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My wife and I met on cruise ships, where she was chief purser and I was musical director. After we were married in 2005, we settled in Alexandria, Va. I became a music teacher. On a hot July day in 2006, thanks to a connection through the music-teaching world, I got to meet the late Dave Brubeck at the Washington National Cathedral.
I had been giving piano lessons to a woman who had a professional connection to the cathedral, and she passed along tickets to a rehearsal for the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 35th anniversary performance of “The Gates of Justice” that night. Arriving early, I was thinking about something a friend had said back in college when I played him Brubeck’s recording of “Maria” from the Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein album: “He’s so slick, his sense of rhythm, his wit, it must be a thrill just to watch that guy walk across a room.” Brubeck had looked into the eyes of John F. Kennedy Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington. What was I going to say when I met him? That I’m a jazz pianist, too; that I have nearly all his records; that his solo on “How High the Moon” is one of the greatest recordings ever?
Brubeck was seated in a small room off to the side in the back of the cathedral. “Mr. Brubeck, it’s an honor to meet you,” I said, extending my hand to shake his, which seemed like the natural thing to do. He was still seated, and he looked up at me and apologized that he couldn’t shake hands. Explaining how he’d just been to the doctor, he held up his right hand and pointed to the place where the thumb meets the palm. Before I could say something like, “That’s OK, I understand,” he took hold of my right hand with his left and pressed them together. He did not want to disappoint me.
“I cannot imagine a world without the music of Dave Brubeck. I’m a huge fan,” I said, telling him that I’m a jazz piano player and studied with David Baker at Indiana University. “Dave is a good friend of mine, in fact I saw him just a few months ago,” Brubeck said. I went on to tell him about how I’m a music teacher in D.C. He was in town that weekend to perform with the Cathedral Choral Society, and he told me about a new choral piece he’s writing. “Do you have a choir?” he asked. I said, “No, but I can get one if you’d like.” He laughed.
Brubeck was no stranger to D.C. and had a special relationship with the National Cathedral. He reminisced in particular about the first time he had occasion to be there. The way he told the story, he and Richard Dirksen, a prolific composer of choral works who was also the cathedral’s house organist and choirmaster, sneaked in late one night in the late 1960s after Brubeck finished a gig at St. Alban’s School. Brubeck and Dirksen jammed for each other on the cathedral organ. Brubeck would return to the cathedral many times after that. He not only dedicated “The Gates of Justice” to the National Cathedral but also first performed it there, in 1969.
After getting a picture with Brubeck, I found a place to sit in the cathedral. This would be his only rehearsal with the chorus, vocal soloists, and brass choir before the concert performance that evening.
The members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet were setting up. Russell Gloyd, the conductor, made a joke about “that old guy” who’s going to be playing the piano. Brubeck walked in. Applause. He slowly made his way to the piano, with assistance, and took his place on the standard issue concert grand-piano bench. Glenn Gould required a special chair that had been custom designed for him. All Dave Brubeck needed was a piano bench with a $4 cushion like what you’d bring to a baseball game.
As Brubeck smiled and nodded to acknowledge the applause, he began playing the piano in his signature block-chord style. It was the opening melody to “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” a 19th-century American pop song less than 50 years older than Brubeck himself. Carl Stalling quoted the melody frequently in his musical scores for Looney Tunes. Even without the lyric it instantly evokes the image of an elderly, frail man: “Darling, I am growing old, silver threads among the gold…” Laughter.
Then the business of rehearsal began. From the outset it was clear that everyone involved was more or less good to go, which is saying a lot, considering the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic complexity of “The Gates of Justice.”
The rehearsal ran for about an hour, and I came back with my wife that evening for the concert. I had arranged for us to sit as close as possible to Brubeck and the piano. We were about 20 feet behind him, sitting in the front row, stage right. We had a terrific view of his hands. Besides hand size, it’s the flexibility between fingers that gives pianists an edge. Brubeck had both. In particular, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand elegantly walked up and down the lower range of the piano as he played “walking tenth” chords.
Since the bebop revolution in the 1940s, in solos most jazz pianists used rapid, horn-style lines in the right hand while “comping” with the left. Brubeck would typically use the entire range of the piano in his solos, approaching the instrument not as a horn player but a pianist. He had the rare ability to build up energy with tense rhythmic and harmonic patterns, and he had a strong command over a wide range of musical dynamics. That night Brubeck still had the master’s touch and played with no less energy than players a half century younger.
“The Gates of Justice” is an oratorio. The text uses Hebrew biblical passages and the words of Martin Luther King to portray the history of oppression and racism. In the final section, “Oh, Come Let Us Sing a New Song,” the piece points toward peace and hope. Even in his late 80s and with a sore hand, Brubeck played with monumental intensity and musicality. Sometimes you applaud because it’s proper etiquette. After each of his solos that night I carried on, shouting “Yeah Dave!” and I’m sure he could hear me.
Brubeck often said that the audience is the fifth member of the quartet. During the finale that night the audience very much became that member. Led by saxophonist Bobby Militello, the ensemble brought the house down, with everybody clapping in time. The standing ovation continued for some time as Brubeck slowly made his way off the stage at the very end of the concert. As he walked past us, he smiled and winked at me.