At Stagg High School in Stockton, thousands of kids gather outside. It’s 1964, a pleasant sunny day. Dave Brubeck, American jazz pianist and composer, plays “Take Five,” but it can hardly be heard over the chitter-chatter of the high schoolers.
For students, the concert was just an opportunity to get out of class, said Julie Nelson, director of communications, who was a Stagg High senior at the time. The highlight of her day was picnicking in the grass with her friends.
This was Brubeck’s first high-school concert, one that Nelson barely remembers. Brubeck was just beginning his career as a musician by touring high schools and colleges.
“Take Five,” Brubeck’s signature tune, became the first jazz single to sell a million copies. One of the best-known jazz songs, it is still played on the radio.
Brubeck died on Dec. 5 in Norwalk, Conn., at the age of 91.
“Brubeck was one of the greatest. I mean, he is an American icon,” band director Bob Ratcliff said.
Ratcliff has seen Brubeck on a few occasions, including a festival in Seattle.
In fact, Ratcliff’s band, Sacramento Jazz Orchestra, opened for Brubeck at a 2002 jazz festival in Pittsburgh. However, since Ratcliff’s band was opening, he did not see or talk to Brubeck.
According to Ratcliff, Brubeck revolutionized jazz music. Before the 1940s jazz was popular dance music, he said. But after the 1940s there was a group of jazz musicians playing music with the intention that it would solely be listened to. Thus it became viewed as more like classical music.
This is where the distinction between modern jazz and traditional jazz began. Modern jazz then diverged into East Coast jazz and West Coast jazz.
“Brubeck was the king of West Coast jazz,” Ratcliff said. “When jazz musicians were first being considered artists as opposed to employees, Brubeck was the leader of one of those movements.”
Dan Ahlstrom, SCDS orchestra director from 1998-2010, said he respects Brubeck’s educational impact.
Brubeck started a scholarship fund for up-and-coming jazz musicians at the University of the Pacific, from which he graduated in 1942.
Ahlstrom hopes to be able to make a similar impact through teaching music.
He has played in the symphony at Brubeck’s concerts.
The most memorable part of these concerts, Ahlstrom said, was when Brubeck would bring out a couple of kids to play a duet with him.
“With Brubeck it was always about others,” Ahlstrom said. “He was a great philanthropist.”