Jack Bruce, RIP

In my Junior year of high school, way back in 1980, my Spanish class had a Secret Santa for Christmas. We were all supposed to write our names on a slip of paper, put them in a box, and then draw names out of the box. Fortunately, my best friend and partner in all things music, Joe, sat next to me in that class. We had the slips of paper with our names but, rather than put them in the hopper, simply handed them to each other and then pretended to draw from the box. Neither of us wanted the obligatory bottle of cologne that would be presented by a girl, or whatever token gift one high school boy would give another. So when the time came, we exchanged presents. I gave him the LP Rainbow Bridge, by Jimi Hendrix. Joe gave me Cream’s Disraeli Gears. I can still vividly remember another of my friends complaining about the gift he’d gotten (of course, a bottle of cheap cologne). I’m sure he forgot about that gift long ago, but those two LPs Joe and I exchanged served us well for decades. I listened to Disraeli Gears until the grooves on the record were gone, and the album had to be replaced. I taped it and listened to it on a boombox whenever I had to do yard work the following summer. It became part of my DNA. I knew every note, every nuance. In May of 1982, Joe threw a beer bash at his house while his parents were away. We discovered that the day of the party also happened to be Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s birthday, so we posted up signs saying “Happy birthday Jack Bruce” and made sure that both Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire made it on to the turntable that night.

The soundtrack of my life during those years was huge, and varied, but Cream was one of the major players. I had all the albums, and went so far as to buy the huge poster that came with the first edition of the Goodbye album from my local record store, where it was stapled to the ceiling. Many years later, in 2005, Joe called me at work. He was talking to me in a very distracted way, mumbling and repeating, “Hold on…” before finally bursting out with “Got it! We’re going to see Cream at the Garden!” He’d been sitting at home, with two computers going, trying to get tickets. The concert was one of the best we’d ever been to, somewhat to our surprise. The band didn’t sound like three guys playing the music of Cream. They sounded like Cream. The three of them stretched out, with songs routinely crossing the eight-, nine-, or ten-minute mark. They played with the fluidity of the best jazz musicians and the fury of the best rock musicians. They were as locked in as any band I’ve ever seen, and they were louder than bombs. Nobody in the band had done anything as good as Cream in the 30+ years since the band’s breakup, but on this night it was like no time had passed. Eric Clapton was being forced to break a sweat for the first time in decades. Ginger Baker was a revelation, as good as he’d ever been, if not better.

The night, however, belonged to Jack Bruce. Two years earlier Bruce had a liver transplant, which meant that there were moments in the show where he sat down to rest. But his voice was as elegant as ever, a resonant tenor that added pathos to “We’re Going Wrong” and a withering intensity to “White Room.” His bass playing was equally remarkable. He played lightning fast runs on the bass, going toe-to-toe with one of rock’s greatest drummers and one of rock’s greatest guitarists.

Cream was a band of equals. Equal in skill, equal in ego, equal in ambition. It was a band that was never going to last because it was far too combustible. Bruce and Baker hated each other, though they were in awe of each other’s musicianship. All three members were also far too mercurial. Much like Jeff Beck or Neil Young, they were journeymen, too restless to ever be tied down for a long time. In many ways it’s a miracle Cream lasted as long as it did.

After the band split, Jack Bruce began an erratic solo career. He played free jazz with John McLaughlin on Things We Like and joined Tony Williams’s jazz fusion-oriented Lifetime. He released solo albums, and played with everyone from Frank Zappa and Lou Reed to Robin Trower and Leslie West. His jazz-influenced rock album I’ve Always Wanted To Do This paired him with the great jazz drummer Billy Cobham. It was released around the time I first got Disraeli Gears, and I bought it almost immediately.

Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were jazz musicians. They played blues and rock, as well, but at the end of the day it was all about jazz for both of them. The intensity they brought to their extended musical improvisations when Cream performed live were revolutionary. They brought a level of musicianship to rock that demanded attention and respect.

Jack Bruce never matched what he did with Cream. He didn’t have to. He, along with the Who’s John Entwistle, changed the way bass players handled their instruments. Every jazz or rock bass player since Jack Bruce reflects his influence, consciously or unconsciously. He wrote some of the classic songs of the rock era: “Sunshine Of Your Love”, “White Room”, “Theme From An Imaginary Western”, among others. He was one of the greatest musicians in jazz, blues, or rock, a true virtuoso on his chosen instrument (and others he played equally well, like cello and piano), known for the complexity and speed he brought to his bass lines. He was an extraordinary singer, a difficult personality to deal with, too obstinate for his own good, too restless for his own career. He was a titan of the era of rock music. RIP.

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