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Taking Five with Dave Brubeck

Carol Montparker | January 2013

    This article is reprinted from the February 1987 issue of Clavier. Dave Brubeck died December 5, 2012, one day before his 92nd birthday.

    Looking more like a college professor than a jazz musician, Dave Brubeck greeted me warmly at the gate of his pastoral Connecticut estate. After more than 35 years of an illustrious career, he now finds respite and refuge here from his still active touring life. Brubeck’s massive stone-walled living room has floor-to-ceiling views of sylvan hills and a pond that he says remind him of the northern California landscape where he grew up. A lovely painting of his childhood ranch seems as incongruous among his African artifacts as the various elements of his background, but it all comes together in the highly complex but cohesive and unmistakable Brubeck style.
    Dave Brubeck may be 65, but the word heyday doesn’t apply to any one period of his life; he now feels more fertile and productive than ever. “Many times when I was young I had the time to write, but I couldn’t do it. Now it’s a problem to find enough time. I used to have to grope for ideas and tear up a lot of stuff. Now when I work on a new piece I seem to need less sleep; I have all the vitality I need from the excitement of the new work. A few days ago I started a new choral piece based on the idea of my garden, using the nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow?’
     “Writing music is like recharging my system. I get up early and really get going. In five weeks I wrote Beloved Son, an Easter cantata about 35-40 minutes in length. That’s really fast for me. My most recent oratorio, The Voice of the Holy Spirit, is about an hour and 15 minutes long. To avoid the problem of its being too long for the choir that rehearses only once a week, I divided it into two parts, so that each part can be performed separately if necessary.
    “Some days I write as long as eight to twelve hours; the constant gripping of the pencil ruins my piano technique. We’ve just bought a computer and I swear it’s a difficult thing for us to understand, but I like its ability to print out music; it will make writing a lot easier for me. Oftentimes I’m under a deadline to finish a piece for an upcoming concert. Then I have to spend the last few weeks writing instead of playing. The more I write, the less I play. I have to try to keep a balance.”
     Brubeck is philosophical, articulate, direct, and hospitable, and although he seems busier than ever, there is an aura of peace and tranquility that surrounds him. Life hasn’t always been so smooth for him, though. Although it is difficult to imagine, many listeners and critics found the complex meters and rhythms in Brubeck’s 50s recordings, “Take Five” in 54 and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in 98 controversial and difficult to accept; they complained that he went “outside of the accepted jazz rhythms.” While polyrhythms had already become common in 20th-century so-called classical music, Brubeck faced an uphill struggle when he introduced them to the jazz idiom. Now, other jazz composers such as Claude Bolling have emulated and further popularized these rhythms and meters. “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” are played and understood in almost every country in the world including India and Africa, not a surprising fact when you consider that the polyrhythms of these and other musical cultures have been fertile sources for Brubeck’s musical ideas.
    Although in terms of popularity Brubeck is unsurpassed, as an innovator he has had his share of criticism. Some detractors labeled him “too modern,” others “old hat.” Brubeck explained his view of these contradictory opinions.
    “Usually, they just didn’t understand what I was trying to do. If I wanted no criticism, I could have become a critic-pleaser, but who would want that?
    “The best example was a Carnegie Hall performance that left me entirely elated; everything had gone great. Paul Desmond and I had really pulled it off. We were entirely free, with the drums in one tempo and the bass in another. The audience loved it, we loved it; but the critic said, ‘They couldn’t even keep time together.’ Sometime I might take a clue from such criticism and give a lecture to the next audience: ‘In case there are some who might not understand what we’re doing, some of us will be in three, some in five, some in four, but we all have to come out together on one, so pray for us!’  If the traditional critic had to have jazz in 44 like the New Orleans marches, that was too bad.”
    Up until recently, jazz has been defined as American with a capital A. Now, with international influences such as Brazilian and Japanese shaping the course of jazz, Brubeck agrees that Americans no longer have a corner on the idiom. He explains, “From the beginning, jazz has been, roughly speaking, a fusion of African and European cultures. The African elements were the reason jazz came about. When you take away the identity of a cultural group, they have a tremendous need to survive and to express themselves as a people. There is need for freedom in all mankind, and when repressed, this spirit is bound to come out in art.
