I just refinished reading Range by David Epstein and one section of the book talks about the value of self-learning on a wide range of musical instruments, particularly in the fields of jazz and folk music.
Epstein offered several examples of successful jazz musicians who followed unconventional paths on the road to success: Jack Cecchini, Duke Ellington, Johnny Smith, Django Reinhardt, and Dave Brubeck. Future Music Mondays may feature each of these musicians, but this post will take a look at pianist Brubeck.
According to Epstein:
Brubeck’s mother tried to teach him pian, but he refused to follow instructions. He was born cross-eyed, and his childhood reluctance was related to his inability to see the musical notation. His mother gave up, but he listened when she taught others and tried to imitate. Brubeck still could not read music when he dropped out of veterinary premed at the College of the Pacific and walked across the lawn to the music department, but he was a masterful faker. He put off studying piano for instruments that would ore easily allow him to improvise his way through exercises. Senior year, he could hide no longer. “I got a wonderful teacher,” he recalled, “who figured out I couldn’t read in about five minutes.”The dean informed Brubeck that he could not graduate and furthermore was a disgrace to the conservatory. Another teacher who had noticed his creativity stuck up for him, and the dean cut a deal. Brubeck was allowed to graduate on the condition that he never embarrass the institution by teaching. Twenty years later, the college apparently felt it had sufficiently escaped embarrassment, and awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Brubeck has also been honored with the Smithsonian’s Bicentennial Medal for outstanding cultural contributions, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, a Kennedy Center Honoree, and numerous other awards. The song Take Five, composed by his long-time musical partner alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and appearing on one of Brubeck’s best selling albums, was chosen by NPR listeners as the quintessential jazz tune of all time. In 1996.
Not bad for someone who couldn’t read music on sight, like most classically trained musicians.
Here is a live rendition of the song by Dave Brubeck and his band: