Last night Dave Brubeck was recognized at the Kennedy Center Awards. As I watched, and listened, it all came back to me.
I played piano, competitively, as a child. I took to the piano like, oh, I don’t know. Peanut butter to jelly? I loved it. I was a classically trained pianist and could play baroque to classical to romantic to modern. I was in my element when I played. But I was never a play-by-ear musician. Meaning, if I heard a tune, I couldn't just sit down and play it. I needed music. But I could play just about anything you put in front of me. Musicians who entertain at parties? I envy them and their ability to tickle the ivories and take on requests. I played parties too, but always with my stack of music, and requests only if I had the sheet music. (Even Culture Club had sheet music for piano and yes, I played "I'll Tumble For You" on the piano. Wrong in so many ways but that's another story.)
Playing by ear was a bit out of my comfort zone. So sometimes I studied with a jazz musician. This was a whole new kind of playing. Feeling and offbeat and putting pieces together. It was like being right handed and trying to write with your left hand. It made me uncomfortable because it was so different and outside of my knowledge. So I studied jazz sheet music, and the first one I could remember was Take Five. Every time I attempted to play it, my dad cooed “ooooh I love that one.” So I worked a little harder at it. It had a rhythm like nothing else I had played. It wasn’t wild and outside of the musical parameters I knew: I could see there was a logic to it. A complex logic with an upbeat in the opposite place I would expect and a constant chattering of my left hand to keep the beat driving right on schedule.
Take Five was a huge hit in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Performed by The Dave Brubeck Quartet it featured a saxophone melody, thus explaining my dad’s particular fondness for it. But it was that quirky 5/4 or quintuple time meter that had intrigued and challenged me so much.
As a child, I hadn’t realized how influential the song was. I just knew it was tough and fun to play, and finally, it was a jazz song I could not only pull off, thanks to practicing it and some special coaching, but one my dad loved to hear too. Playing piano wasn’t a solitary effort: it was one in which I received praise and recognition for, and from my dad that was a golden moment.
I’m pretty sure I still have the sheet music for Take Five. I wonder if I can still play it. I practiced it so many times, over and over and over, that crazy rhythm is drilled into my brain.
In honor of Mr. Brubeck’s award last night, I just may play a little Take Five today. On the same piano I played it on as a girl. Dad might even get a phone call. There’s no guarantee I can get my right hand to turn out that melody, but I know I can get that crazy quintuple time going with my left.