Classically trained pianist Elizabeth Brubeck taught two sons to play the family piano before her youngest boy David embraced the instrument, the story goes, but she could not have known then that he would be the one to create such a name for himself in the jazz world that the Dave Brubeck Quartet would be revered a century after his birth in 1920.
Growing up in California, Dave Brubeck would develop the musical and composing skills that would take him to the top of the jazz world as he combined his mother’s classical tutelage with improvisation to become a top performer of what is often called cool jazz.
Knowing Brubeck’s 100th birthday was last year, Opera Mississippi Artistic Director Jay Dean decided more than a year ago to create a show to commemorate the iconic jazz musician.
“I like to create events that have some meaning beyond a concert,” Dean said. “I like to create events that celebrate centennials and anniversaries. I like to find things that connect with people.”The Sam Bruton Quartet is set to take the stage at Duling Hall on Oct. 18 as part of Opera Mississippi’s Duling Hall Concert Series, which Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi sponsors, to present “Take 5: A Tribute to Dave Brubeck.” The premiere performance was originally scheduled to be held in March 2020, but Opera Mississippi postponed the celebration due to rising COVID concerns.
The quartet performance at the M. P. Bush Auditorium on the campus of Jones College on Sept. 24, 2021.
Dave Brubeck’s Career and Legacy
After learning piano from his mother, who studied the instrument in England under Myra Hess, Dave Brubeck began accompanying local jazz groups in 1933 and for Lions Club gatherings and Western-style swing dances by age 14. Brubeck was later a student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., studying music from 1938 to 1942. There he formed and led the school’s 12-piece orchestra.
Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army after graduation. However, he was spared from combat after his performance at a Red Cross show became a major hit. During World War II, he led a band in the U.S. Army that played for troops serving in combat areas. Four years later, he returned from the war front and continued his graduate studies at Mills College. He created the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951.
Brubeck’s musical catalog spans decades with the artist considered a major figure in the West Coast jazz movement. He began releasing albums in the early 1950s and continued well into the early 2000s. He recorded “Take 5” in 1959, which became the best-selling jazz single of all time. When the quarter performed “Take 5” during concerts, members would leave the stage after their respective solos until only drummer Joe Morello remained.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet consisted of Brubeck, Morello, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and Eugene Wright on bass in its classic years when the group recorded the famous “Take 5” album.
Sam Bruton: ‘Monster at the Piano’
Opera Mississippi Artistic Director Dean believed it was critical to assemble a group of musicians who could best replicate the quartet’s classic sound.
Dean immediately knew that his colleague Sam Bruton was the perfect person to lead the quartet.
“The first time I played with Sam Bruton was in 2003,” said Dean, who spent 30 years as the director of orchestral activities for the University of Southern Mississippi and who retired as USM’s School of Music director this past June. “We played a concert together, and it was the first time I had ever laid eyes on him and the first time I had ever heard him play. From the first time I ever heard him play, I thought, ‘This guy is one fabulous pianist.’ Sam Bruton is a monster at the piano.”
Bruton is a jazz pianist, composer and professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Mississippi. He formed the Sam Bruton quartet with Larry Pernella, the director of jazz studies at USM, on saxophone. It also includes USM instructor Dave Pello on upright bass and Pete Weiner as the group’s drummer. Nathan Sanders, a musical arts doctoral candidate at USM, is serving as the drummer for the Duling Hall performance.
“Jay Dean originally reached out to me to put together the group, and I reached out to (these players) because of all the players that I know in Mississippi—I have played with a lot of them—these were the best ones to capture the classic Brubeck sound,” Bruton said.
The quartet has prepared and practiced for more than a year in preparation for the performance. To date, they have performed the show at Festival South in Hattiesburg and the Natchez Festival of Music.
“Brubeck’s repertoire of compositions is quite vast so we had to make decisions on what pieces to do, how to do them and exactly to what extent to stay faithful to the original as well as add our own creative flourishes,” Bruton explained. “Brubeck’s music is challenging. It’s wonderful and inspiring. It’s creative and innovative in many ways, but it’s challenging.”
The quartet will debut two new songs during the Duling Hall performance, which Dean believes will wow attendees.
“They are going to have a great time,” Dean said. “They are going to hear one of the finest jazz quartets anywhere. I heard them do this concert at Festival South back in June, and you feel like you are in New York City or Paris. It’s just top-drawer playing. ”
Opera Mississippi 2021-2022 Preview
Opera Mississippi, the nation’s ninth oldest continually operating opera company, is in its 76th season.
Tonight’s performance is just one of many slated for the new season. Following “Take 5” is another centennial celebration: “Be My Love: A Tribute to Mario Lanza” on Nov. 8, which will feature tenor vocalist Peter Lake and pianist Tyler Kemp in the cabaret-style performance.
Opera Mississippi’s first show of 2022 will be “Future of the Stage,” a gala concert on Jan. 17 that will spotlight six winning singers of the John Alexander National Vocalist Competition alongside the Opera Mississippi Chamber Orchestra.
February will see “Letters to Puccini,” a program featuring many of the operatic composer’s most-revered arias. Opening night will be Feb. 21.
Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini described soprano vocalist Renata Tebaldi as having “the voice of an angel,” which became the inspiration for Opera Mississippi’s March 14 show, “La voce d’angelo.” Soprano vocalist Betsy Uschkrat will perform in honor of Tebaldi, along with Michael Bunchman on piano.
“Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica,” which will premiere on April 23, is a comedic opera set in 17th-century Italy that revolves around a family listening to and reconciling with the reading of the late Gianni Schicchi’s will.
Rounding out the spring 2022 shows is “Over the Rainbow,” a tribute performance honoring Judy Garland, a Hollywood star who left a number of memorable works. Melanie Gardner and the T.K. Trio bring Garland’s most renowned songs back to life on stage at the May 16 performance.
General admission for the Monday, Oct. 18, performance of “Take 5” is $30. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Duling Hall requires proof of vaccination at least 14 days prior to shows or a negative COVID-19 test result received within 72 hours of events. Opera Mississippi asks all guests, vaccinated or otherwise, to wear masks during the performance. For more information on tickets or to learn of upcoming Opera Mississippi shows in the current season’s lineup, call 601-960-2300 or visit operams.org.