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The Son Also Rises: Chris Brubeck, the new Gershwin?

By Published: January 28, 2004

Damn sissy musician--I wanted a cowboy, for God's sake! —Grandpa Pete Brubeck [referring to son Dave]

I caught up with Chris Brubeck, a son of Dave, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. On the 2003 M/S Maasdam Jazz Cruise, he played electric bass and trombone in the Taylor Eigsti trio, with brother Dan on drums. A superb, high-energy configuration, it was buoyed (pun fully intended) by the tremendous good humor of the siblings. Chris, who lives in Connecticut, is extremely bright, open, and very funny; I had to add punctuation to his free-flowing thoughts, which were full of detours, asides, and hilarious lapses into imitations and dialect. His enthusiasm for music, his family, and life in general is clear and contagious. Aside from his obvious playing talents, he's a sought-after and very busy composer. We talked about his work and what it was like "growing up Brubeck."

All About Jazz: do a lot of composing?

Chris Brubeck: Yeah, all the time. It's like every second of my life I gotta do this or I gotta do that. I'm proud of myself for being able to suspend belief for a week, and just be a jazz musician on a jazz cruise, but I'm gonna pay for it when I get home.

AAJ: So you don't consider yourself a jazz musician?

CB: No, I do, but it's rotating all the time between being a writer—when really that has to be my top priority, because I have a deadline with a real performance date. If it's not that, then suddenly, when I get off this boat, I have to switch into becoming mostly a trombone player because I'm playing my overture with the Fort Wayne Symphony Orchestra, and some other stuff. Next week I've gotta practice two hours a day, and I'm lucky to have the kind of embouchure that can come back in a week of focusing. But then, right after I'm through with that, I have to focus on being a composer, because I'm writing a new trombone concerto which has to be ready in January [2004] for a recording session in Prague, so... it's sort of shifting priorities all the time.

AAJ: I'm sure it would be an inane question to ask which one you like best... you'll probably say they all have their advantages...?

CB: Thank God, it's such a relief. When you're doing a thing as a writer, especially when you're orchestrating, it's so labor-intensive after the fact. The closest analogy is when you're an architect, you have to dream up what the design is, and the look of the thing. That's the artistic part. But architects then hire contractors—they're not there shovelling the trenches and laying in the pipe—unless you're John Williams, who can afford to have 10 assistants to do sketches. I'm the one who's writing every note.

And it's not just the notes. The notes is the layer that most people, if they think at all about what a composer does, they think well, he writes the notes. But then he's got to write the dynamics: how loud this is to be played, and how short... There are all these layers, so it's very meticulous.

Being a composer is a strange mixture of someone who has talent and creativity to think of it in the first place, and the diligence and the sadomasochism to finish it in the second place, which is why a lot of these great musicians on this boat aren't composers, I think, because they don't have the disciplined sadomasochistic part. (laughs)

But then of course the converse to that is to play a jazz gig, and I'll look at Taylor [Eigsti] and he'll say ok, well, what are we going to do? Let's just jam and we'll start in D minor, and like, thank GOD, I can make music the total opposite way.

AAJ: It looks like fun, because I see you on the stand and you're just grinning and shaking your head around...

CB: Yeah, part of that may be just the relief of another way of making music, without the tortured meticulous stuff.

AAJ: Do you ever get to hear it without having to be up there?

CB: Oh yeah. That's what's great about composing: you don't even have to get the jitters! Like that piece called Interplay for Three Violins and Orchestra with Regina Carter, Eileen Ivers, and Nadia Solerno-Sonnenberg. That was terrific. The Boston Pops came to me and said we're doing a special PBS show about the violin, we've got these three artists from three different schools of playing, and we wanted someone to write a triple concerto in three different styles simultaneously, and of course we thought of you (laughs)... 'cause I'd played with Irish fiddlers, and did funk, and played jazz, and knew about classical music because they'd commissioned me to write other pieces.

