If there was a theme tune to last week’s radio it was the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five”. The legendary jazz pianist turns 90 tomorrow and the event was marked by not one suitably sycophantic interview but two – with Jamie Cullum on Radio 2 and Paul Gambaccini on Radio 4. Fortunately there were enough anecdotes to go round. Brubeck told two versions of the same tale of how the piano saved his life: on the night before he was due to go to the front at the Battle of the Bulge he was playing for the troops from the back of a Red Cross truck. His colonel happened to hear him and ordered him to stay behind and form a band.
Having avoided that battle, however, he clearly had plenty of others over the years with his famously tense quartet, the disharmony a source of much of their fascinating rhythm. Brubeck had finally had enough of the squabbling in 1967, when he told the band he was breaking it up. His drummer Joe Morello said: “You’ll be calling me in two days’ time to ask me back.” In fact, Brubeck told Gambaccini, with the kind of timing that made his name: “I didn’t call him for 25 years.”
Philip Larkin once blamed Brubeck and his crazy syncopation, trying to teach “his audience to clap in 11/4 time”, for being the death of jazz. The highlight of David Walliams’s tribute to Larkin was hearing the archive recording of the poet reading his homage to the traditional New Orleans sound that he favoured. “For Sidney Bechet” contains those indelible lines “On me your voice falls as they say love should/ Like an enormous yes.” Larkin spoke them with all the layers of regret and strangled formality you imagine that, for him, they implied.
Walliams, in conversation with Andrew Motion, proved an erudite enthusiast for the poet’s work; the Little Britain star is full of surprises. He’ll be swimming the Channel next.
Benjamin Zephaniah, recently appointed a fellow of the Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing at Hull University, was in New York in search of the “hidden code” in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s riddling graffiti. In Decoding Basquiat, we learned that the artist sold his first painting to Debbie Harry for $200 and was a millionaire within the year. His girlfriend at the time, Suzanne Mallouk, explained how fame changed him. He could afford better drugs and he “felt he should only go out with famous people”. So he dumped her and dated Madonna. As Zephaniah concluded, in rhyme: “All the lovers all the cash came and went in a flash.”
A similar narrative might have served for Radio 3’s composer of the week, the curious and neglected Ernest John Moeran. Donald Macleod’s portrait concentrated most memorably on the three years from 1925 when Moeran and his friend and fellow composer Philip Warlock scandalised the Kent village of Eynsford. They frequented “27 pubs in a four-mile radius”, kept a Maori manservant, various barefoot lovers, and had a habit of visiting the chip shop naked. You listened hard for evidence of this riotous lifestyle in Moeran’s elegiac music, but it remained another hidden code.