     “When I studied with Darius Milhaud, he told us to travel, to keep our ears open, and to use whatever we could. I was one of the few who listened to an African recording, Dennis Roosevelt’s Expedition into the Belgian Congo, in the 1940s, and I asked myself, ‘If jazz is supposed to be African, what are we doing playing in 44 like European marches?’ That’s one of the things that started my interest in African music. That’s why ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ and ‘Take Five’ are still big hits in Africa, while some folks here stumble around with it, wondering how jazz can be in 54. We had a tremendous battle for acceptance, harmonically and rhythmically; so did Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, as well as anyone who today tries to change anything from tradition.
    “The European influences become apparent when you talk about musical devices. First there’s the instrumentation: the marching band with the clarinet obbligato, trumpet lead, trombone, and tuba bass line with some counterpoint and percussion. What is a New Orleans band? It’s very similar. (They couldn’t march down the street with a piano, but eventually it found its way into the jazz band.) Jazz scales and harmonies, though basically European, were bent towards African influences. Even the jazz forms show a mixture. For example, ‘Tiger Rag’ is based on a Belgian march with added syncopation; it even keeps the trio in the middle in the subdominant key. Jelly Roll Morton and other early jazz musicians like him were strongly influenced by the French Opera House in New Orleans. Of course, Bach himself is never far removed from jazz, and most jazz musicians feel the debt to him.”
    Brubeck’s teacher, the great French composer Darius Milhaud, was so special to Brubeck that he named his first son Darius. “Milhaud was one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met and certainly one of my greatest influences. Milhaud never spoke of hating anyone, even though the Nazis would have killed him if he had not fled from France. He never saw his parents again. He died in 1974, but we see and write to Madeleine Milhaud who still lives in Paris.
    “His acceptance of us in those early years, indeed, his insistence that we embrace the jazz idiom ‘or we’d never truly represent this country as American composers’ was essential to us. He’d say, in the early 1940s, ‘The best American composers are Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. The composers who survive will be those who use the jazz idiom.’ Well, he was right. Copland, Bernstein, and Ives are very much alive.
    “It’s strange how long it took the music educators to allow jazz musicians into the conservatories. In the 1930s and 40s it would have been very difficult to name a school where you didn’t have to sneak around if you played jazz, and I would say that there is still a little of this attitude floating around. Milhaud asked us the first day in class (largely a group of G.I.s on the G.I. bill) who the jazz musicians were. He realized that many of the performance majors were not really interested in harmony, ear training, and composition. The people really interested were the ones who developed into studio musicians, arrangers, composers, and jazz musicians. It is absolutely stupid how long it has taken educators to realize that improvisation should be a must in a classical conservatory if the training is going to be traditional and follow Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and all those composers and performers for whom improvising was first nature.
    “Milhaud was a stickler on Bach and Mendelssohn, and we had to study fugues and follow all the rules. When we started to write, though, Milhaud gave us complete freedom. Schoenberg was as different from Milhaud as he could be. He imposed complete discipline on his students and their compositions. Schoenberg and I barely got along, and I worked with him very little. He was in Los Angeles when I was stationed in an army camp near Death Valley. He wanted a reason for every note, whereas Milhaud felt there should never be a system for composition, that it should not be done with a slide rule, but should come from the deepest part of your mind. If a student used an analytical system such as Schillinger, Milhaud would ask, ‘Why don’t you become a mathematician?’”
    Though he doesn’t teach, Brubeck is open and willing to conjecture about teaching jazz — what elements can and cannot be taught (technique, part-writing, harmony, form, and so on). In the end, though, he asks back, “How do you teach a composer? You give them the tools. It’s the same way with jazz. Maybe the closest thing in the classical world to jazz performers are the great organists who are called upon to improvise fugues. We have our Tatums and our Shearings who can do almost everything, but there’s no way to teach a composer except to open his mind to many areas and disciplines.
    “Almost any composer is related to the improviser. My favorite Stravinsky quote appears in The Poetics of Music: ‘Composition is selective improvisation.’ That little sentence should be hung over the door of every conservatory.”
