Dave Brubeck and the Birth of Something New.
by Samuel De Lemos
This narrative was conceived as an personal journey- to teach my children the feeling of being on the road, with the purpose to travel and to learn.
My journeys in life have been many. As a child my family moved from place to place, town to town. The stability was my family, the road was my home. In the Marines- we travelled to and fro, Okinawa, Philippines, Guam, Korea…We were on the move, at that time my helmet was my pillow.
On their birthday, both Miriam and Moshe turned thirteen and twelve respectively, ( born one year apart to the day) I figured what better gift than a train ride to the City by the Bay? I went to school in San Francisco right out of the Marines, I was young and excited, impressionable and ready to learn.
Our train ride started in Modesto, California with our destination ending at the Fisherman’s Wharf. The trip was spectacular traveling through the rich valley of San Joaquin, through the Delta. The excitement in my children’s eyes was evident, we were on the road. The sight and sounds of the train, the vistas, the people who were traveling with us all added to the experience.
In the City, my agenda was to introduce my kids to my old stomping grounds. To have them see what I saw, to walk where I walked. This time we were laughing, reading poetry together, eating pizza, shopping, gawking, soaking it all in…
Dave Brubeck, Veterans, Art and the Birth of Something New.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…”
On the Road
On a recent road trip to San Francisco, with my teen/preteen children Miriam and Moshe, we took to rediscover my old hang outs: Places like the San Francisco Art Institute, City Lights Bookstore, Columbus Park… in all, the North Beach section of San Francisco. A place beaming with life, lights and traffic, it’s all that one expects of a bustling city. For my kids, it was the first time hanging out with Dad in the, “City by the Bay.” Experiencing the sights and sounds that captivated me while I was an undergrad and recent veteran, living, as its affectionally known to Bay Area residents as, “the City.”
Walking around North Beach is very invigorating and enjoyable, after all this area of San Francisco has so much history. We were staying at the San Remo Hotel on Mason and Francisco Street. I mention it because, as one of the first hotels built after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It was built by A.P. Giannini, of Bank of America fame. Giannini named his 62-room three-story Italianate Victorian the “New California Hotel” — an optimistic vision of San Francisco’s rebirth.
The City by the Bay, appropriately named, has had many rebirths. One of the reasons why I choose to study at the Art Institute, was because of the quality of the art that it was known for. Artist like Clifford Stills, David Park, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn and many others helped to form a serious hub of visual arts coming from California.
Walking towards City Lights Bookstore we were delighted to see a recent museum appropriately named the Beat Museum. Jack Kerouac the beat poet got his start in San Francisco’s beat scene. His poem, On the Road, helped to launch a new era of poetry nation wide. Interestingly, the Beat Museum and bookstore’s manager and I struck up a delightful conversation about that seminal era in San Francisco when the visual arts, poetry and of of course, Jazz hit a crescendo. A period of time that brought so much inspiration and amazing art from diverse genres across the board.
After the trauma of WWII returning veterans came pouring into schools across the nation. In San Francisco many returning WWII veterans ended up at the Art Institute. With the New G.I. Bill and with a new gusto for life these returning veterans were excited to pour out their unspoken emotions onto a blank canvas with bravado.
In San Francisco Art Institute history, the amount of excitement and vigor from WWII war veterans hasn’t been matched since. There was something stirring in the air at the time and it was infectious. Many attribute this time, a special period, to the influx of war torn veterans needing to let loose, to learn, as some were given a second chance in life. These returning veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill and the opportunities that arose from education.
“supported by the G.I. Bill, the new students were mature veterans, financially secure for the moment and eager to confront the most advanced pictorial ideas” ( Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965, Caroline A Jones, pg 6)
Lounging at the San Remo after a lengthy day of walking and cafes we were treated to some sweet sounding Jazz. Dave Brubeck’s unique lively sound infused the air of the hotel and for a moment I was transported to a time of complete inspiration. Music has always been an important part of my life.
I remember siting in Sam Tchakalian’s drawing class at the Art Institute, Sam’s modus operandi in teaching was mainly based on musical stratification. He’d have his props and live models, but it was the diversity of the music that he’d play on his tune box that caused us, his students, to change our perspectives and our moods. Consequently, the music caused the drawings to have different emotional content, and everyone knows that emotional content is important in art.
Sam’s Friday morning two hour drawing sessions were the highlight of my week. Retrospectively, music and the making of visual arts are as common as can be. Before I attended the San Francisco Art Institute, the student body had their very own, Jazz quartet. To the students of the Art Institute, Jazz was a major muse and many pieces of art that now hang in museums throughout the Bay Area was inspired by it.
