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Column: Interview

Q&A with Jazz Legend Dave Brubeck

By Terry Perkins

Dave Brubeck has been playing jazz for almost seven decades. The Concord, California-born pianist who grew up on a cattle farm in Ione and managed to graduate from the College of Pacific music program without knowing how to read music. But he also studied with famed classical composer Darius Milhaud and recorded the first million-selling instrumental album in musical history in 1959 – five years after he became the first jazz musician ever featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1967 he dissolved his famed Quartet, which the New Yorker rather stiltedly praised at the time as “the world’s best-paid, most widely traveled, most highly publicized, and most popular small group now playing improvised syncopated music.”

But Brubeck’s popularity continued unabated. He has gone on to record large-scale orchestral works with symphonies, oratorios. He has toured and recorded with several of his talented offspring, and at the age of 82, continues to perform hundreds of concerts around the world every year. Although his success have caused some critics to disparage his popularity, fellow musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington admired his commitment to the music – and to his determination to bring down racial barriers wherever he played. Dave Brubeck is a jazz legend. Most importantly, he’s still creating great jazz.

ALL ABOUT JAZZ: In the liner notes to Time Signatures, the 1992 box set retrospective of your recorded music you chose personally, there’s a mention about how the natural sounds and rhythms of life on your family’s ranch in affected your music in later life – especially in terms of polyryhthms. Could you talk about that?

DAVE BRUBECK: My mother taught piano, including me. And she would always tell her students to try and walk a rhythm – which isn’t far removed from riding a horse and listening to the sound of its hooves, or listening to the little gasoline engine we used to pump water into the tanks for the cattle and horses. I would listen and put a different rhythm against it. I’m always listening to cars, trains or other rhythms you just hear in everyday life. It can be the sound of a fan or windshield wipers. I think a lot of jazz musicians are aware of those rhythms in everyday life.

AAJ: Your brothers were classically trained by your mother and went on to impressive careers in that field. But you didn’t seem as interested in music when you were growing up.

DB: Music was always important to me, but I was thinking in different terms. I loved the ranch and wanted to stay there and run it. But I was also in a jazz band during high school and loved listening to Fats Waller and the Billy Kyle Trio on the radio. So that was also a direction I wanted to go, but when I went to College of the pacific, I originally was studying to be a vet so I could use that knowledge on the ranch. That didn’t last long.

AAJ: You quickly switched to music, and somehow ended up graduating without being able to read music because you had such a good ear. That amazes me.

DB: It amazes ME! My ear was good enough to get me by when it came to harmony and counterpoint. But you have to understand, I could write music – I just couldn’t read it. But after writing enough, I did eventually learn to read, which for me turned out to be a natural enough way. Why put the other first? Some of my favorite musicians – my very favorite – are in the same boat that I am.

AAJ: Who, for instance?

DB: Wouldn’t you like to know! (Laughs.) Some of the biggest names. Everyone knew Errol Garner couldn’t read a note – same with Dave McKenna, and those are two of my favorites who each created complex music. Louie Armstrong wasn’t a great reader, and Duke Ellington even had some problems with it. So look at whom I’ve named. Maybe if you start finding all these great musicians who can’t read, maybe their approach to music is just as important, because look what they turned out in their lives. Certain musicians start by training their eye hand coordination. Others like me train their ears and hands.

AAJ: After graduation from College of the pacific, you were in the army during World War II where you were transferred from the infantry into a band that played for troops at the front. And after the war, you went back to school at Mills College in Oakland where you studied with the famed classical composer, Darius Milhaud. That must have been an interesting experience.

DB: It was great. I was in graduate school and still couldn’t read music, but he accepted me as a student. He was very patient. But I was writing music, and that’s the reason I was there to learn to be a composer.

AAJ: Milhaud was very encouraging of your interest in jazz, wasn’t he?

DB: His work, Creation of the World, was one of the first – if not the first – ballets written in the jazz idiom. Other composers like Stravinsky used jazz, but Milhaud was a real champion of jazz. He came to my concerts for years and we used to jam at his house. He liked that.

AAJ: While you were at Mills in 1946, you started an octet in which five of the eight musicians were students of Milhaud’s – and the others included future jazz starts Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader. From the early recorded pieces of that group, it must have been an quite an interesting band.

DB: It really was. There was a lot of great jazz happening in San Francisco after the war. But keeping that octet going was just not financially possible. I played in a trio that included Paul, but he ended up taking that band with him for another job. So I eventually ended up putting together a trio of Cal on drums and Ron Crotty on bass. And it was the success of that trio that led to the reformation of the octet – and eventually to the quartet with Paul. We played live every week on KNBC in San Francisco and drove up and down the coast playing clubs. And we put out a couple of 78s on a small label that sold pretty well.

