Screening jazz greats

Dave Brubeck’s son discusses a documentary about his nonagenarian father that will be shown at the Epos Festival.

The Habit of Art 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Habit of Art 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you’re looking to get a user-friendly visual handle on a wide range of cultural fields, Epos Festival is your package. The third installment of the annual culture and arts movie festival will take place from February 1 to 4 at the Tel Aviv Museum and at select venues around the country.
All told, the festival program incorporates over 40 films from all areas of artistic endeavor, from theater to the plastic arts, cinema, literature and different musical disciplines and much in between. The documentary and feature films, which include a number of debut screenings, come from more than 20 countries, including the United States and Britain, Mongolia and Spain, Denmark, Brazil and Ireland.
There is also a sizable representation of our own artistic community’s work with Barak Stav’s intriguing glimpse of the work and mind-set of artist David Sharir. David Sharir: Retrospective sheds light on Sharir’s ability to bridge the gap between painter and set designer as he feeds off a rich cultural mix that spans Byzantine art and early Renaissance painting as well as Persian and Indian miniatures.
Our literary sector also gets an airing with a look at one of our seminal playwrights, Hanoch Levin, who is the subject of Nitza Gonen’s searching documentary The Child Doesn’t Dream Any More. The film follows the production of The Child Dreams – an opera based on Levin’s play with music by Gil Shohat – and delves into Levin’s own life story and the events that inform his oeuvre. You Could Say – Natan’s Search for Alterman also focuses on one of our literary giants, as Natan Slor embarks on a journey in search of his grandfather, Natan Alterman, one of the greatest poets in Jewish history and arguably the most influential creative figure in 20th-century Israel.
The non-Israeli literary world also features in the festival, most notably with Alan Bennett and The Habit of Art, which portrays the fascinating evolutionary process of the septuagenarian British writer’s play about a fictional meeting between W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten that takes place 25 years after the two artistic leviathans stop speaking to one another.
Music of various colors and leanings is also front-and- center in the Epos lineup, taking in classical music, jazz and music from Latin America. The classical section of the festival program includes two of the iconic figures of 20th-century-classical music: Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, while Israel Prize Laureate for Music, Holocaust survivor composer-musicologist Andre Hajdu, talks about his world and his attempts to marry conflicting religious and artistic worlds in his life and his work.
The jazz community is also well-represented, with fascinating documentaries about late French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who suffered from a genetic disease that causes brittle bones and, in his case, diminutive physical stature. Petrucciani died in 1999 at the age of 36 but was a highly prolific performer and recording artist and also appeared at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat.
At the other end of the longevity scale is Dave Brubeck, now 91. The documentary on him, In His Own Sweet Way, was made in 2010 when the pianist was 89. The director of the documentary is none other than Clint Eastwood, himself an amateur jazz pianist and enthusiast and, as an octogenarian himself, old enough to remember Brubeck’s earliest years and first gigs. The film is clearly handled with sympathetic gloves.
Brubeck is best known for his 1959 hit number “Take Five,” from the groundbreaking Time Out record. “Take Five” was written by saxophonist Paul Desmond, who played in Brubeck’s stellar quintet of the 1950s and 1960s. According to Brubeck’s son, 64- year-old jazz pianist and musicologist Darius, his father is far from tired of people referring to him in the context of a number that shot him to stardom over half a century ago.
“Considering it was recorded in 1959 and still recognized everywhere, it is now just part of the world culture of our era, more like a classic than a ‘hit,’” says Darius, who will perform a program of his father’s material, with his band, at the Tel Aviv Museum on February 3. “It is a very open piece of music and it is easy to play it differently every time. That is one of the pleasures and challenges of jazz.”
Although Darius could be forgiven for being overly critical of a film that explores the life and work of his own father, he says he wholeheartedly approves of In His Own Sweet Way. The film also had a few surprises for him and his five siblings, four of whom became professional musicians. “It contains some footage covering the early part of Dave’s life that we had never seen before. We all loved the cowboy stuff. It seems so incongruous now, but when we were young boys growing up, the scenes from the California cattle ranch would have seemed far more glamorous to us than going around playing the piano.”
Naturally, documentary filmmakers have their own handle on the subject matter, which may not always go hand-in-hand with that of the subject, or people close to him or her. This is clearly not the case with In His Own Sweet Way, and the legendary pianist’s son is willing to accommodate the art form’s shortcomings.
“It is a good biography but there is so much more that can be said about my father’s life from a historical, as well as a musical, perspective. It would be impossible to put it all in a film, so this is not a criticism, but I think about the history he lived through from World War II to the inauguration of Barack Obama and so on.”
Darius says his dad continues to fascinate people from all walks of life and musical leanings, and that his work and life are constantly under – sympathetic – scrutiny. “There is another movie in production now focused on his role in cultural diplomacy and the end of the Cold War later on,” Darius continues.
“He has been close to many major events. He remains one of the icons of modernism for many people, whether or not they are committed jazz fans.”
Darius says the Dave Brubeck beat goes on. “As an artist he managed to become popular fairly early in his career, but he continued on from there, producing works ranging from Broadway-style tunes and settings for poetry to large-scale choral and orchestral pieces, and he still composes.”
Interestingly, Brubeck, a white man, was only the second jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine, in 1954. (The first was Louis Armstrong, in 1949.) At the time, Brubeck was said to have been uncomfortable with the accolade, since he considered Duke Ellington more deserving of such media exposure and believed the fact that he was Caucasian (unlike Ellington) was a factor behind the magazine’s choice.
Darius says that, regardless of the Time cover and his father’s unease, there was never any ill feeling between Brubeck and African American jazz artists.
“[Brubeck] was a white cat who contributed to ‘our’ music – I didn’t say ‘their’ music. I think jazz musicians normally see themselves as people who, incidentally, may be black or white, but either way are different from the rest of society.” Darius says that, in addition to all the great records he made and concerts he continues to give, his father has made a lasting contribution to the jazz world.
“Everyone rightly associates him with Time Out, which introduced jazz in time signatures that hadn’t been used for jazz before. But he was always experimental and bold and this extended to every aspect of music. [Pop icon] Sting [who appears in the documentary] told Dave’s manager that the example of Dave Brubeck showed him ‘you could be different.’ There is a large body of Brubeck music still to be explored, but I believe his greatest contribution is not just his own work but the pathways that are now open because of it.”
The nonagenarian has had a lasting influence on his offspring. “I’m completely grounded in his approach to piano playing, his philosophy of music, if I can call it that, and the kind of jazz he plays,” Darius observes. “I’ve added other influences of my own, including lots from over 20 years of living in South Africa, but at my age I’m able to admit that, even when I don’t sound like Dave in an obvious way, whatever I do sound like ultimately comes from him.”
The Epos Festival runs from February 1 to 4 at the Tel Aviv Museum, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Haifa Cinematheque, the Haifa Museum of Art, and Zaiden Hall at the Dance Center in Beit She’an. For more information about Epos Festival: