Cool Jazz, Rational Cities

The death of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who died a day short of 92, was widely reported, accompanied by quick clips of the quartet performing Take Five or Blue Rondo a la Turk. Oscar Niemeyer’s passing at 104 made the major obituary sections, and both men’s achievements will probably merit retrospectives in Sunday Arts sections of the major papers. Over five hundred Filipinos died in the recent typhoon, but you’d hardly know that from watching mainstream media news. And my friend Chris reported that his mother died after going to the hospital with a hip fracture — probably from an infection.

I can’t remember where I first heard about Dave Brubeck. My college roommate was a jazz aficionado, so perhaps he had a copy of Time Out. But I always think of a line from Donald Fagen’s tune, New Frontier: “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck, I like your eyes, I like him, too. … He’s an artist, a pioneer, we’ve got to have some music on the new frontier.”

Like almost everyone I’ve heard Take Five many times through the years. I first saw a video of the Dave Brubeck quartet in Ken Burns’ documentary. Compared to other jazz players, Brubeck’s quartet looked like a college chess club playing instruments — four guys with short hair and glasses playing a mathematically intricate composition. I first heard Blue Rondo as a vocal by Al Jarreau on Breakin Away, not realizing until much later that it was another Brubeck piece. I never heard Koto Song until yesterday, but Michael Franks singing, “Paul Desmond on the stereo, we sip the sake very slow …” is ingrained into my memory, and clearly draws from the older piece. Paul Desmond was the quartet’s sax player, wrote Take Five and died at only 52 of lung cancer.

Cool jazz still involves improvisation, but comes across as a more restrained and intellectual version of older jazz forms like Swing or Bebop. Some see a classical influence. Cool jazz seems to be part of a movement that led to Bossa Nova, experimental Free Jazz, World Music and of course the Steely Dan and Michael Franks music that I love. But it also led to more commercial New Age and Smooth Jazz music.

New Frontier goes on, “Well I can’t wait ’til I move to the city, ‘Til I finally make up my mind, To learn design and study overseas.”

I first heard about Niemeyer in art class. My high school art teacher, Mr LaLiberte, had a few of the Brazilier books on famous architects of the era: Wright, Corbusier, Aalto, Van Der Rohe, Gropius … and Niemeyer, who with Lucio Costa had designed quite a bit of the new capital city, Brasilia. As influenced by Corbu, Niemeyer’s modern city featured a palette of ideal geometric shapes. Modern urban critics claim the city didn’t work, but it looked great in the pictures. Niemeyer had virtually disappeared from the discussion by the time I attended college, but he seems to have remained busy.

It isn’t too hard to look at modern architecture and cool jazz and see a connection. We were redesigning and rationalizing a lot of stuff in the mid-20th century — sweeping away what was old, and imposing a rigid order based on what was new and important at the time. Modern cities had to accommodate high-speed roads, airports, and large complexes of buildings. Zoning was cool, so everyone was supposed to live in the residential part of the city, work in the office block, shop in the mall, play in carefully planned parks and attend massive theatres and arenas. Because everyone drove large automobiles to get to these places, there also had to be parking lots, parking structures and underground parking. Older cities were subject to the same rationalization in what poignantly became known as Urban Renewal. Great old neighborhoods were swept away, along with the people that lived in them.

At a lecture at CMU in the late 1970s, some big shot guest speaker said, “the problem with Modern Architecture is that it goes so quickly to third-class.” At their best, cool jazz and modern architecture were very cool and very modern, but the hands of ordinary practitioners often turned out humdrum, commercially-driven efforts. Now we’re redesigning our cities again — trying to get people back into diverse-use neighborhoods. Music has changed a lot, too, but fortunately it requires a lot less infrastructure.


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