When Brubeck Wasn’t Cool
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook notes with regret the death last week of Dave Brubeck, the California-born, classically trained pianist whose eponymous quartet—with its infectious melodies and unconventional time signatures—did so much to revitalize jazz in the 1950s and ’60s. Brubeck, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and drummer Joe Morello are all now gone, leaving only the bass player, 89-year-old Eugene Wright.
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As The Scrapbook has suggested in similar circumstances, the death of a famous, famously personable, and by all accounts supremely successful man on the eve of his 92nd birthday cannot be reckoned a tragedy. But with Dave Brubeck’s death, a certain chapter in our cultural history is closed, and that is worth noting. It also awakens certain memories with which the great pianist is tangentially involved.
We are thinking specifically of the occasion, in 1970, when The Scrapbook was reading a hot-off-the-presses copy of Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. The Scrapbook has decidedly mixed feelings about Wills, who has lurched in his time from writing for William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review to devotion to the memory of the Stalinist playwright Lillian Hellman. Nixon Agonistes, as such books go, is a bit of a mess, more of a meditation on the times of Garry Wills than an account of Richard Nixon. But one passage, in particular, remains indelibly in The Scrapbook’s mind, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Wills is writing a kind of stream-of-consciousness riff on the general cluelessness of Nixon and his political apparatus, and as devices to display his wit settles on the presence in the campaign plane of Nixon’s younger daughter and her fiancé:
The “still” in that final phrase makes a loud thumping sound, and from any number of standpoints, this is an extraordinary paragraph. It is not enough that Wills is hostile to Nixon as a political candidate; he is prompted, as scholar-historian, to attack the personal appearance of family members—“Mr. and Mrs. Howdy Doody”—and express contempt for their apparent fondness for comfortable clothes (“sloopy loafers”) and classic styles, as well as their taste in music. The year being 1968, Wills might presumably have been more favorably impressed if their “favorite musician” had been not Brubeck but, say, Donovan, or Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.
It is worth mentioning, as well, that the Brubeck who is a hapless punchline here for Garry Wills is the same Brubeck who, four decades later, was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and of whom Barack Obama said at the time, “You can’t understand America without understanding jazz, and you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.” Indeed, The Scrapbook has always wondered if Brubeck, a lifelong liberal, was aware of his status as an embarrassment in Nixon Agonistes.
For in this passage, The Scrapbook perceives any number of repellent things, not least a pioneering version of the kind of schoolyard invective and personal contempt that is now second nature on the left, and enshrined in such locales as MSNBC and the op-ed page of the New York Times. Of course, anyone who has ever seen a photo of Garry Wills would be reluctant to anoint him an arbiter of cool. But if we take Wills on his own terms, as a man of ideas and not a freelance character assassin, this passage tells us much more about him than about Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower, or Dave Brubeck.