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Dave Brubeck: 'Southern Scene'

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Dave Brubeck On September 10, 1959, about a month after Dave Brubeck completed Time Out and a month before the craze began over Take Five (the single wasn't released until September 21 while the album didn't hit stores until December 14), the Brubeck quartet began to record Southern Scene.

By then, most people who watched TV news were all too familiar with the Southern scene. In 1959, federal courts began forcing public schools and public bus lines in the South to desegregate, while Alabama passed laws limiting black voter registration and Mack Charles Parker was lynched in Mississippi. Protest jazz was heating up. Sonny Rollins's Freedom Suite was released a year earlier and Charles Mingus's Fables of Faubus appeared on his Mingus Ah Um album for Columbia months earlier.

Southern Scene, of course, was Dave's second swing down South. Earlier in the year—before Time Out—he had recorded Gone with the Wind for Columbia. The album included Swanee River, Ol” Man River, Basin Street Blues and other songs with a Southern theme. Producer Teo Macero and Dave must have felt that the first album wasn't quite enough. On Southern Scene, Dave recorded At the Darktown Strutter's Ball, Deep in the Heart of Texas and Oh! Suzanna.

As Dave wrote in the album's liner notes:

“For years I've carried with me a list of folks songs and spirituals that I thought I would someday record. The first group of these tunes appearing in the Columba LP Gone with the Wind. It was a ball. So we decided to continue the revival with Southern Scene."

Why would Dave have spent so much time in '59 jazzing up sentimental Plantation fare, beyond what he said in his notes? I suspect there were two reasons:

First, the Columbia Record Club, which enabled at-home consumers all over the country to order LPs by mail, began to market stereo records and gear in 1959, including reel-to-reel tapes. The South was a massive market for the new, improved formats. [Pictured above: 1959 edition with Dave Brubeck on the cover in the lower right-hand corner]

Second, I suspect it was Dave's way of trying to change Southern minds—particularly college students. If you look at Dave's Columbia studio albums in 1959, there was Gone with the Wind, Time Out, The Riddle and Southern Scene. Time Out and The Riddle featured abstract art on the cover. Only the Southern songbook albums showed photographs of the quartet.

And while Gone with the Wind showed Gene Wright, the quartet's black bassist, far in the background with drummer Joe Morello, Southern Scene was different.

On the cover, Dave is seen standing behind Joe Morello, Gene Wright and Paul Desmond—his right hand on Morello's shoulder and his left elbow on his knee, his left hand dangling close to Wright's back.

Was his hand originally on Gene's shoulder? Was he told to remove it by the photographer? I couldn't find the name of the photographer nor the graphic artist for that matter who added a riverboat and plantation.

Interestingly, two of the songs on the album are by Stephen Foster [pictured]. As Dave said in Doug Ramsey's book, Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music & Some of Its Makers, “Foster tunes are well-suited to jazz, much more so than say a Broadway show tune. They're great for improvisation. I think of this as a kind of Bicentennial tribute to an important composer, even though the 100th anniversary of his death was 12 years ago."

We'll never know whether Dave had his hand on Gene's shoulder originally or if college students somewhere down South put on the album, looked at the cover and changed their minds about integration. 

What I do know is that Southern Scene is one of Dave's finest and most under-appreciated recordings. You can hear his love for America in the music, his love for the countryside, and his hope that the South would come to its senses, remember its gentle qualities, change its colletive mindset and become more tolerant. I suspect that was wish of the entire quartet.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Southern Scene here or as part of The Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1955-1966 (19 CDs) here.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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