” MacAgy’s innovations, such as keeping the painting studio open all night and fostering the creation of the studio 13 Jazz Band (in which Park, Bischoff, and occasionally MacAgy played), contributed further to the new spirit of experimentation and excitement.” ( Bay Area Figurative Art Movement, Caroline A. jones pg. 6)
In 1942 Brubeck was drafted in the US Army like so many of his contemporaries upon return from WWII he immediately started his education. Interestingly, it was while he was overseas the Brubeck met Paul Desmond whose Alto saxophone piece in ,”take Five” launched the quartet to stardom. At Mills College in Oakland, California, Brubeck studied music under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud. Milhaud a jovial master composer enjoyed Brubeck’s enthusiasm and highly encouraged him to pursue Jazz instead of classical music. Both Brubeck and Milhaud escaped death in the troubled Forties in Europe. Milhaud as a French Jew fleeing German occupation and Brubeck as an infantry man fighting with Patton’s 5th Army.
After completing his formal studies Dave started recording with Coronet Records who unfortunately, went belly up and were bought be Max and Sol Weiss of Fantasy Records. Max and Sol were able to sell an amazing amount records worldwide. People were eagerly buying up Jazz as soon as it was being produced.
While walking inside the hollowed Halls of the Art Institute, it’s hard not to be inspired with students art on the wall space or Diego Rivera’s murals intermittently spread around the school. I gave my kids a brief tour of the painters, ceramic and photography studios. At times stealing glimpses of students in the act of creation, we walked gawking and happy, smelling the smells of fresh oil paint and turpentine infusing the air with creativity. Like I said, it’s hard not to be inspired in a place dedicated to creativity.
Jack Kerouac entered the Merchant Marines in 1942, right afterwards he joined the US Navy in 1943. It s during this time that scholars believe he wrote, The Sea is My Brother, a book that was not published until 2011. Kerouac’s, On The Road, was a originally conceived as a quest to find God, eventually Jack found God on Market Street, in San Francisco:
“According to Kerouac, On the Road “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever Established and really must not be spoken about.” ( Fellows, Mark The Apocalypse of Jack Kerouac: Meditations on the 30th Anniversary of his Death, Culture Wars)
Jazz and San Francisco are synonymous with each other. Artist like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charley Parker were huge inspirations not only to local San Francisco Jazz musicians but inspired a whole generation of visual artist.
James Weeks paintings of Jazz musicians readily comes to mind. His painting entitled, “Two Musicians” (oil on canvas), is a superb example of the San Francisco Figurative Art Movement, where texture, strong color and huge brush lines mark a move away from Abstract Expressionism so strongly favored in New York. While New York artist were enjoying abstraction in all it’s expressionist glory, the San Francisco School, were experimenting vigorously with the human figure. In many ways it was a revolt against the New York Art scene.
“Broadly speaking, Bay Area Figurative art had two general characteristics. First and foremost, it pursued a union of figurative subject matter ( including all modern representational genres from the nude to still life to portraiture to landscape) with abstract expressionist paint handling and formal compositional concerns ( such as non-perspectival space and emphasis on process), combined with a conscious resistance to specific aspects of the Abstract Expressionist ethos ( such as the requirement that the artist personality or subconscious be the source of all imagery). Second, the the work portrays physical attributes associated with California ( such as deep, saturated colors and the play of strong sunlight) and often depicts pastoral or suburban subject matter.” ( Bay Area Figurative Art, Caroline A. Jones, pg. 3)
In 1959 Brubeck’s Jazz quartet released the album, Time Out, an outstanding album that sold millions of copies and was much revered by college students on campus nationwide. He’s compositions include “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke.” The composition “Take Five,” composed by Brubeck’s longtime partner, saxophonist Paul Desmond was to be the piece that garnered them notoriety and respect amongst the best Jazz Musicians and critics worldwide.
“I knew I wanted to write on religious themes when I was a GI in World War II. I saw and experienced so much violence that I thought I could express my outrage best with music.” Dave Brubeck
Many returning WWII vets were trying to find a way to express themselves and as we’ve seen many did. The question remains in my mind however, what was so different then than now? We’ve been seeing many veterans returning from the War in Afghanistan and Iraq, but seemingly the disparity is much greater. The level of commitment to innovation and the arts is waning. In fact, the statistics of homeless Veterans today is staggering!
Walking around North Beach with my kids, we were confronted with the new realities of homeless veterans asking for handouts is large numbers. You don’t have to travel outside of your city to see this tragedy. The violence and death in both epochs ( WWII and the new Middle East wars are similar).
What makes the two periods so dissimilar, in terms of how veterans cope with life as returnees? Why is this period in time much more unfruitful for veterans? These are questions I’d like to discover, to understand…
According to one recent headline Suicide Rate Among Vets and Active Duty Military Jumps – Now 22 a day. Never in the history of Veterans affairs has this shocking phenomena been seen.