     Strangely, Dave Brubeck cannot really analyze what it is that has made his quartet one of the longest-lived jazz combos in history. “We formed our first octet, which you can still hear on the Fantasy label, in Milhaud’s class. Five of the eight were in his class: Bill Smith, Dave Van Kriedt, Dick Collins, Jack Weeks, and myself. Clarinetist Bill Smith is still with me today, we’ve worked together since 1947, a long association. Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader (both have passed away) and Bob Collins (Dick’s brother) were the other three.
     “Our attraction was not only to each other, but to Milhaud, who set up our first concert at Mills College; from there, we went to my alma mater, the College of the Pacific at Stockton, and gave another. Our octet was so musical and adventurous that anyone interested in what was going on in that era from a historical point of view ought to listen to our record The Dave Brubeck Octet. The only reason the group bore my name was that I was better known in the San Francisco area and the promoter wanted to use my name. The group was actually a workshop where we all brought our compositions.
    Our ‘book’ for performance was straight out of Milhaud’s class. The octet didn’t get much work, so I took the rhythm section from the octet — bass, drums, and piano — and formed the trio, which won all sort of polls, prizes, and international attention as Combo of the Year. That was around 1950. My plan was to add each member back, until we got back up to the octet.
    “Then I had my swimming accident that almost caused complete paralysis. It left me with residual effects that I can still feel 35 years later, affecting the way I play, write, and practice, and whether I can sit long hours. In my studio I have two electric keyboards so that I can stand while I write. I’d love to get a grand piano that would allow me to stand and play.”
    Finances weren’t easy in those early days, either. Brubeck used to pray that he’d get union scale (“which would keep us alive”) in the days when he was playing for half union scale. “Bill Smith and I used to have to turn in our checks, which read union scale, at the bar, and the owner would give us back half in cash, for which we’d have to sign that we received the full scale. We all lived near each other, and I bought our food at the farmers’ market on Saturday night, when they gave us great bargains. I’d fill up the trunk. Once we bought a footlocker full of baby food that had been in a fire and took it with us all the way to Honolulu. That’s how poor we were. We’d sleep in the car or camp out. I feel that my wife deserves whatever we have now.” Brubeck’s wife is with her husband, whether at their beautiful home, or on his frequent trips (about 100 one-nighters per year). Their six grown children come back to visit often.
    Brubeck’s professional music-making with his own sons is, by now, history. He admits that the success or failure of those associations had everything to do with the hardships of being on the road. “It was the best for us when we were on stage. Then we could abandon the father and son roles. Traveling created a lot of the tensions — airports, hotels, car rentals, how they dressed; and rehearsals — forget it! On stage the rapport was fantastic, though. I only thought of them as musicians, not as sons. Critics who are insensitive to the fragile situation can louse it up by picking on one son, comparing one to another, or to me. As a father I had to read one review that said my sons didn’t even belong on the same stage with me, and yet I knew that they were performing at as high a level as most of our contemporaries, while expressing and extending the musical values we believed in. Of course, we received wonderful reviews, too, about our family carrying on the jazz tradition. It takes fine musicians to go into a studio and record four sides of an LP direct to disk without editing, as we did on A Cut Above. That recording is lasting proof of why I was so proud of the family group.
    “Two of my sons didn’t remain in my group and are out there proving to themselves and to their peers what they don’t have to prove to me. You have to be really happy at what you do, independent of criticism; in fact, if the happiest moments don’t come when you’re playing at home alone and if you need that applause to keep you going, you’re in trouble.”
    One of Brubeck’s contributions to the history of jazz piano has been his development of the piano’s chamber music-like role as a member of a jazz group. As fine a soloist as Brubeck has been, he prefers the inner voicing, the communication, and the give and take of ensemble playing. Although Art Tatum heads the list of his most admired artists which includes Duke Ellington, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson (“I’d rather hear Tatum improvise than any contemporary composer today”), he believes Tatum felt freer as a soloist and restricted in a group; Brubeck, however, feels freer in a group.
    Just how free is jazz? “You can play jazz that’s memorized like classical music, but why call it jazz? Or, you can use a bag of tricks, runs, patterns, playing until you begin to feel you’re falling short of material. Then you pull out of the bag a cadence you’ve used successfully before, whether 20 years or two months ago, and you start improvising again. Third, you play things you’ve never played before and you’ll never play again, but all within a form, just as a room has form, but you are free within its walls to redesign it.
