By NORMAN MIDDLETON
When James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, bestowed the Living Legend Award on jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and folksinger Odetta, on Oct. 1 and Nov. 13, respectively, they were the latest in a succession of distinguished citizens to be honored by the Library over the past three years.
The first Living Legend Awards were given on April 24, 2000, as part of the Library's bicentennial celebration on the east lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Seventy-eight artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants received medals that recognized their varied creative contributions to American life. The honorees selected by the Library's curators and subject specialists embodied the quintessentially American ideal of individual creativity, conviction, dedication and exuberance. Their professional accomplishments and sense of commitment enabled them to provide examples of personal excellence that have benefited others and enriched the nation in a variety of ways.
Dave Brubeck and Odetta also embody these attributes, and their artistry fully qualifies them to continue the succession of performing arts notables who have received the Living Legend Award because of their contributions to America's musical life: Tony Bennett, Carol Burnett, Benny Carter, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Ahmet Ertegun, Mickey Hart, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Alan Lomax, Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Leontyne Price, Tito Puente. Pete Seeger, Bobby Short, Stephen Sondheim, Ralph Stanley, Isaac Stern and Barbra Streisand.
My first experience with Dave Brubeck came in the early 1960s when, as a youngster, I heard "Take Five" for the first time on the jukebox at my grandparents' Bradenton, Fla., restaurant. I found the recording mesmerizing because of its beguiling rhythms and suave melody lines. Since then I have been joined by millions of music lovers the world over who also relish Brubeck's abilities.
When asked to express his innermost feelings toward his music, his career and his life's work, Brubeck said, "My piano playing is shaped by the material and ideas I'm trying to express. I continue to play jazz, because that's what I love most to do."
His enormous musical versatility in both jazz and classical music is exceptional; and his uncanny ability to assimilate music of diverse cultures allows him to be fluent in integrating various ethnic musical characteristics into his performance and creative composition.
Brubeck was born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6, 1920, to Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a pianist and music teacher, and Howard "Pete" Brubeck, a cattle rancher and champion rodeo competitor. Because of his artistic aptitude, young Dave's early career objectives in agriculture and veterinary medicine were eventually jettisoned in favor of music. Military service intervened until 1946, when Brubeck enrolled at Mills College to study composition with the renowned French composer Darius Milhaud. A year later he and other Milhaud students formed the Dave Brubeck Octet; other groups, such as the Dave Brubeck Trio and, in 1951, the incredibly popular Dave Brubeck Quartet, followed. The quartet thrust Brubeck into the world's spotlight, performing for audiences around the world and before numerous heads of state.
Brubeck disbanded the quartet in 1967 in order to devote more time to composing extended works and larger forms. Since then a wealth of original orchestral music, choral compositions, chamber music, ballet and other musical genres have flowed from Brubeck's pen. He continues to perform jazz throughout the world, however, and he was recently honored with the title of Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1995, during a White House ceremony, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of the Arts.
Brubeck's performing accomplishments are not the only reasons he was given a Living Legend Award: with his wife, Iola, he founded the Brubeck Institute in 2000. Located on the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., the Brubeck Institute is a "living archive," where jazz and contemporary music are studied, performed, composed, improvised and brought to the world. The institute focuses on young people, developing artists and audiences for the future. The institute is also home to the Dave Brubeck Collection, one of the largest personal jazz collections (over 300 linear feet) in the world. Held in the Holt-Atherton Special Collections Department at the University of the Pacific Library, it contains hundreds of published and unpublished compositions, original manuscripts, recordings, photos, writings, press clippings and memorabilia.
Odetta has thrilled audiences from the age of 18, when she joined the road tour company of "Finian's Rainbow." Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, Odetta moved to Los Angeles as a young child and began classical music training at 13. During this period, she began playing the guitar and appearing at San Francisco-area folk clubs; her distinctive stylings brought her national attention. Folk dignitaries such as Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte became enthusiastic followers of her craft and helped her develop her career.
he distinguished singer is also a devotee of the Library of Congress; years ago Odetta discovered the Archive of Folk-Song and spent many hours pouring over its contents. Andrew Wallace, Public Events Coordinator for the American Folklife Center, says that "[Odetta] continues to credit it with providing the basis for the breadth and depth of her repertoire, which includes work songs, blues, jazz, spirituals, white Appalachian and English folksongs."
The Living Legend Award also honors Odetta for her untiring work in the civil rights movement and on behalf of other human rights concerns. Even while on tour, for example, she made time to participate in the march on Selma and the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.
Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin credit Odetta's musical influence, and several of her recordings became folk classics and inspired an entire generation. In recent years, Odetta has been invited as an "Elder" to the International Womens' Conference in Beijing; she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Folk Music Association; and in 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities by President Clinton.
Norman Middleton is senior producer for concerts and special projects in the Library's Music Division.