Olaudah Equiano, Dave Brubeck: à la Turk

December 5, 2012

Equiano liked Turkey.  He had gone there from Italy in 1769, and greatly admired the grapes and pomegranates in the ancient city of Smyrna, “the richest and largest I ever tasted.”  He also liked the fact that the natives “treated me with great civility.  In general I think they are fond of black people, and several of them gave me pressing invitations to stay amongst them.”  He was surprised to see how “the Greeks are, in some measure, kept under by the Turks, as the negroes are in the West Indies by the white people.”

It was an upside down world; Equiano liked it just fine.

Dave Brubeck, who died this morning, also liked things upside down.

Polyrhythm and polytonality could be irritating.  Brubeck said that if listeners “don’t have a background, say in African music or Indian music or Greek music or Turkish music, [or] they’re what you call jazz purists, they haven’t a clue to what you’re doing.”

His breakthrough album, Time Out, was named for its use of a variety of odd time signatures, very different from the standard 4/4 rhythm of American jazz.  A big hit in that album, Blue Rondo à la Turk, was inspired by Turkish street musicians and composed in 9/8 time.  Take Five, probably Brubeck’s best known tune, was in 5/4 time.   No doubt it took some getting used to, but Time Out did manage to surge to the top of the charts, the first jazz record to sell over a million copies.

I just looked at Twitter: Dave Brubeck is one of the top ten “global trends.”  A social media tribute, maybe not quite in the style of Brubeck himself, but still something.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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