Dave Brubeck was embarrassed. It was 1954, and he was pictured on the cover of Time magazine — only the second jazz musician ever to receive that particular mainstream media recognition. The chagrin came, he said, because he felt that his friend Duke Ellington — who was also interviewed for the magazine’s feature on jazz in the U.S. — deserved it more. Many years later, Brubeck told PBS documentarian Hendrick Smith about it:
Duke and I were on tour together across the country and this night, we were in Denver. … And at seven o’clock in the morning, there was a knock on my door, and I opened the door, and there’s Duke, and he said, ‘You’re on the cover of Time.’ And he handed me Time magazine. It was the worst and the best moment possible, all mixed up, because I didn’t want to have my story come first. I was so hoping that they would do Duke first, because I idolized him. He was so much more important than I was … he deserved to be first.
This scene is reminiscent of the situation that the rapper Macklemore found himself in on Sunday night at the Grammy Awards. After winning the Best Rap Album Grammy, he publicly apologized to fellow nominee Kendrick Lamar, a heavily-tipped favorite for the award who Macklemore had publicly endorsed. Here’s what he sent Lamar as a text message and posted as a screenshot to Instagram:
You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech. Then the music started playing during my speech and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and as a friend. Much love
Taken at face value, Macklemore’s backstage contrition, like Brubeck’s, is clearly bittersweet. Surely, both felt vindicated for their hard work, yet conflicted that an artist they felt to be more deserving was passed over. (In fact, the next year Brubeck released an album featuring a tune called “The Duke,” which has since become a jazz standard.) One can further surmise that both Macklemore and Brubeck, conscientious of their whiteness, were troubled that institutions had elevated them above black innovators in an African-American music.
Both also fit into a longstanding narrative in American popular music. White musicians play music of black community origin. Then, buoyed by systemic privilege, they enjoy mainstream success prior to the black artists they were initially inspired by. And they attempt to allay the guilt by deferring to said black trailblazers. (For a more severe reading of Macklemore’s public apology, try Jon Caramanica for The New York Times.)
The parallels continue beyond race-encoded discomfort, though, and I’d venture to say they tell us something deeper about the sort of musician who attracts mainstream attention.
- Both musicians grew up on the West Coast and learned their craft within active musical communities far from established geographic centers. Dave Brubeck was among the biggest names to emerge from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was known as an experimentalist after he returned from World War II. Macklemore was born and came up in Seattle, where he’s a leading public figure of a burgeoning, multi-ethnic rap scene.
- Both musicians owe their early success to frequent DIY touring and hustle independent of major record labels. Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis handled much of their business machinery via a small in-house team, including social media, graphic design and music videos which have been viewed tens of millions of times. Their Grammy-winning LP The Heist was produced without a record label budget (though their major play on pop radio was facilitated by a promotional deal with a major label). In Brubeck’s case, his wife Iola cooked up a plan to gig at colleges and universities across California, and eventually across the U.S. It made him immensely popular among younger audiences, and even resulted in several live commercial releases (and a long-standing contract with Columbia Records).
- Both artists experienced some of their biggest hits with self-consciously non-traditional songs. Most casual fans associate Brubeck first and foremost with his recordings “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” famously employing uncommon meters compared to the default 4/4 swing pattern or 3/4 waltz. (Do note that these tunes were released in 1959, years after Brubeck’s initial brush with fame.) In Macklemore’s case, it’s “Thrift Shop,” about secondhand clothing/conspicuous consumption (and the winner of the Best Rap Song Grammy), and “Same Love,” meditating on homophobia in hip-hop (and performed at the Grammy ceremony).
- Both artists have made it a point to use their artistic platforms to advance social causes. Macklemore’s “Same Love” features an openly gay singer, Mary Lambert, and was explicitly tied to the Washington State referendum to legalize gay marriage. Another song, “White Privilege,” discusses just that. Brubeck repeatedly insisted on performing with integrated bands when he led them, including touring the U.S. South with his “classic quartet” featuring black bassist Eugene Wright, or his World War II Army band in a time of military segregation. He also teamed with Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong to create The Real Ambassadors, a jazz musical addressing the Civil Rights Movement and U.S. foreign relations. One song, “They Say I Look Like God,” is a biting satirical commentary on racism. The irony here, of course, is that while both are often credited for progressive politics, they operated within genres deeply rooted in progressive social criticism.
That brings us back to Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, where Macklemore took home four trophies in total, including the overall Best New Artist. It’s interesting here to note that Dave Brubeck was also a musician smiled upon by the Grammys, earning a lifetime achievement award in 1996. And his death in 2012 prompted the organizers of the 2013 telecast to organize a brief tribute on stage; musicians Kenny Garrett, Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea played “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” for a little over a minute. It wasn’t much, but it was certainly the most jazz we’ve seen on the nationally-televised part of the awards for quite some time.
Why might the Grammy Awards, or Time magazine c. 1954, or any other chronicler of mainstream taste reflect kindly upon artists like Brubeck or Macklemore? Their commercial success puts them on the radar, of course. And white privilege is certainly far-reaching here: the lacunae of white Grammy voters or journalists, the double standard applied to black political speech compared to that of whites, the career opportunities denied to artists who happen to be black. With these conditions in place — and, certainly, given catchy songs — Brubeck and Macklemore’s shared outsider qualities translate to alternative appeal. It’s easier for the powers that be to project purposeful intent onto their aesthetic decisions, rather than just weirdness.
Brubeck and Macklemore were no dummies. They knew that their “foils” at the time, Duke Ellington and Kendrick Lamar respectively, were also engaged in ambitious, conceptual, socially critical work that stood out from a formal or lyrical status quo. (For Lamar, it’s his good kid, M.A.A.D. city album; for Ellington, well, it’s most of his work, really.) And perhaps they were embarrassed because they somehow understood the process that made their recognition possible over giants of their field.