So that should've been extremely difficult, but it turned out—and I don't even know why—to be really easy and quick. The first thing was, there was a big meeting with all their retinues, and managers, and press agents. I wanted to meet with them to see if they liked me, I didn't know them, and if they were diva-esque you know, this could be hell, you keep writing revisions (whines): "she's got four more bars than I do!" But they were really funny, down-to-earth kind of people. I was especially perplexed by Nadja Solerno—Sonnenberg. She sounds like she comes in with the beautiful accent, like (Italian accent) Anna-maria AlberGHETTI—but she's a Joisey girl. With a name like that, she's like the Madonna character from "A League of their Own"—a really brassy broad, you know? She was the strongest personality there: "girls, what they tell you isn't true, you gotta lose 15 pounds for TV!"

They were so funny making jokes, they had a great repartee, it gave me a blueprint: I've got to make the ideas flow around. So I borrowed from the jazz idiom—the idea of trading fours—and put them in, which from a classical viewpoint, is kind of a weird thing to do, at least a little bit. I'm going to cast things kinda differently: there's an Irish waltz theme, but I wanted Regina to play it instead.

All these things worked out really fine—they were terrific to work with. I had such a laundry list to accomplish and it had to be 10 minutes long, but by the time I was through accomplishing them it was, oh, hey, I have a piece! (laughs) Sometimes when you have just total freedom and creativity, it's too much freedom to rein you in, so this was the opposite.

AAJ: This is/was on PBS?

CB: I think it first showed last summer, then showed again this summer. It's getting played a lot. Sadly for me, the cost of each of those artists is so expensive, and it came out when economy just went south. The agents were drooling—we'll make so much money from this!—but you'd be lucky if an orchestra could afford one of them now. Eileen's gone out and done it, and used the Concertmaster for the classical person, with a classical orchestra; you hire one jazz fiddler, most cities have one. Each of them is doing it in a different way, and it's been a ball.

AAJ: Has it been more difficult for you being a Brubeck? Most people would assume that would open every door in the world, and you'd never have trouble getting a recording, or a label...?

CB: It's hard because I haven't grown up with the experience of not being a Brubeck, so I don't know what the converse would be. But it definitely had its bennies—the main thing that's advantageous is that my father's such a good person. I often thought, you know, if I were a Sinatra... you might have certain people loving what you do, kissing your rings as you walk by, but you could also meet someone who says "ya know, my cousin is the one your friend threw through the 50th floor window after you hired me for the night, and I hate you!" I don't run into that too much.

But there is a certain resentment that you do run into for someone who's been so successful as Dave, but anyone that bothers to know him, or to really know the story of his success, realizes that it was completely uncalculated, it was just someone sticking to his pioneer guns. He got rejected by every record company there was, literally every one. He started Fantasy Records—that was actually cookie jar money. When I was a little kid, I remember (kid voice) "can we have dessert, Mommy, I love ice cream!" That's why I'm up always there at the cruise dessert bar — making up for my childhood—"No, honey, we're saving it"—and it was like 1000 bucks in the cookie jar.

I think Gerry Mulligan was involved as well as Dave—in partnership with these guys whose father owned a record company pressing plant. They'd be going into the place late at night, pressing records. Fantasy got some great reviews. Those people later screwed him out of Fantasy Records—as they went on to Creedence Clearwater Revival and produced "Amadeus," that had nothing to do with Dave. He knew he was getting screwed—and then got an offer to leave his own company, and join Columbia.

AAJ: That worked.

CB: That was a good thing, yeah.

AAJ: I've been researching this jazz and psychology interface, and the social myth that you have to be nuts to be a musician, that there's some inherent psychological baggage that comes with it...

CB: I'm too dumb to know that! (laughs) I didn't know you had to be nuts.

AAJ: There's such fascination that people have with the few artists who have had tragic lives. They don't make movies about your dad, they make movies about Bird, and Chet Baker. I always think of your dad as the premier example of somebody who can have a happy family, a long productive career, and grin his ass off on the bandstand—to me that's proof that it's not necessary to be mad to be brilliant. You die early and tragically, and that makes you a legend—instead of someone who's working to be a legend.

CB: I'm sure Dave would've been the way Dave was anyhow, but growing up with Joe Morello and Paul Desmond and Gene Wright—my musical and family uncles, basically, although I had real uncles too who were also musicians—there was an interesting thing. Because being musicians, on the road, you sort of know what the road life was like. Paul was such a witty, hanging-out-at-Elaine's-all-night-literary-drinking-loner-bachelor guy, but I think he vicariously got off on Dave with the family thing. He was always a big-time present giver at Christmas, he really got a kick out of it, and I think in a certain way he could live his life as a family guy, and maybe—I don't know this for a fact, but I imagine it made it easier for Dave to walk the straight and narrow path, seeing all the foibles of the other.