AAJ: You were getting plenty of notice nationally at that point. Downbeat wrote articles about you, and Metronome included several of your records on its “Best of” list in 1951. This was pretty unusual for that time – given the East Coast emphasis of those magazines.

DB: Well, that recognition really helped us break the ice nationally. Luckily, New York reviewers like John Hammond wrote about us, and Benny Goodman and Ellington knew about us. And I think the amount of jazz talent on the West coast at that time was really amazing. Even today, I’m not sure people realize how influential it was on jazz back then.

AAJ: At that time, Desmond was playing in big bands with Jack Fina and Alvino Rey. But he ended up leaving to come back and try to sit in with your trio every chance he had. There was a special empathy you too had as musicians, wasn’t there?

DB: Yeah, Paul came back and would he’d just hang out every night and want to sit in with the trio. The club owners didn’t like it, because people who had bought our records wanted to hear the trio play. And there was something special Paul and I had musically. I knew it right away the first time we played.

AAJ: But Paul didn’t officially become part of the band until it broke up and you had to put together a new group, right?

DB: The trio was in Honolulu, and I had a swimming accident that kept me in the hospital for several months. So the trio broke up because the other guys had to work. I wrote Paul from the hospital that we would start a quartet when I was able to play – which we did.

AAJ: The quartet recorded several albums at colleges, and you became a big success, signing with Columbia Records. (see the The Essential Dave Brubeck review)

DB: We had developed a following that went across a lot of cultural boundaries. People would say because of all our college recordings – Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz at College of the Pacific – we were just attracting college kids. But they forget we were also playing the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. and touring the south playing at black schools.

AAJ: In fact, after Gene Wright started playing bass in the quartet in 1958, you were the first integrated group to play at many colleges throughout the south.

“We had developed a following that went across a lot of cultural boundaries. People would say because of all our college recordings... we were just attracting college kids. But they forget we were also playing the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C...”

DB: And NOT Play! Unless they would integrate the audience for our concerts, I’d refuse to play there. There were many times we managed to play because the students and professors wanted to hear us. It would come down to a decision by the school administrators about whether they wanted to risk losing state support over our appearance. One night it went right to the governor of the state where we were playing. I overheard the school president talking to the governor, saying, “We don’t want another Little Rock.” We had delayed the concert an hour-and-a-half, and things were getting kind of crazy. Finally, they told us that the students want you, so to avoid problems we’re going to let you go on.

AAJ: Although you had been on the cover of Time in 1954 and had developed a strong following, it was the 1959 album, Time Out and the composition, “Take Five” that really made the world take notice. Talk about that recording session – and about how “Take Five” happened.

DB: What I was putting together for that session – without Columbia’s knowledge – was doing an experimental album using different time signatures. They tried to stop the album because it broke some unwritten laws of the label. First, they thought people couldn’t dance to it because of the odd time signatures. And it was all original compositions on an LP, which was against their rules as well. They wanted you to have a standard tune between originals. I had to argue with everybody. Luckily, the president of Columbia loved it. But the sales department was against it. They said, “It’ll never sell. Don’t waste your money on it.”

As far as “Time Out,” it was Joe Morello’s rhythm and Paul’s improvisations over that. I had told them to try and work out something in a 5/4 time. They came to rehearsal and really didn’t have anything but some ideas and a couple of themes. I told them we would have a tune if we would do this and do that – use what you have as the opening theme as the bridge and start with the other one. So that’s the way it happened, and that album is still selling today. So I guess the sales department was wrong.

AAJ: The success of the Time Out album in 1959 was incredible. And although the Quartet was already well known, selling a million copies was quite a feat in the jazz world.

DB: It did surprise everyone – especially the record company since their marketing department kept telling up it wasn’t going to sell because of the unusual time signatures in the music. But it certainly made us even more in demand as far as concerts and touring around the world. It seemed like either we were on tour or in the studio for most of the Sixties.

AAJ: That hectic schedule was one of the things that factored in to your decision to break up the Quartet, wasn’t it.

DB: Yes it was. I just wanted more time for myself and my family. And I was really interested in writing longer works that required a lot of time to compose.

AAJ: How did Paul, Joe and Gene take the decision to break up?

DB: Well, I gave the Quartet a year’s notice, but they just didn’t believe it. They were sure I’d change my mind. Because from their point of view, why would you break up something that’s so successful? So when I actually went through with it, they were absolutely shocked.

AAJ: It was near the end of 1967 that the breakup became official. But you certainly didn’t get the time off that you were hoping for did you?

