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Dave Brubeck: Jazz Legend

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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...
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.

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