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Dave Brubeck: Jazz Legend

By Published: May 9, 2003
AAJ: While you were at Mills in 1946, you started an octet in which five of the eight musicians were students of Milhaud's ' and the others included future jazz starts Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader. From the early recorded pieces of that group, it must have been an quite an interesting band.

DB: It really was. There was a lot of great jazz happening in San Francisco after the war. But keeping that octet going was just not financially possible. I played in a trio that included Paul, but he ended up taking that band with him for another job. So I eventually ended up putting together a trio of Cal on drums and Ron Crotty on bass. And it was the success of that trio that led to the reformation of the octet ' and eventually to the quartet with Paul. We played live every week on KNBC in San Francisco and drove up and down the coast playing clubs. And we put out a couple of 78s on a small label that sold pretty well.

AAJ: You were getting plenty of notice nationally at that point. Downbeat wrote articles about you, and Metronome included several of your records on its 'Best of' list in 1951. This was pretty unusual for that time ' given the East Coast emphasis of those magazines.

DB: Well, that recognition really helped us break the ice nationally. Luckily, New York reviewers like John Hammond wrote about us, and Benny Goodman and Ellington knew about us. And I think the amount of jazz talent on the West coast at that time was really amazing. Even today, I'm not sure people realize how influential it was on jazz back then.

AAJ: At that time, Desmond was playing in big bands with Jack Fina and Alvino Rey. But he ended up leaving to come back and try to sit in with your trio every chance he had. There was a special empathy you too had as musicians, wasn't there?

DB: Yeah, Paul came back and would he'd just hang out every night and want to sit in with the trio. The club owners didn't like it, because people who had bought our records wanted to hear the trio play. And there was something special Paul and I had musically. I knew it right away the first time we played.

AAJ: But Paul didn't officially become part of the band until it broke up and you had to put together a new group, right?

DB: The trio was in Honolulu, and I had a swimming accident that kept me in the hospital for several months. So the trio broke up because the other guys had to work. I wrote Paul from the hospital that we would start a quartet when I was able to play ' which we did.

AAJ: The quartet recorded several albums at colleges, and you became a big success, signing with Columbia Records. (see the The Essential Dave Brubeck review )

DB: We had developed a following that went across a lot of cultural boundaries. People would say because of all our college recordings ' Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz at College of the Pacific ' 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. and touring the south playing at black schools.

AAJ: In fact, after Gene Wright started playing bass in the quartet in 1958, you were the first integrated group to play at many colleges throughout the south.

DB: And NOT Play! Unless they would integrate the audience for our concerts, I'd refuse to play there. There were many times we managed to play because the students and professors wanted to hear us. It would come down to a decision by the school administrators about whether they wanted to risk losing state support over our appearance. One night it went right to the governor of the state where we were playing. I overheard the school president talking to the governor, saying, 'We don't want another Little Rock.' We had delayed the concert an hour-and-a-half, and things were getting kind of crazy. Finally, they told us that the students want you, so to avoid problems we're going to let you go on.

AAJ: Although you had been on the cover of Time in 1954 and had developed a strong following, it was the 1959 album, Time Out and the composition, 'Take Five' that really made the world take notice. Talk about that recording session ' and about how 'Take Five' happened.

DB: What I was putting together for that session ' without Columbia's knowledge ' was doing an experimental album using different time signatures. They tried to stop the album because it broke some unwritten laws of the label. First, they thought people couldn't dance to it because of the odd time signatures. And it was all original compositions on an LP, which was against their rules as well. They wanted you to have a standard tune between originals. I had to argue with everybody. Luckily, the president of Columbia loved it. But the sales department was against it. They said, 'It'll never sell. Don't waste your money on it.' As far as 'Time Out,' it was Joe Morello's rhythm and Paul's improvisations over that. I had told them to try and work out something in a 5/4 time. They came to rehearsal and really didn't have anything but some ideas and a couple of themes. I told them we would have a tune if we would do this and do that ' use what you have as the opening theme as the bridge and start with the other one. So that's the way it happened, and that album is still selling today. So I guess the sales department was wrong.

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