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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Take Five




he first time Dave Brubeck came to Russia was for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit back in 1988. The Cold War was almost over, and the two world leaders were overheating. When they stopped talking shop for the day, they headed down to the Rossia Concert Hall along with hundreds of other jazz fans for the perfect antidote to the presidential blues -- a session with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.


Now, 10 years down the line, Brubeck is back. All the usual favorites, including "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk," are billed for his first concert. But this time his magnum opus, accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra, will be the classical composition "To Hope, A Celebration," which makes its European debut in Moscow on Dec. 2.


Speaking from his home in California, Brubeck said he was looking forward to coming back to Russia. He may be 77 years old, but the man who changed the face of jazz is still as full of pep as he was 60 years ago. In his time, the jazz legend has played for royalty, a pope and every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy. And this year alone, he has performed 80 concerts, from the Monterey Jazz Festival to a broadcast on Polish national radio to the Music Festival at Bath, England.


Had he considered pulling out of the public eye, and abandoning the hectic foreign tours to spend more time at home? "Oh no," he laughs in his deep, dulcet baritone. "Last time I was in Russia, my concerts were sold out every night. They had to move me from a 3,000-seater concert hall to a 7,000-seater stadium. As long as I keep bringing in the crowds, you bet I'll carry on touring."


Born in Concord, California, in 1920, Brubeck always intended to follow his father's career as a rancher and cattleman. His mother, however, had other plans for her youngest son. Although, like his two elder brothers, he was playing the piano at 4 years old and the cello at nine, she insisted that he attend college to study veterinary medicine. Brubeck packed his bags and went to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.


He never became a veterinarian. After graduating, the war began and he was posted to the front line in northern France. If it hadn't been for the unorthodox colonel who heard him play the piano on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge, Brubeck might have been silenced forever. He was so moved by the music that he took the young American aside. "He said he was going to give me a truck, and that I should make a cook's tour," Brubeck remembered. Unfamiliar with British war jargon, Brubeck was at a loss to know what to do. "Then I got the picture," he said. "He meant for me to get lost." Brubeck took the message literally, and ended up behind enemy lines. When he re-emerged, he came face-to-face with a highly suspicious contingent of American soldiers.


"I have a vivid memory of this guy walking up to the truck," he said. "He had a hand grenade in each hand, with the pins pulled, so that if I were a German and shot him, they'd go off right in both our faces."


Back from the war, Brubeck returned to California to study composition with French composer Darius Milhaud. It was Milhaud who encouraged him to compose in jazz forms, and soon afterward his first octet was born. Though the group seldom found paid employment, its members managed to eke out a living by playing in roadhouses up in the mountains. The locals arrived in beat-up pickup trucks at the tiny venues, where a single string of colored lightbulbs marked the classy joints.


All that, however, is history. In 1958, with Joe Morello on drums, Eugene Wright on double bass and the lilting grace of Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, the Dave Brubeck Quartet became an immediate success. They flirted with what jazz musicians of the time considered abstruse measures. Brubeck was entering unchartered territory. But his fans were right there with him.


These days the 5/4 time signature has become the best-known jazz unit in the world. "Take Five," set in the then-curious meter, is now as famous as Stan Getz's "The Girl from Ipanima," or Dizzy Gillespie's "Caravan." But although this was the tune that put Brubeck on the map, his combined works run the gamut from ballets to oratorios, from works for jazz combo to a motley assortment of solo piano pieces.


He is still as passionate about his music as he ever was. "Jazz is the foundation from which everything grows," Brubeck said. "The roots of modern music are buried in jazz, from Broadway shows to rock to pop." Does he worry that jazz would ever become old hat, that the bunch of students who listened religiously to Duke Ellington and Art Tatum 30 years ago were making way for a generation that didn't know the first thing about the genre?


"Definitely not," Brubeck said. "You can hear jazz in everything. Turn on the television in Russia, and you will here its influences. Jazz will never go away. The sad thing is when young people don't hear it."


Next week's concert at the Moscow Conservatory of Music will be proof of Brubeck's continued success. Tickets are already selling fast for the performance, which will also feature Randy Jones on drums, Jack Six on acoustic bass, Mark Bleeke and Kevin Deas on saxophones, and conductor Russell Gloyd, who has been Brubeck's musical arranger and conductor since 1976. The ensemble will be accompanied by Moscow's Yurlovsky Choir, as well as the Russian National Orchestra.


"I know I won't have any problems with the RNO," said Brubeck, who has played with symphony orchestras all over the world. "They've played Stravinsky and all the other great Russian music. Once they've got the feel for the jazz, it won't be any challenge for them at all."


Performing his oeuvre with the orchestra, he said, is a wish come true. "I have long watched the RNO's rise to world-class status with admiration," he said. "Frankly, I couldn't have asked for a better way to say, 'Thank you, Russia, for this very special moment in my life.'"


Does Brubeck have any plans beyond his concerts? Would he make the trip to Red Square, the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was a stagnant outdoor swimming pool last time he was in Moscow? Brubeck the goodwill ambassador fades out, and Brubeck the seasoned traveler, who has taken his wife Lola on almost every tour since they were married 55 years ago, steps into his shoes. "You bet," he said.