HANGING WITH BRUBECK ON THE QUEEN MARY

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February 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Dave and Iola Brucbeck

By Bob Vickrey

I struck up a friendship with a book publicist in Los Angeles shortly after our two publishing companies joined forces in the 1980s. Lucinda worked for J.P. Tarcher Company, the most successful publishing enterprise on the West Coast.

She had met many great musicians during her earlier years as a young publicist for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and formed a long friendship with jazz legend Dave Brubeck. When he appeared at the Long Beach Jazz Festival in 1987, he invited her to join him and his wife, Iola, for dinner before his performance that evening.

When Lucinda invited me to tag along that evening at the Festival and meet her old friends, she inadvertently forgot to tell me who they were. When we arrived at the Long Beach Hilton Hotel, I spotted Brubeck waiting on the front steps. While I was excitedly pointing out the great jazz pianist to Lucinda, he and his wife opened the back door of our car and got in.

As my head continued to spin following Lucinda’s introduction to her friends, I finally recovered from the shock enough to have possibly concealed my initial surprise. We made a quick visit to the Queen Mary before dinner and I acted as tour guide since I had stayed aboard the storied ocean liner just weeks earlier during a regional book convention.

During our dinner at the Hilton, Brubeck revealed he had been dealing with severe arthritis in his fingers—which he assumed had come from years spent in performance at his piano keyboard. He admitted the problem had affected his normal practice routine. I noticed that after he mentioned the pain in his hands, Iola massaged his fingers inconspicuously under the table.

Dave was summoned by a young festival organizer who reminded him that he was due onstage in less than an hour. He was anxious to see the performance by the young singer, Al Jarreau, who had taken the jazz world by storm. Brubeck considered him to be the greatest talent to have emerged in many years and said he felt that Jarreau had the potential to revitalize a music genre that badly needed his infusion of dynamic energy.

During our walk toward center stage on the Queen Mary parking lot, thousands of excited fans saw Brubeck coming toward them outside the fenced area and began to cheer as he drew near. The spectacle of hundreds of flashing cameras lighting the dark night on that cool September evening had me reconsidering my chosen profession. By the time our little entourage made its way onstage, I had decided that in the next life I would return as a rock star. Yes, indeed, this could make me forgo my present vocation rather quickly.

As Dave took center stage to perform, we were guided to the wings of the stage where we found assorted musical instrument cases to sit upon. The master of ceremonies gave him a short, but dramatic introduction. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the reigning King of Jazz…Daaaaaaave… Bruuuubeck!” Thunderous applause greeted his introduction as he coolly acknowledged his fans with a casual wave.

During the five-song set, his performance showed no signs of decline due to his arthritic fingers. They moved across the keyboard as gracefully and effortlessly as when he had begun his career as a young musician. The crowd erupted once again as he played his signature piece, “Take Five.” He glanced our way often, and I soon realized that his gaze was aimed directly at Iola. They seemed engaged in their own personal unspoken language that had, no doubt, been duplicated during performances for many decades.

The following day, I wisely made a command decision to keep my day job, and continued in my role as a quasi-literary “evangelist” in promoting the works of our company’s stable of authors.

My friend Lucinda eventually moved to Nashville in 1989 and started her own publicity agency. She became a contributing editor for Publisher’s Weekly and is the author of several books.

Dave Brubeck died last month just before Christmas at the age of 91. Iola, his wife and partner of 70 years, still resides in the family home inWilton, Connecticut.

I gave up my “day job” in 2008 when I retired from publishing. My plans for pursuing a second career as a rock star remain presently unclear.

Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns frequently appear in Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and Ft.Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

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