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Dave Brubeck: Changing Times

Jazzed Magazine • Lessons LearnedSeptember 2007 • September 5, 2007

Dave BrubeckWith insatiable musical curiosity and ingenuity, Dave Brubeck helped legitimize jazz as an art form in the 1940s and ’50s. Brubeck is also widely credited with bringing jazz into the public eye, popularizing the genre without sacrificing his own musical integrity or his music’s dazzling complexity. Time Out, released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959, was a landmark recording and remains one of the top selling jazz albums of all time. From the very beginning, it was evident that Brubeck had a special gift.

His first music lessons came at a very early age from his mother, Bessie, who was a pianist. “She could see that I wasn’t a typical student,” says Brubeck, “so she started teaching me more from the harmonic side of things. I always tried to write things – of course, I couldn’t write when I was 4 or 5 years old, but she’d write them for me. I was always interested in making my own music, so I never became a classical pianist.

“My mother was a very good pianist and almost became a classical performer, but decided that, because she had three children, she’d better stay home and take care of us and teach. So she taught piano lessons and she practiced at night after her students were through. I heard piano going all day and all night.”

Dave recalls that Bessie Brubeck wasn’t the only musician making noise in the home: “My brother had a jazz band that rehearsed in our house. He was 11-and-a-half years older than me. When he was in high school, I was in kindergarten. But they rehearsed there – they were out of high school or in high school, and later on, that band became more commercial.

“Del Courtney was the pianist and he, I think, took lessons from my mother. Eventually he took over the band because he had more of a name. The band worked in Oakland and San Francisco. Then of course Del went to Honolulu and did all those broadcasts, and he had the band for the football team, the Oakland Raiders. For years he had the band for the games.”

Del Courtney and Henry Brubeck, Dave’s oldest brother, were very close. Says Dave, “They went to college together, College of the Pacific, now University of the Pacific. They were roommates. Del had to struggle pretty hard to be a pianist and really ended up being a leader. When he was younger he played more, but he gradually got away from playing. We kept in touch with Del up until he died [in 2005], in Honolulu. But we’d always try to see him at the Royal Hawaiian, and he’d usually ask me to sit in. He was a wonderful guy.”

When Jazz was “Evil”
Apart from his musical family, some of Brubeck’s most important influences were his professors. “J. Russell Bodley at College of the Pacific and Horace Brown, who taught counterpoint, were very good for me. And very appreciative – at that time, you didn’t play jazz at any conservatory in the U.S., probably in the world, and yet they knew that that’s what I wanted to do. They kept involved with me as a jazz musician. But you couldn’t even practice jazz in the practice rooms. That’s how strict it was. It was that way in every school, just frowned upon.

“Now our institute [Brubeck Institute:] is at the University of the Pacific and the jazz kids are in some ways more aware of what it really takes to be a composer or to understand the fundamentals of music and produce on their instruments. I think they inspire the ones in the conservatory – you see so many classical musicians who aren’t that interested in improvisation. We have a son, we have five sons, but one teaching improvisation in strings at York University in Toronto and he’s played with many different symphony orchestras. He just finished playing with Sheryl Crow, before that he was with the Dixie Chicks, and the Indigo Girls, and Jewell – he’s played with all of those people because he can read anything and improvise. And, you see, that’s becoming more important in the colleges, and it’s going to become even more and more important.

“The crossover that we’ve seen at the University of the Pacific – at first, it was like, ‘What are these jazz kids doing on campus?’ But it’s at the point now where one might say, “Who’s your best piano student?” and the answer is, ‘Well, the one who’s in the jazz band, he’s one of our best classical players.’ And the trumpet player could inspire the ‘legit’ player, probably play equal to him, and then turn around and play fantastic improvisation. That’s happening at a lot of schools.”

Brubeck recounts how jazz faced an uphill battle for acceptance. “My wife remembers a copy of The Etude magazine where it said something about the evils of jazz.”

On cue, Iola Brubeck, Dave’s wife of over 60 years, adds, “Etude was a magazine for music teachers, and this was in the twenties. It had quotes from various very well known teachers to keep jazz out of the classroom. And your mother felt the same way -“

“Until she heard Art Tatum!” interjects Dave Brubeck with a laugh. “Then she said, ‘David, now I know what you’re talking about.’ Because we happened to be riding in my car, which had a radio, in 1937, and Tatum came on and played ‘Humoresque.’ She was so impressed that somebody could play that and then improvise on it.”

Don’t Forget Mil!
“And when your speaking of mentors, don’t forget Mil,” prods Mrs. Brubeck attentively.