DB: No, I really didn’t. We officially ended the Quartet right around Thanksgiving, and we were back touring again in a matter of four to six weeks with a different group. It wasn’t what I had planned for, but I got a call from George Wein, who had really helped my career by booking me at a number of festivals like Newport early on. George was producing a jazz festival in Mexico and had booked my Quartet as the headliner. When he found out I wouldn’t be doing the festival, he called me up and told me that our appearance was the big reason the festival was going to happen, and if I weren’t there, a lot of guys would lose work. So I thought I’d put a group together just for a few jobs hat would get us ready for the festival in Mexico. That was the group with Gerry Mulligan, Alan Dawson on drums and Jack Six on bass. And it was so successful that we just kept the group together.

AAJ: Talking about Gerry Mulligan, another great musician from the West Coast. He worked with Miles Davis on the great Birth of the Cool Blue Note album, and Gil Evans – who also got his start on the West Coast, contributed arrangements to that session as well. Yet I think too many jazz critics tend to think of the West Coast jazz musicians from that era – including yourself – as all having the same type of sound. As a result, I think they really under value the contributions that West Coast musicians made to the development of jazz.

DB: You know, my brother played with Gil Evans when he had a band in Stockton, California, so I knew him early in his career. And I’m reading a book right now called Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles. If you haven’t read it, it’ll open your eyes to how much was really going on with jazz on the Coast. Just as far as piano players, after World War II, “Fatha” Hines, Art Tatum and Nat Cole were all working in Los Angeles. You can’t get much better than that! And that’s not including all the musicians in San Francisco and other places. When I was first recording for fantasy, I was also the acting A&R man for them, and I directed them to Gerry Mulligan and Red Norvo, just to name a couple guys. And I know I’m leaving out a bunch of other great players like Shelley Manne and Bud Shank and others. But all the press was in the East and Midwest, so that’s just the way things worked.

AAJ: Getting back to those longer musical works, was that a style you had wanted to work in for awhile?

DB: I was thinking about that back when I was in college and in the army. I actually wrote a ballet when I was at Mills College in 1946, and during the war I often though about writing an oratorio. Finally, about 20 years after that in the late Sixties, I finally did get around to writing some longer works. I finished my first oratorio, A Light in the Wilderness, in 1968. I finished The Gates of Justice the next year, and a couple of years after that did Truth Is Fallen. I had bits and pieces of some of them written for quite awhile, but now that I had time to concentrate more on composing, I was able to finish them. And I’ve enjoyed working on longer works ever since.

AAJ: One thing that has certainly been special for you has been the opportunity to play music with three of your kids. Your oldest son, Darius, plays piano, Chris plays bass and trombone, Danny plays drums and Matthew plays cello. For a time in the 1970s, you had a quartet that included Darius, Chris and Danny called Two Generations of Brubeck. And in addition Matthew, who plays cello, has worked with you on occasion as well as touring with everyone from Sheryl Crow to Tom Waits. Did you ever push them to play music when they were growing up?

DB: No, I didn’t. But music was always around them. The Quartet used to rehearse at my home all the time, and once some of the kids expressed interest in playing, I wasn’t going to discourage them. I never really expected the ones like who did love music to get as good as they did, and make it a profession. And actually working and touring with them has been something I’ll always treasure.

AAJ: At the age of 82, it seems as if you manage to stay just as busy as when you were touring and recording with your first great Quartet. What’s your schedule like these days?

DB: Well, I just finished a series of recordings of some of my larger works. I recorded The Gates of Justice with the Baltimore Symphony, and I recorded a new work I was commissioned to do with the London Symphony. It’s six variations on one of the earliest Gregorian chants called “Planget Lingua.” I also performed my “Mass to Hope” in Germany and Vienna, and when I did it in Moscow with the Russian National Symphony and Choir it was televised. Now there’s a DVD out of that performance. And this coming Easter in Vienna, I’ll be doing my work, “The Crucifixion and Resurrection.” There really seems to be a renewed interest and discovery of what you could call my sacred works. I don’t know if it’s the time we’re living in.

As far as other recordings, Columbia is going to be reissuing a box set of my five “Time” recordings: Time Out, Time Further Out, Time In Outer Space, Time Changes and Time In. Some of those have been out of print for awhile. I just recorded a new CD for Telarc that should be out soon, and after the short tour that’s bringing me to Columbia, I’ll get ready to go to Vienna, then do 18 concerts in England, then come back to play all the Festivals like Newport, Tanglewood and the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. Then I’ll be back on tour in the U.S. in the fall.

AAJ: I don’t know how you keep it up… but I’m glad you do!

DB: I have to recharge my batteries every year a little more than I used to. But music is what I know how to do. So I just keep playing.

Photo Credit
Henry Benson



Terry Perkins


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