Writings about Music

Year of the Monkey 1920 - Ravi Shankar, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck

1920 gave us Ravi Shankar and Charlie Parker, the two most innovative and influential improvisers of the twentieth century, both transforming the classical music of their respective countries. In the case of Parker, he led American jazz in becoming the predominant Western classical music of the time. Shankar not only revitalized Indian classical music, he also revolutionized jazz, rock and Western composition largely through one of his principle disciples, John Coltrane.

Coltrane passed away before commencing formal lessons with Shankar, but they did have meaningful personal interactions in addition to Coltrane’s profound study of the sitarist’s recordings together with those of shahnai artist Bismillah Khan. I was fortunate to study with Shankar's senior disciple, Harihar Rao, and last month found an email from Ravi Shankar that had gone missing for over twenty years.


Dave Brubeck was also born in 1920, and he had a particularly meaningful influence upon myself. While a teenager, I studied piano with Barney Bragin, an extraordinarily creative spirit who introduced me to the Bach Inventions, and Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, both the recording and the sheet music.

To this day, I regard Jazz Impressions of Eurasia as one of the landmark recordings in music history, including two tracks devoted to modal improvisation recorded before Kind of Blue. Brubeck and Miles Davis were good friends, and my supposition is that Davis, and perhaps Bill Evans, too, heard Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, not necessarily the commercial release, prior to the Kind of Blue recording sessions.

Here is one of the two modal tracks titled, "The Golden Horn". How I fervently wish that Paul Desmond's solo had lasted 57 minutes rather than 57 seconds! Brubeck's solo is superb, too. Hearing Desmond live while sitting a few feet away from him in an intimate Manhattan jazz club around 1973 or 1974 together with Jim Hall, Ron Carter and Connie Kay was like being invited to a real life Valhalla.

Joe Morello and Joe Benjamin also appear with Brubeck and Desmond on the album, and I personally much prefer Benjamin on bass in the context of this quartet though their regular bassist is superb, too.

Joe Benjamin

Paul Desmond plays what is arguably his finest recorded solo on the opening track of the album, titled, Nomad, an exquisite Brubeck composition that has inexplicably never been recorded by any other artist to my knowledge.

Brandenburg Gate, the album's second track, is a sublimely engaging melding of Johann Sebastian Bach and jazz, including a phenomenal melodic-harmonic improvisation by Brubeck spontaneously fresh as mountain weather.

A number of times when listening to jazz radio, I heard an astonishingly original and substantial pianist I could not place until checking playlists online, afterwards learning it was Dave Brubeck.

Dave was forced to revise his entire approach to jazz piano after a severe diving accident when he was 30 or 31 that nearly ended his musical life, a truly miraculous accomplishment by itself, taking several years to recover. At the age of only 14 or 15, Shankar overcame the tragic murder of his lawyer father during an infamous trial, compounded by losing his mother to pneumonia the following year. Parker forged his creations despite an oppressive heroin addiction caused by a cataclysmic car accident at the age of 15 or 16.

And we can never run out of things to say and write about Ravi Shankar, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck even one hundred years after their birth the Year of the Monkey in 1920, more specifically, the Year of the Metal Monkey according to Chinese astrology.

- Michael Robinson, January and December 2020, Los Angeles


© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.