Bill Clinton On Brubeck - by author Douglas Brinkley CNN commentator and jazz historian;


ONE AFTERNOON when I visited former president Bill Clinton in Chappaqua, New York, I asked him about the first music concert he remembered ever attending. “It was Dave Brubeck,” he answered. “I heard him live when I was 15 because we had one of the five or six best jazz college orchestras in the country at the time, at a small state university in a little town called Arkadelphia, with a genius director named Wendell Evanson,” Clinton recalled. “He got Brubeck to come down there and do a concert in 1961. So I got a ride down there and went to the concert, and I followed him closely from then on.” Beginning with that concert, Clinton became a pupil of Brubeck’s West Coast jazz style. “I started listening to Dave’s music, trying to understand how to play it. I taught myself to play his ‘Take Five’ in 5/4 time, which was written by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond to showcase drummer Joe Morello. Even though it’s an alto song, I played it on my tenor.”

“It’s interesting if you contrast him, let’s say, with some of the more atonal music – say, Yusef Lateef or Eric Dolphy. After touring the Middle East and India, Brubeck was actually playing totally out-there music in terms of chord progressions and the beats,” he explained. “Most all songs were 4/4 and 3/4: most all popular music, most all jazz music. The songs in 3/4 have an inherent lift to them, so, he tried to mix them. He wrote music in 5/4 like ‘Take Five,’ in 6/4 and 7/4, and he wrote ‘Blue Rondo la Turk’ in 9/8, which is a very rapid song. It still is. Basically, you can count it almost like a march but its three bars of 2 and one bar of 3.”

Brubeck visited the White House for a cultural event in 1994. Clinton tracked him down just to shake his hand. The 1959 album Time Out was his favorite of all time. “We had this fascinating conversation where I was talking to him, and he looked at me like Oh God, here’s another politician who got a memo, and he’s got to act like he knows something about me. Brubeck said, ‘Well, besides “Take Five,” what’s your favorite song?’

I said, ‘Blue Rondo.’
He said, ‘You’re kidding.’
I said, ‘No, I really like it.’
He said, ‘I don’t believe you.’
I said, ‘I really like it. I’ve liked it ever since I was in high school.’ He challenged, ‘Hum the bridge.’

So I hummed the bridge for him, which was in 9/8. He said, ‘You’re the only elected official anywhere in the world who knows the bridge to that song.’ The next day, he sent me a print of the chart with a picture of him playing and an autograph, and it’s hanging upstairs right now in my music room.”