Brubeck continues, “Well, Milhaud came later. Darius Milhaud was really the greatest influence on me in classical music and composition. He went through a period where he thought jazz was very important. After the war, he was teaching at Mills College, in California. GIs from WWII could go to school on the GI bill – and he just was so happy to see male students that one of the first classes he asked, ‘How many jazz musicians in the room?’ And I thought, ‘Oh boy, are we going to be in trouble,’ like we usually were, and we all raised our hands. He said, ‘I want you all to feel free to write your fugues and counterpoint in jazz style and it would be wonderful if you could play them in class.’ So my first good group, the octet, came right out of that class.”

One of the ways in which Milhaud influenced Mr. Brubeck was by encouraging originality. Says Brubeck of Milhaud, “He liked what I did harmonically. He could see that there was a tendency to go towards polytonality, and he was an expert, maybe the greatest in the world at understanding how polytonality really worked. The one time that he really got into that, he showed me a chart of all the possibilities of different chords superimposed upon other ones. Other than that, he never said, ‘Oh, you must use this polytonal chord.’ He was just saying that the possibilities are enormous.”

There was an unusual amount of mutual respect between teacher and student. “He liked [what I did],” continues Brubeck, “and he’d always ask me to play jazz at the beginning of a lesson. He’d say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that!’ and I’d think, ‘You must be kidding. You wish you could do this, and I can’t come near doing what you do!'” Dave lets out a raspy chuckle. “He was like a Mozart. He could write with a pen, anything, a whole score, each instrument transposed. A mind that’s beyond most minds.”

Modest Mentor
On the subject of teaching, Dave Brubeck is candid about his own distaste for playing the role of educator, but reluctantly admits he is often credited as an influence. “I avoid teaching. But a lot of students say that they’ve learned from listening to my records or going to my concerts or talking with me.”

Adds Iola, “I think it’s teaching by example rather than by a course of study.”

Ever modest, Brubeck is quick to shift the focus on to the students at his alma mater. “We have great students at Pacific, who are so advanced, so far ahead of where I was at their age. Every year, different ones come in. They can stay two years or go on – there’s always the temptation to go on to Juilliard or Columbia or Berklee School of Music. A lot of schools pick our kids up because they’re so talented.

“One teacher that I admire so much is Joe Gilman. He teaches theory and arranging, but he’s a great pianist. He coaches them and coaches the combos, and I wish you could hear his recordings with the students, they’re just wonderful.”

Significant Collaborations and Final Thoughts
Back on the subject of his own career, Brubeck speaks of the amazing synergy he had with saxophonist Paul Desmond, who was an integral part of the experimental Dave Brubeck Octet, formed in 1949, and later joined Brubeck’s Trio in 1951, making it a quartet. Desmond continued performing and collaborating with Brubeck even after officially retiring in 1967, when the original Dave Brubeck Quartet disbanded. The ease with which they were able to play together, says Brubeck, came from having an appreciation of similar kinds of music. “We both liked Bach and Stravinsky and Ravel, and show tunes. We had the same taste in what we liked in music. When we improvised, we would both draw on the same kinds of music to incorporate that approach, especially Bach.

“The first time we got together, Paul didn’t know what polytonality was, so he was puzzled when I would play in a different key than he was in. But that was just a quick meeting because I was on my way over seas. I had a session at the Presidio in San Francisco where he was in the band. Then when I got out of the army, I was at Mills College and we invited Paul to come. We were close friends. He was a friend of all our children and of my wife. They called him uncle Paul and he was part of the family.”

Finding the musical connection that Desmond and Brubeck had, that “click,” is unpredictable at best. “You find ‘it’ if you are lucky or simpatico – in five minutes you might find ‘it’ with one musician, and you might work five years with another guy and never find ‘it,'” opines Brubeck.

Mrs. Brubeck gently reminds her husband of one successful combination. “I’m thinking about playing with Winton [Marsalis] spontaneously at the Newport Jazz Festival.

“Oh yeah!” responds Dave Brubeck, “that was great. Winton came and sat in with us at the festival. It was immediate – well, it was just that we were thinking alike. And it sounded good, too [laughs].”

And that’s the bottom line.

Dave Brubeck was interviewed as a part of the NAMM Oral History Program, alongside his wife, Iola by Dan Del Fiorentino, librarian/historian at NAMM. This article was written and researched by Eliahu Sussman and Christian Wissmuller. Dave Brubeck’s new solo piano recording, Indian Summer (Telarc), was released in August of 2007.

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