Leave it to the cool tunes and the warm legacy of Wiltonian Dave Brubeck to melt away the chill of a frigid winter night.
Brubeck was one of five honorees at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in Washington D.C., which was broadcast on the big screen to an enthusiastic audience of more than fifty residents in the Wilton Library's elegant room named after him on Tuesday evening. Judging by the applause and cheers emanating from the quip-trading, wine-sipping attendees, you'd have thought Brubeck was there in person, rather than in visage.
"What a tribute to our town and to our celebrity," Library Director Kathy Leeds said before the curtain came up. "Certainly Dave may be one of the most famous of [Wilton's residents] and it should be a great show."
Indeed it was. Brubeck was seated in a balcony above a sweeping and star-studded audience, and at the end of a row that included fellow honorees Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, Grace Bumbry, and Bruce Springsteen, and ended with President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
De Niro was celebrated first, with a collection of former castmates (Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, Edward Norton among them) recalling his work ethic, his strong presence and immense talent, and Ben Stiller and Martin Scorcese serving up comic interludes during the heartfelt tribute. Caroline Kennedy preceded De Niro's introduction with some poignant words from former President John F. Kennedy.
"I look forward to an America that will not be afraid of grace and beauty," she quoted. "I look forward to an America that will reward success in the arts just as it rewards success in statecraft..."
Those words came to life when the night's next hero, Brubeck, was announced. The Wilton audience cheered and applauded loudly as the 89-year-old music icon smiled and waved from the screen, his eyes bright behind his familiar wide-rimmed glasses.
"Jazz changed everything for me," Brubeck's presenter said. "And Dave, you did that. That's because Dave was cool. Dave was the wizard of west coast jazz- cool as cool could be. He embodies the quintessential American pioneer spirit...I'm thoroughly convinced that it's his humanity that touches people through his music."
Brubeck's tribute was, arguably, the ceremony's highlight, both for the coolness and grace that reflected well on its honoree, and because it happened to fall on his 89th birthday.
The Brubeck All Star Quintet began the musical portion of the tribute, playing a selection of his songs that featured, of course, an upbeat and stirring rendition of the group's namesake's hit "Take Five," the title track of the best-selling jazz album of all time, complete with ripping trumpet and saxophone solos and supported by an almost orchestral accompaniment by the Jazz Ambassadors of the US Army.
But Brubeck's countenance changed from noble to enchanted and youthfully gleeful when a second curtain rose and introduced his four sons, who slipped seamlessly in time into a terribly cool rendition of "Blue Rondo a la Turk," with further cheers from the library crowd. The artful medley ended with a slightly dissonant version of "Happy Birthday," a perfectly and appropriately swooning, horn-filled nod to Brubeck on the 89th anniversary of his birth.
Throughout the performance, Brubeck looked none of his 89 years, which his presenter pointed out also occurs when he plays.
"When he sits down to play, and he smiles, he loses 40 to 50 years right there," he said.
Perhaps it was some of Wiltonians seeing what they wanted to, but many noted that Brubeck appeared more thrilled and openly wowed by the tribute than any other honoree.
Celebrities were not just relegated to the big screen, either. Wiltonian David Canary, an Emmy-winning soap opera and prime time television actor (most notably of "All My Children" fame) was in attendance along with his wife, actress Maureen Maloney. At one point, Kelly Ripa appeared on the screen for an advertisement and an audience member chirped, "There's your former wife, David!"
Canary's real-life wife, Maureen, corrected the good-natured heckler.
"That was his daughter, actually," she said, in reference to Ripa's days and role on "All My Children," and to a great many laughs.
Leeds, meanwhile, made sure the evening's added significance was not lost on the crowd.
"Having been through the construction process and having built this room as the jewel of our new library," she said, "and wondering if [The Brubeck Room] would live up to the name it has taken...I think it has."
Oh, and to prove her point?
The evening's hero walked off the screen and in through the library's front door around 10:30 p.m. to a stunned and ecstatic audience. On the coldest of nights, the cool jazzman found a way to warm hearts and give back, even as everyone else took five.