Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Letter to Dave Brubeck

In 2001, I took the 8thgrade class to a SF Jazz Festival Concert by Dave Brubeck. He was 81 years old at the time and not only gave a magnificent performance, but agreed to come meet the kids after the concert was over. I had the kids write a letter of thanks to him and sent it along with my own letter below. (I’ll share the kids’ wonderful comments tomorrow). 


Dear Mr. Brubeck, 


The year is 1964. I'm in 8th grade entering adolescence, the Beatles had recently appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, basketball is becoming an obsession and going to my weekly piano lesson is starting to lose its charm. Though I still loved playing and listening to Bach and Beethoven, there is something new in the air that speaks more directly to me. In a clever move to keep me motivated, my piano teacher gives me a new piano book—the pieces from Time Out. I buy the record and though it's not as hip as the Beatles to my 13 year old ears (no lyrics, for one thing), there is something that grabs me. Something gets set in motion that turns out to be a driving force in my life to come.


I do quit formal lessons in high school, but continue to play, messing around with a simple blues progression a friend shows me. I start listening to more jazz in college and even take Cecil Taylor's class (Antioch College 1972). After college, I keep listening and playing, become a lifelong fan and dilettante jazz pianist. I bump into a dynamic approach to music education, Orff Schulwerk, and after many years of teaching music to kids, begin to combine these dual passions of Orff and jazz (see enclosed article). Thanks to Nonesuch records, my ears open beyond the Western tradition and I begin to  travel and study various musics—  South Indian drumming, Balinese gamelan, Brazilian samba, Middle Eastern percussion, West African music, Bulgarian bagpipe and more. But jazz is the touchstone, the home to which I always return. 


They say that the first love is the sweetest and I want to thank you for being the first to welcome me into this marvelous world. And here I must make a confession. As I move on in the succeeding years to listen to Art Tatum and Charlie Parker and Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor and Ornette and Coltrane and Miles and Dizzy and the whole of the tradition from Jelly Roll to Josh Redman, I begin to imagine that your music had been a mere transitory step, helping white folks like me get their foot in the door of black culture. 

I am wrong. 


I turn 50 this summer and am drawn to revisit your music. Listening to these pieces again is both nostalgic and surprising—they hold up. They tickle my 50-year-old sophisticated ears as much as they did my 13-year-old beginning ones. They represent jazz at its finest—not only swinging, coherent, intelligent and heartfelt, but moving the tradition forward with experiments in time (those famous odd meters and your marvelous cross rhythms in your piano solos) and your cross-cultural pieces (Koto Song, Maori Blues, Castilian Drums, Blue Rondo), a practice firmly in the tradition of Duke, but touched with the stamp of your own genius. I finally get to hear you play live and it erases the last vestige of doubt—you are a major voice in jazz and very much in the present tense!


I decide to try some of your pieces with my 8thgraders, completing some loop back to my own 8thgrade awakening. As the enclosed letters indicate, you once again are the first to open their young ears. Not only are they moved by your playing, but touched by your generosity in coming out to meet them. I hope you have time to read their glowing reports—and share them with your band members. Also enclosed is an article I’ve written on the Orff/jazz connection and one of our school CD’s. If you have a moment to listen, remember that these are all the kids in the school—music not as the special talent and privilege of a few, but as part of everyone's humanity.  Make sure you listen to the last song sung by a three year old girl!


The pleasure of a life well lived is its own reward, but its influence on other lives is by no means incidental. You have brightened my world, my students' world and the world at large with your presence and we thank you.




Doug Goodkin

Music Teacher: The San Francisco School 

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