    “More recently, so-called ‘free jazz’ has brought forth a fourth approach that is initially formless; the musicians create the form as they go along. I don’t create well in this formless approach, but there are some who do. Maybe that’s the highest level, but I personally believe in the discipline of form and finding freedom within that discipline. That, to me, represents in a larger sense the spirit of our constitution, art in general, and creation; of course, who knows what form the world or the universe were in before they were created?”
    As in classical music, concentration is one of the most important ingredients in jazz performance, leading ultimately to a rapport between artist and audience. Brubeck describes himself as “the happiest guy in the world” when everything goes right with him and his audience. Unfortunately real jazz aficionados often have difficulty hearing everything they came to hear in jazz clubs because of casual listeners who chat away during the performance. At the famous jazz club Birdland the caged finches that were part of the original decor died from the noise and smoke. With dense smoke and clinking glasses, how do jazz performers concentrate, not to mention breathe, in such an atmosphere?
    “There were some exceptional clubs such as Boston’s Storyville, run by George Wein, the international jazz impresario and jazz pianist. He had a good piano (rare in a bar!), and he ran the club with the musician in mind. In most places a cash register will ring at just the wrong times, and you’ll lose your concentration. Waitresses can make a difference, too, by serving between tunes and taking orders softly. A club needs a specific clientele that knows why it came; this doesn’t happen overnight. Only during the last set, after the curiosity-seekers have gone home, do the real jazz-lovers come and expect the best playing. Sometimes we’ll play until 4 a.m. As far as the smoke goes, it rises, and up on the bandstand, especially without air conditioning and with a big crowd, you can suffocate.  In one club where I worked they purposely shut the doors and windows to make it close so that folks would leave, causing a bigger turnover and more cover charges. It was all calculated to make money to pay the musicians and other expenses, but we had to try to breathe in an atmosphere where the average customer couldn’t last a full set!
    “If you really want to know my favorite place to play it’s not a club, but a dance hall. If I can get an atmosphere where I am not imposing myself on an audience, I can be the most creative and really play my best. I don’t do as well in a concert hall. The dance hall is ideal because you’re in this environment with a wonderful quality of acceptance. The audience is in three groups: the dancers who have a great time while they communicate with you in their own way; the people who are there without any inkling of why (they come to the Philharmonic as well, but there they just loiter around the outer fringe); and the serious listeners who flock around the bandstand to really listen. As the performer, you have to make a unity out of all of these people. The best dance hall I can think of was one in Salt Lake City.
    “I recently found another great place to play: New York’s South Street Seaport at the Fulton Fish Market. This concert was one of my most successful, even though the piano went out of tune. That bad piano really freed me, though. Sometimes a great instrument can intimidate you; you think, ‘Here’s this great piano, the best anywhere. Now make something wonderful happen — no excuses!’ and already you have a strike against you before you start playing. I had read once that no matter how bad a piano was, Mozart always enjoyed it, and I thought if Mozart could, so could I. After intermission I modified my style towards honky-tonk.
    “There are times when I have felt intimidated by a certain concert hall. I try to tell myself that the people who are there are really there to hear me. If I sometimes see someone falling asleep in the first row, rather than think negatively, I try to block it out of my mind, knowing that this individual could be my most ardent fan who has driven all day to come to the concert. I remind myself of how I fell asleep listening to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony after I had hitchhiked all day through the desert in California to hear it because I loved the Fifth and Sixth so much.”
    The conversation ended on a tender note with reminiscences of Brubeck’s parents. His mother had studied piano with Dame Myra Hess and Tobias Matthay before she married Peter Brubeck, a California cattle rancher. “I was raised on a 45,000-acre ranch, and my dad was like the father on ‘Bonanza.’ He was a champion rodeo-roper, and even when he was 65 (after he couldn’t chase and tie the calf himself), his roping arm and his horse were still the fastest around. He was extremely musical, but he never played anything but the harmonica. In fact, Schirmer published a piece, ‘Dad Plays the Harmonica,’ in my collection of little piano pieces, Reminiscences of the Cattle Country, written in Milhaud’s class in 1946.”
    From the Saturday night dance halls in rough and ready towns like Sutter Creek and Mokelumne Hill, the scene of Brubeck’s earliest gigs, to the great concert halls and jazz clubs he plays today, Dave Brubeck has never lost his sense of adventure.