I mean, going straight back to the moment I came into the world, which was kind of a funny story. My mom was very pregnant, and Dave was doing a club gig in LA, and my grandmother on my mother's side, whose name was Myrtle—who was as stern as the name implies—came down to help. There was one car, and Dave was picking up Paul, and then they played the gig, and some lady was flirting with Paul,and by the end of the night when Paul and she planned to go home, she was so drunk that obviously nothing was going to happen—they should just bring her home, no whoopee tonight. She was so drunk, she didn't know where she lived. And so Dave, on the night when my mom was due any second, gets stuck driving Paul around LA trying to sober this lady up enough to recognize where she lived—and my father said he'll never forget the look on stern Grandma Myrtle's face when he comes home about 4 in the morning, with my mom dilating and in labor and "where have you been???" and then I'm almost born in the car on the way to the hospital. So that sort of sums up my theory with some psychological accuracy.

AAJ: Are you the oldest?

CB: I'm the third. Darius is my oldest brother, then my brother Mike, then me, then my sister Kathy, then my brother Dan, and my youngest brother Matthew. Six kids around the dinner table. Nobody wanted to sit next to Dave, because if someone misbehaved, he'd just smack the kid that was sitting nearest to him. (grins)

AAJ: And everyone's in music except for the cowboy...

CB: Yeah, Mike's the cowboy—well, cowboy on the east coast—and my sister Kathy's not a musician either. She's busy raising three children. I think our quote-unquote "spiritual paths" are so involved with music, but with hers, she got literally into a Christian spiritual path, and that's the main defining thing in her life, that and her kids.

AAJ: (going back to notes, shaking head) That's so would you know what it's like not to be a Brubeck? I mean, DUH...

CB: You would have some idea, but yeah... It's also interesting in terms of Dave and movies and the myth. Sometimes—especially now that the Brubeck Institute is going, Clint Eastwood is honorary chairman—he and his wife are more involved than just "honorary on the letterhead" kind of people—I wonder if someone bothered to make a movie about Dave's life, would it be considered too boring? You're starting with a cowboy, living on a ranch, and how he ends up—long hours in the saddle, and developing polyrhythmic feelings against the horse—and his mother being a piano teacher in this one-horse town and his father being an anti-culture cowboy—hatin' all those high—falutin' guests. His mother would try to invite people from the San Francisco Opera Company to come up, and he'd do his best to scare the shit out of them and make them leave.

AAJ: (laughing)

CB: Oh, he'd tell stories about rattlesnakes all through dinner, and then he'd hide ropes in the bottom of their beds and alarm clocks. It's like the Addams family or something—totally out there. I didn't know Grandpa Pete, Dave's father, that well, but later, at the point when Dave was even on the cover of Time magazine, and tried to get him to see a concert, "well, whaddya think of that concert?" "That's the damndest bunch of noise I ever heard in my life!" Then Dave goes on to WWII, and got through the whole thing, writing those pieces for the Pope, and studying with Darius Milhaud, he's done everything.

AAJ: Dave wrote for the Pope?

CB: Yeah, when the Pope had his big tour of America at Candlestick Park. We were all there, he was riding around in the Popemobile, and Dave had a special piece he wrote for him that was performed there—one of his many cantatas, major pieces for choir and orchestra, it's his Mass, which is a beautiful piece of music. And not only that, my dad converted to Catholicism after writing that piece. His spirituality was so intertwined with that, and I know part of it was he actually dreamed parts of it. It just came to him in such an inspired way that he thought, well, something must be going on here (laughs).

AAJ: I noticed that you guys are very funny—you and Dan. Was there a lot of humor in the family?

