December 6, 2012

Dave Brubeck, poetry as jazz


Dave Brubeck, in classic form

As many of you by now have heard, Dave Brubeck died yesterday at the age of 91. It was a sad day for good music, a sad day for jazz. I was first introduced to Brubeck by a bunch of audiophile kids I used to hang out with in my friend’s garage on weekend nights. They listened to almost strictly stuff that worked in odd-time signatures — mostly death metal and jazz.

I remember they went to go see Brubeck in Santa Barbara, some time in the early 2000s. I was not yet cool enough to be invited along, but imagining them wearing black Cannibal Corpse and Iron Maiden shirts in that sea of suits and tuxedos was something of a compensation prize.

While thinking of Brubeck now, poetry comes to mind. Whether it’s because of my want for a proper elegy, or because poetry and jazz have been kin ever since the latter’s inception, I’m not sure. I do know that poetry and jazz are both fringe, yet immensely important and capable of great subversion. Langston Hughes has an essay at the Poetry Foundation’s website called “Jazz as Communication,” where he states, “jazz is a montage of a dream deferred. A great big dream — yet to come — and always yet — to become ultimately and finally true.”

One contemporary poet who enacts this communication, perhaps with greater commitment to the form than anyone else, is Nathaniel Mackey. Here is a quick sample of one of his pieces, over at

Sound’s own principality it was, a
pocket of air flexed mouthlike,
meaning’s mime and regret, a squib of
something said, so intent it

Brubeck’s son, Michael, wrote a bit of poetry himself. Here is a sample:

I listened with the ear of a child to the sound
of birds in flight,

And shivered ‘neath my covers when the dark
snuffed out the light.

Brubeck was born in the Bay Area, an epicenter for activists. The New York Times’ obituary says he wrote cantatas to deal with issues such as the relationship between blacks and Jews in America, and the Kent State killings. The Times also mentions his activity in civil right’s issues:

“In the 1950s he had to stand up to college deans who asked him not to perform with a racially mixed band (his bassist, Gene Wright, was black). He also refused to tour in South Africa in 1958 when asked to sign a contract stipulating that his band would be all white.”

There are gallons of ink on the relations of poetry, jazz, and politics. A recent post on Everyday Genius featured another bay area poet, David Lau, and his poem that follows a Miles Davis solo through the linguistics of a far-left, antagonized landscape: “out the most dismantling Miles solo, Isle of Wight/ drift alloy out-working it outward — ”

Davis himself of course covered a lot of Brubeck’s music and Davis’ own biography, Miles: The Biography, was the result of a collaboration with the poet Quincy Troupe.

Another place to look for where the forms mingle is in Kevin Young’s anthology, Jazz Poems, or Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Jazz Poetry Anthology. For now though, maybe it’s best to just close the books, and listen as Brubeck’s quartet steps out of what they know, and subverts the norms of music and time.



Will Vincent is an intern at Melville House.