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

By Published: January 28, 2004
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...

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