Some have mentioned that as the US moves away from humanities based education to a more lucrative base technical education the level in life appreciation is reduced. According to Martha Nussbaum in an NY Times op piece entitled “Cultivating the Imagination” she writes:
“Cuts in the humanities are bad for business and bad for democracy. Even if a nation’s only goal were economic prosperity, the humanities supply essential ingredients for a healthy business culture.
Why is the U.S. moving away from the humanities just at the time that our rivals are discovering their worth?
Nations such as China and Singapore, which previously ignored the humanities, are now aggressively promoting them, because they have concluded that the cultivation of the imagination through the study of literature, film, and the other arts is essential to fostering creativity and innovation.
They also have found that teaching critical thinking and argumentation (a skill associated with courses in philosophy) is essential in order to foster healthy debate inside a business world that might too easily become complacent or corrupt…The future engineer or computer programmer can still learn skills of argument from Plato’s dialogues and gain a deeper grasp of the lives of others through literature and the arts.
If we cut the humanities, our nation will be the loser, both economically and politically.”
During our jaunts through the city with my kids, we talked about how cool and interesting it is to live in San Francisco. Moshe and Miriam mentioned that they loved the architecture and the vibe. The City by the Bay, certainly has a vibe and unless you’ve been there or live there it’s hard to explain. It has an air of bohemian cool and the world is my playground type feeling, it’s face paced, but nothing like New York.
The noise of the hustle and bustle and church bells, fog horns and cable cars give the City a unique feeling. Along with its typography of hills and apartments, sidewalk cafes, tattoo parlors and bars imparts the City with an air of authenticity.
It was during these outside soirée’s that I mentioned to my kids, how proud I’d be if the went to the San Francisco Art Institute. In my mind, encouraging my kids to be creative to delve into the arts, helps to cultivate a much needed societal love for the humanities. Our society needs something new…so much time and money is spent on the lucrative and the war machine. Our kids need to invest in people. What Brubeck, Kerouac and the Beat Generation gave us in the postwar years was life.
I was at the Art Institute in the 90’s when Jay DeFeo’s Rose, the gigantic all white painting that weighed a ton was craned out between two walls in the upstairs gallery. We students knew that her painting was staggered between the walls and stories of the painting were legendary at our school. So, when curators took active steps to bring it out from its resting place, I made sure to be there for the event. It took a construction company and a retinue of art people to delicately move DeFeo’s Rose into a truck to move it away. The NY Times writes in the article, Not Just ‘The Rose,’ but Also the Garden‘Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective,’ at the Whitney:
“By 1965, when a rent increase forced DeFeo out of her second-floor studio, “The Rose” weighed close to a ton. The only way to move it was to cut out part of the building’s front wall and extract the painting with a forklift. It was stored briefly in a museum and shown a few times before finding a home in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute. It stayed there for nearly a quarter-century, eventually hidden behind a protective false wall, until the Whitney acquired it in 1995.
Understandably, it’s the centerpiece of the show that Ms. Miller, curator of the Whitney’s permanent collection, has assembled. In its original studio setting, the painting stood in a bay window, with sunlight and street lamplight from two side windows raking across it. At the Whitney it is similarly lighted, emphasizing its sculptural texture and heft.”
Needless to say, I was there when the DeFeo’s, Rose finally blossomed in front of my eyes. I saw it up close and personal, I was part of history. I was amused to see the massive painting making its rounds in New York recently in the DeFeo’s traveling retrospective.
Recognition of Bay Area artist by critics has always been commensurate with the provincial, outside of New York. The common champions of New York have always taken center stage, starting with Jackson Pollack and crew. Seemingly, West Coast artist have strived for recognition amongst its peers but in the long run have not garnered what many believe is rightfully due to them.
These controversial subjects came up as The Beat Museum manager and myself when discussing the San Francisco/ New York displacement felt by Bay Area artist. We both acknowledged that it was uncalled for, an unfortunate territorial circumstance.
Veterans have contributed so much to the fabric of our country, in every generation and from every war fought by US Americans there has been numerous postwar contributions that have helped us take strides forward. The 40’s were unique in that way and probably more so, as I have mentioned the arts blossomed during the post WWII years and as I have proven by war vets themselves, studying, innovating and being creative.
In San Francisco, we have seen, heard, and felt, these contributions. Brubeck’s Jazz compositions are recognized world wide, a tribute to West Coast innovation and creativity.
The Jazz music juxtaposed with Victorian hotel aesthetics at the San Remo Hotel in San Francisco, was more than relaxing…like I said, my kids and I, were invigorated and transported to a better time.
© Copyright 2013 Samuel De Lemos