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Remembering a jazz great

Local musician reminisces about friendship with Dave Brubeck

December 16, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

WINTERSVILLE - The name Dave Brubeck is a household name to five generations of jazz lovers and one of the genre's greatest musicians.

Brubeck, who died on Dec. 5 - one day shy of his 92nd birthday - was a pioneer in the popularity of small group jazz, having formed one of the most innovative - and popular - jazz quartets in the history of the music.

Brubeck was just another jazz pianist with a penchant for experimentation and flirtations with other styles such as classical and sacred music until he became a popular attraction on local college campuses when signed to the small jazz indie label Fantasy in the early to mid-1950s.

Article Photos

Wintersville resident Steve Spurlock looks on the wall of his office at memorabilia tied to jazz great Dave Brubeck and his five performances with the Civic Choral Society. Brubeck, who died one day shy of his 92nd birthday on Dec. 5, performed pieces from his sacred compositions with the choral society at the First Westminster Presbyterian Church from 1981 to 2007. Spurlock remembered Brubeck as an ordinary guy who was an extraordinary musician.
-- Mark J. Miller

It wasn't until Brubeck signed with Columbia Records in 1959 to record "Time Out" - a ground-breaking album of jazz tunes featuring odd meters - that Brubeck became an unlikely international star, with millions of copies of "Time Out" being sold propelled by the smash single "Take Five," actually written by Brubeck's saxophonist Paul Desmond, who was to also eventually become a jazz star.

From there Brubeck went on to record 19 albums for Columbia, each with a different theme ranging from the styles of New York City to Mexico to Japan. Each one sold consistently, and Brubeck's releases were looked forward to by many who otherwise never listened to jazz.

Brubeck's quartet toured constantly and was one of the most popular draws in the 1960s and '70s - an odd circumstance for an acoustic jazz quartet in the age of rock. Brubeck continued his musical explorations and kept busy touring up to 80 dates a year into the 2000s, despite being in his early 90s.

His death left behind more than a recorded legacy - Brubeck would perform at any venue people were interested in jazz and his music, and that included five visits to Steubenville between 1981 and 2007.

Wintersville resident Steve Spurlock - also director-founder of the now defunct Civic Choral Society - became friendly with Brubeck, a musical friendship that would result in five concerts with the jazz genius with the Choral Society at the First Westminster Presbyterian Church in Steubenville. Spurlock said he remembered Brubeck as an ordinary guy who was capable of extraordinary musical accomplishments.

"We would just talk about music," said Spurlock. "He was here five times, in 1981, 1982, 1986, 1991 and 2007. The concert would be half of us performing with him on his sacred compositions and the other half with his jazz quartet.

"I was director of the choral society for 42 years, and I had perfect attendance," continued Spurlock, adding he also played jazz bass with the late local jazz guitarist Eddie Yance.

Spurlock said he learned about Brubeck performing with chorals through his friend Betty Armitage.

"She gave me a program about a concert he performed for the United Methodist Church," Spurlock said. "The piece he performed was called 'Beloved Son,' which was the first piece (the choral society) performed with him.

"I got his phone number (from a publisher) and called," continued Spurlock. "On the other line was Dave Brubeck."

Spurlock said the two discussed a possible performance with the choral society, but Brubeck wanted to hear them first.

"He asked me to send him an audition tape," he said. "He wanted to hear if we were good enough to do this. He eventually called back and said he'd do it. It was a long wait (hearing back from Brubeck).

"We had 79 members (in the choral society) during our first concert with Brubeck," continued Spurlock. "I didn't care about the size - I always wanted a balance."

The first concert with Brubeck was set for April 17, 1981, and it was a smash, according to Spurlock.

"We sold out in two weeks," he said, adding 800 ticket were sold. "His manager came down and rehearsed with us. The second piece we did with Brubeck was 'La Fiesta de la Posada.' It was a Mexican Christmas."

Spurlock said the event was such a success Brubeck's manager offered a second performance, but "it was too late to sell tickets for," Spurlock said.

However, Brubeck did come back the next year for his second performance with the choir. Brubeck and the choir also performed Brubeck's "Light in the Wilderness," "a difficult piece of music," said Spurlock. "He began writing those choral works while he was in the Army."

Another work the chorus performed with Brubeck was "When the Lord is Pleased," with the concert dedicated to the memory of Sybiel Berkman and local bassist Robert Wise. In 1991 Brubeck was commissioned by the chorus and the former WSTV-AM to write a piece commemorating the radio station's 50th year of broadcasting. Also in 1991, the choral society performed another one of Brubeck's commissioned pieces, "Hear the Bells Ring," and "we got to perform it with him before (those commissioning the piece) did," Spurlock said. "The first concert (with Brubeck) cost $8,000, and the last cost $30,000. We never lost money on any of them."

Spurlock said Brubeck did have a few artistic quirks as well.

"He had all these restrictions in his contracts - you couldn't smoke around him, couldn't ask him for autographs, couldn't shake hands with him," he said. "But then he would come to all the (after-concert) parties."

Through the years Spurlock would occasionally talk to Brubeck, and almost always about music.

"A lot of people would want his autograph, so I would send (items) to Brubeck for him to autograph, and he'd send them back to me," he said. "We would talk mostly about music. He told me he couldn't get his sacred works published. I told him to leave the pieces on his piano bench, and someday someone would discover them. He also wrote several fugues, too.

"I saw him perform on his 90th birthday in Cleveland with the Cleveland Orchestra," Spurlock said, adding Brubeck was frail in his later years due to an accident. "He sat down at the piano and became 50 years old again. He was still doing 80 dates a year. He said to me that he had to keep the machine going, and that people were dependent on that. But he still liked to (perform). It was always about the music."

Spurlock said for all Brubeck's accomplishments it never went to his head, and he was as personable and unassuming as he could be.

"Dave Brubeck - it's like you always knew him," he said. "He was as common as an old shoe."

(Miller can be contacted at

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