CB: Dave used to be unbelievably shy, like "barely-able-to-introduce-people-on-stage" shy. But now in his older years, there are times when he gets what I call the Will Rogers Syndrome—he'll tell these stories that are sloooowly spoken. One of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies is "The Outlaw Josie Wales," and you know how Chief Dan George is so funny in that movie? He speaks kind...of...funny...and...slow, and Dave's got that thing going. It makes it all funnier—that sort of arhythmic approach to the punch line. He can be hilarious. He loves stories. And with six kids, there's no only child syndrome going on...

AAJ: (an only child) Tell me about it....

CB: Oh... speaking of psychological baggage! (we laugh)

AAJ: Did he really get the polyrhythmic ideas from being in the saddle?

CB: Absolutely. That's what he says. And from other places. He grew up on this 40,000 acre California ranch—his dad was the foreman—which means he's hired to be the caretaker. Sometimes you'd ride for six miles in the broiling sun. There was a place that had one of those weathervane things that pumped water, and Dave said that was the only shade for miles. He'd sometimes take a break and go hide under the shade, and then he'd hear the pump and the rhythms it made—sort of a 3 against 2 kind of thing. So he says that was a lot of it. Also, he was dying of boredom—your only friends are the cattle. And he had this mother playing classical music, and the mother was like kooky enough that when she was pregnant with all of her kids—she had three —she would practice all the time with her abdomen on the keyboard, believing in prenatal influence.

AAJ: Hmmm...they do that now.

CB: Well, it's probably conducting sound—water, and placenta fluid, or whatever you call it (laughs). Dave grew up hearing Chopin, probably got a head start on it. But it was a huge disappointment to Grandpa Pete. "Damn sissy musician—I wanted a cowboy, for God's sake!!"

AAJ: Is there anything particular you want people to know about you? Anything you want to opine about? This is your chance for a polemic.

CB: (Laughs) Uhoh—that "too much freedom" thing. I want people to be aware of all the great musicians on the boat. I feel very fortunate to be part of the jazz community—for me, just to be a bassist or trombonist—and to have an awareness that I'm doing all this other stuff.

AAJ: It's hard to be a jazz musician.

CB: Yeah, it is, and I have an amazing appreciation for these people, when I hear what they're doing. Sometimes in my earlier days I felt a little uncomfortable—like what you were talking about, the mantle of being a Brubeck and all that stuff—you know that everyone wants you to be the baddest ass in the universe at whatever you're playing, and we all can't be the baddest ass in the universe, whether you're related to anyone else or not. And I started out being a rock-n-roll guy. Rather than try to compete in the jazz realm, it was OK, I want to be a really creative rock-n-roll musician. I had bands and recordings, I had some really nice reviews, and said, well this is really creative kinds of stuff.

AAJ: What were the names of the bands?

CB: My first band was called New Heavenly Blue, and we did one record. It was a bunch of my friends from Interlochen Arts Academy; the average age of that group was like 16 1/2 when we made the record for RCA. Then a couple of years later we made one for Atlantic, and for our audition tape we came into the studio and recorded a 45—minute rock opera—that was our live thing—all switching instruments. It was sort of like The Four Freshmen meets Frank Zappa... that was something called The Rise and Demise of Tucker P. Fuddpucker, and they're all scratching their heads and saying, "well, that was really good, but how do we market THAT?" (we laugh) "That's easy! You gotta put out a comic book with the LP!"—this was before videos. But then it was, "wellll, why don't we make a more conventonal record first?" Then the group after that was Sky King, on Columbia.

We had good succcess, and then I ran into this sort of corporate contract swindling thing with people. Half of the guys in the band quit music because we felt so corporately betrayed. And Dave just said Chris, man, get over it, just play jazz, it's more challenging. So then I sort of converted to the jazz path.

I played with him for about 15 years, and then when I started having my own children, it was important for me to—and I'm not saying this to be critical, but I really grew up with my father gone a lot. And also, if you're in Dave's group, as I was, he worked so much, miraculously, that it was really hard to have time to do other things.

So being home with my children and not on Dave's schedule means I can do other kinds of music playing. But we have a wonderful time playing together when we get a chance. It's sad to say—well, it's good I guess—that we all have such busy schedules that it takes an idea, like, OK, we're all going to make a record with the London Symphony, so let's plan to spend Christmas two years from now together. Don't book another tour with someone else, 'cause this is what we're gonna do. Of course, you can look at that and say, well, isn't that pathetic? (laughs) Or, isn't it grand?

