Yesterday marked the passing of one of my heroes. Dave Brubeck was just shy of his 92nd birthday, and a phenomenal influence on musicians of every caliber and genre.
He was an arranger par excellance and did almost perfectly what I talked about in a recent blog piece regarding Jazz as an analogy for Christian disciples working together.
Here’s the thing: When I was a kid, I thought Dave was a saxophone player. I had fallen in love with Take Five and spent hours humming it to myself. I just assumed that the most prominent voice, the sax, would have to be Dave since the group was called the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
That moment of revelation went something like this.
Me: “Man, I love it when Dave gets in on those quiet notes and then wails back in.”
Older, Wiser Musician: “Wails?”
Me: “Yeah, you know. When he really lets it go and BLOWS.”
OWM: [putting two and two together] “You know that he’s the pianist, and there’s nothing to blow on there.”
Me: [silence] “Really.” [OWM nodes solemnly.] “So who’s the sax player?”
That particular day it was Paul Desmond, and that’s who it is just about every time you hear Take Five (Paul wrote the piece). One could say that Paul was THE alto, though he wasn’t the only sax player. In fact, Dave Brubeck has played with 18 different musicians as the Dave Brubeck Quartet or Ensemble or Trio plus One.
But no matter with whom he played, somehow Dave managed to make the group tight. They played together so well. They heard each other so well. They “left the station together and got where they were going at the same time,” so to speak. And in the middle, pure magic.
It probably took years to become as skilled at bringing the group together.
A fantastic example of Dave playing well with others is a clip from his exhibition at the Moscow Conservatory. In this clip, Brubeck is playing an improvisation by request from the audience. About 2 minutes into the piece, Brubeck is surprised to find himself accompanied by a young violinist named Denis Kolobov. Kolobov went on to become a violinist of international fame.
You can see Denis working well outside his comfort zone, but managing well. And you can see Dave’s look of utter joy when he discovers someone has joined in.
Brubeck immediately sets about the task of making the lead sound better. He falls into the role of accompanist, but not an idle role. At 2:38, Brubeck begins to encourage the young man with nods and smiles, and then by saying, “Yeah, yeah, do it!” And the shared run down at 3:08 is the kind of thing that only master musicians can pull off in an improvisational setting.
The challenge is to find ways to work together, but the challenge for folks trying to master the task of leading and growing others is to be more like Dave. Take your turn at the lead, but blend into the background more — and make others better at what they do.
What are your other influences and guides for better leadership?