharmonic with Bernstein getting a natural syncopation out of the orchestra.
The second movement is the crown jewel of the work, an Andante (suggesting a tempo that is moderately slow) ballad. Here, the Philharmonic defers to the Brubeck Quartet until the concluding passage. Howard Brubeck’s theme, played first by brother Dave with Wright and Morello eventually joining him, is warmly wistful and ends with a beautiful ascending line that inspires rapture. Desmond’s solo is especially dreamy accompanied by short, nattily played bursts by the Philharmonic. After Brubeck’s statement, the orchestra has a stormy, vigorous passage that resolves into a quiet, opulent contemplation of the theme. Bernstein conducts the strings to the rhapsodic conclusion that such a gorgeous piece of composition deserves. It’s realization here encouraging the listener to picture a scene—perhaps a rainy Saturday in New York, perfect for a stroll for two sharing one umbrella. It's ear candy that’s fodder for even sweeter eye candy.
The third movement presents us with another ballad, this time an Adagio (meant to be played slowly), which inverts the structure of the preceding Andante. It’s the Philharmonic that first states the theme in a probing, searching manner prior to short solos by Desmond, Brubeck and then Desmond again. Desmond’s two statements of unadorned romanticism against the strings of the Philharmonic is the highlight here. It’s also the movement in the work that is the most classical, especially in the orchestral introduction, and also most echoes Miles Davis’ era-defining collaborations with Gil Evans.
The finale, another Allegro but employing blues form, brings a concluding symmetry to Howard Brubeck’s work. It’s another exercise in interplay with the added pleasure of bassist Eugene Wright taking a moment in the spotlight. It ends the work in triumph, the final of four tapestries that most agreeably bridge the chasm between jazz and classical.
To complete the album, another side of music was needed. Desmond’s suggestion to explore Bernstein’s work for the Broadway stage was the obvious and best choice as was the decision to favour his score for West Side Story, opting for its signature pieces: ‘Maria,’ ‘I Feel Pretty,’ ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Tonight’ with ‘A Quiet Girl’ selected from Wonderful Town. Coming after the lofty heights of ‘Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Orchestra,’ the quartet’s performances here—Desmond sits out on ‘A Quiet Girl’—are a chance to enjoy the various ingredients in its sound.
Hear the stuttering beat that Morello gives to the opening statement of ‘Maria’ and how it resolves ever so naturally for the start of Desmond’s solo, complete with a quote from ‘Something’s Coming,’ another gem from West Side Story. Like all great small groups, the contrast between Desmond’s and Brubeck’s approaches to improvisation create sustained interest. On ‘I Feel Pretty,’ Desmond employs long, flowing lines of deep lyricism while Brubeck builds his first chorus on a set of bluesy chords and then opts for primarily single lines for the second and a return to chords for a final half-chorus. To show the simpatico between the two, listen to how Brubeck uses Desmond’s final phrase in his solo on ‘Tonight’ to build his own almost entirely out of it. While there may be a temptation to regard this music as strictly for background entertainment, the sheer quality and depth of imagination employed here demand deep and repeated listening.
Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein is not a recording that looms large in either Bernstein’s or Brubeck’s discographies. Similarly, Howard Brubeck’s ‘Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra’ has not even remotely become part of the classical canon. It all lurks in the background, waiting to be discovered and then perhaps never forgotten.