Still in tune with the times after half a century, a jazz institution returns to Oberlin.

Take Fifty 

Still in tune with the times after half a century, a jazz institution returns to Oberlin.

Time out: Dave Brubeck returns to Oberlin Saturday.
  • Time out: Dave Brubeck returns to Oberlin Saturday.
Time is on Dave Brubeck's side. The 82-year-old jazz pianist and composer has plenty of it to reflect on -- the awards, the classic recordings, the National Medal of the Arts President Clinton gave him. He's been making records since 1948, two years after he was discharged from the Army (he served under General Patton). Brubeck likens his past to a fertile period of splendor and wonder. He's a jazz institution, one of the few surviving members of an elite group of performers and musicians. Many died young and in their prime. Brubeck stayed in time.

Fifty years ago, his quartet -- which he still leads today, but with different sidemen -- recorded Jazz at Oberlin at the college's Finney Chapel. It instantly became a landmark live-jazz album. And it was the record that helped net him a contract with Columbia Records, home to his best and best-loved recordings. On Saturday, Brubeck returns to Finney Chapel for a 50th anniversary concert. "It was a great event," he recalls. "Not only did we play well, but it was a very important concert. It started a whole new era of jazz groups playing at colleges."

The album's standards -- "These Foolish Things," "Stardust," "The Way You Look Tonight" -- still find their way into Brubeck's repertoire. "We might do them [Saturday night]," he says. He's an active performer and bandleader who loves his vocation and his players. He talks enthusiastically about the Brubeck Institute, the California-based jazz conservatory he founded several years ago. It's all about disseminating music, he says. "The way some of these young kids play my tunes just takes my breath away," he says.

On Tuesday, For All Time -- a five-CD box of his "Time" albums from 1959 to 1965 -- will be released. It includes 1959's Time Out, Brubeck's best-selling record, featuring the hit single "Take Five." Lauded for their breaking down of traditional jazz time signatures, the quintet of albums is among modern music's most significant works. "At the time, you have no idea how important things will be," Brubeck says. "Time Out was supposed to be an experimental album, and look what happened. They labeled us West Coast Cool." He laughs, "We didn't even consider ourselves cool."

But Brubeck isn't ready to be retired to the history books. The final chapter can wait, he says. He still has songs to write, records to make. He made one with the London Symphony Orchestra when he was overseas last year. The recently released classical-themed CD, with original songs based on sacred texts, is among his most ambitious projects. "I'm really excited about this one," he says. "These kinds of performances are what inspire me these days. We did 52 days [in a row] on the road [in Europe]. And we played some wonderful shows.

"The concerts included [compositions by] Bach, Handel, Wagner, and me. And I didn't fall flat on my face."

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