AAJ: How often do big, busy families get together anyway, whether they're doing music or anything else?

CB: Yeah.. and the other thing is how many families have a chance to work with their parent like this? I never went through this big rebellion thing with my father. Part of it, I'm sure, was because I went away to Interlochen Arts Academy [for high school]. The guy that I hated that was the authority figure wasn't my father— it was the guy that wanted me to get a haircut, Mr. GrOOber, or the guy that made the rules for smoking a cigarette on campus. There was a point about 20 years ago, working with my dad, when I started feeling that he was more like an older brother than a father. And then to be able to travel with your parent all over the world, and meet all these great musicians, and hang out, and hear stories... it's been a marvelous thing to have that opportunity. And my mom's really a remarkable person too.

AAJ: So I've heard.

CB: She's super bright, and a great lyricist. One of the other things I do is write songs, and that makes a lot of sense because I've got my Dad's harmonic thing pounded into me over the years, and my mom's lyrical deal, and also just being in a family where you're allowed, and encouraged to, be creative—so that's a norm. There are lots of families where there's a kid who wants to write poetry, and the parents say, "You wrote that crap? Why did you write that? What's the POINT?" I didn't go through that.

In fact, [his lovely and gracious wife] Tish and I just did a project that we're really proud of. I was commissioned to write a piece for Fredericka von Stade, and it ended up being on text by children who'd won a national poetry contest. When we played it for the local library—the library people are friends of ours—they said, "Wow, that would be so great—can't we do it in our town?" So I said, I guess we could, so like a fool I volunteered to do this thing, and it involved getting all the teachers on board to encourage all the kids to write poems. There were about 1000 poems written which got distilled down to 300 that I saw, and then out of those, I ended up setting 12 to music.

There was this big concert where we had a wonderful guy named Benjamin Luxon, a famous opera singer who's now more into spoken word performances. He'd read THESE POEMS (deepens voice) in this beautiful kind of Sean Connery voice. Imagine being a little kid who wrote a poem—some of the best poems were by kids who were 5 or 6 years old—the thrill of it—suddenly, there's a professional orchestra playing...

AAJ: Wow...where do they go from there?

CB: (Laughs) The coolest thing about it was going back to what I said a minute ago—you got those kids to value that little voice inside you, that's only you, that's uniquely you. You can write something, and it isn't just a valueless thing: this kooky guy that lives in town will read your poem, relate to it somehow, and set it to orchestra and choir! Anything can happen, you know? And you need that.

AAJ: ....that magic...

CB: ...that feeling of optimism...

AAJ: ...the glimpse...

CB: ...yeah, the glimpse that it can happen.

AAJ: That's great. How old are your kids?

CB: My son Ben just turned 22 a couple of days ago, and I have stepdaughters who are 26 and 25.

AAJ: You don't look old enough.

CB: (laughs) When I see contemporaries of mine I went to school with, I must say that they do look older than me. Believe me, it's not Grecian formula. (more laughing) I think what it is, is that I've spent my life doing something that I love and enjoy. I can't imagine what 20 years of corporate servitude would have done to me, but judging by my friends, it will age you a decade earlier.

AAJ: How old are you, anyway?

CB: I'm 50—blalahlah—I think I'm 51...I'm 52 in March—born in 52. Yeah, I'm 52.

AAJ: ...which is the full deck year.

CB: (puzzled) The full deck?

AAJ: The full deck YEAR. All 52 cards.

CB: Oh... I was thinking in nautical terms. We are on a ship, after all. (laughs)

It's clear that Chris Brubeck has a full deck (and all the jokers as well).

Visit Chris Brubeck on the web at .

Update: the Prague Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra debuted successfully in January 2004 with the Czech National Symphony. The Prague Post gave it a rave review, comparing Brubeck to Gershwin in his ability to bridge the gap between classical and jazz. Chris Brubeck Bent Genres and Ears in Prague can be found at .

Photos by Tish Brubeck

  1. Chris and festive onboard sculpture
  2. Chris Brubeck, just off the bandstand, with great bassist Lynn Seaton
  3. Dan Brubeck and legendary drummer Ernie Adams
  4. Chris and Dr. J. at sea, neither wearing any makeup

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