This Benny Green is very critical of Dave Brubeck. He writes in “Jazz Goes to College”:
“Brubeck was a new phenomenon in jazz, a perennial student who had never worked in anybody’s group but his own. This in itself was no disqualification, although it was silly to pretend it was much help. It seemed to me that he played the piano so clumsily, and with such consistent clumsiness, that from the day I first attended one of his performances, my impatience was tempered by a touch of that compassion which one usually feels at the spectacle of a fellow musician flung by circumstances into a hopelessly false position. For either Brubeck chose to accept the myth of his own infallibility, or he did not, each of the options being worse than the other, either to accept the reality of a genius he did not in fact possess, or be obliged to strive hopelessly for it every time he confronted a keyboard. At first I was surprised that such footling juvenilia should be taken even halfway seriously by those who knew of Art Tatum and Bud Powell. Slowly my surprise was replaced by wry acceptance of the fact that possibly those who knew of Tatum and Powell and still took Brubeck seriously did not know of Tatum and Powell after all.”That is harsh.
The essay was written in 1973. Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, for example, came out in 1959, and is now still called one of the best jazz albums of the year.
Benny Green goes on to say:
“Attendance at Brubeck concerts for me became a nightmare which I would not have missed for worlds. The images were too rich to pass over, of Brubeck falling deeper and deeper into the rut of some wretched cross-rhythm, digging a pit for himself with such relentless determination that soon he falls into it and disappears from view; Brubeck climbing out again and arriving at the same juncture of a song for 6 or 7 successive choruses, ‘improvising’ the same phrase each time; Brubeck shyly telling us that what he is now about to play is more or less impossible but that he is going to be very gallant and play it anyway.”Wow.
In 1964, Benny Green wrote another essay, named “Dave Brubeck”, talking more about the deficiencies and shortcomings of Brubeck and the quartet. The essay, or review, ended with:
“Audiences continue to be duped by Brubeck’s subtle flattery. When they applaud the trick of playing 4 beats a bar against a background of only 3, they are applauding not only Brubeck’s cleverness but their own percipience in noticing it. They enjoy being offered titles like ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’, because the implication is there that they understand blues, rondos and even Turks. Brubeck appeals to the culture vulture that resides in us all, the beast in the attic of so many jazz fanciers. His quartet produces the warm glow which comes with the assurance that the better artistic things in life are after all within our scope. But to judge Brubeck’s music by the highest jazz standards is to marvel at the comparative neglect of so many more musical groups.”Erm…
In both of these essays, Benny Green attacked Dave Brubeck together with John Lewis (the jazz pianist, not the UK department store) and Modern Jazz Quartet. He mentioned both together, again, in a 1973 essay called “Cult and Culture”. These names seem like his obsessions.
I don’t know enough about music theory and techniques to evaluate his criticisms, but Benny Green is no Philip Larkin. Whilst I don’t agree with everything he says, he has high opinion of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and my favourite jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington (not sure about his view on Charles Mingus and Clifford Brown). When I don’t agree with him, as it’s hard to agree with his mockery of jazz singers in general except for Billy Holiday, and except for people like Louis Armstrong, “whose methods of vocal expression are so clearly extensions of their instrumental personalities”, I can see his point.
What do you think? Is Dave Brubeck overrated, or does Benny Green fail to recognise his talent?