Dave Brubeck: His Own Sweet Way

Andrew Velez By

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Dave BrubeckIt would take a lot of pages to just list his accomplishments and awards in both jazz and classical music in a body of work uniquely his own. Let's just say for starters that this gravel-voiced, 6'1 brown-eyed, Library of Congress Living Legend, NEA Jazz Master composer and pianist, David Warren Brubeck, better-known to the world for more than six decades as just Dave, likes to laugh. He chuckles easily and frequently and perhaps especially heartily when mentioning nicknames Paul Desmond coined for him from their earliest days, including "Wigsville, "Geronimo and "Surly Sue as acknowledgments of Brubeck's singular, determined, groundbreaking pianism. And recalling when, on the quartet's cross-country trip by car for a first East Coast gig, he was so scared he told the guys, "Don't even say the words New York or Birdland!

His son Chris (an accomplished composer and musician in his own right) observes, "He is a very humble and modest man offstage. Onstage there is a sort of non-verbal and enormous musical will which asserts itself. ...We had some great gigs together. We played together for a few years, me on bass, my brother Dan, who is an awesome drummer, Darius on electric piano and Dave on piano. (son Matthew plays jazz cello).

Evaluating his father's music he says unequivocally, "I think every jazz musician will tell you that 'In Your Own Sweet Way' and 'The Duke' are two of the greatest songs ever written—harmonically complicated, the jazz changes and the intelligence are a universal truth that has borne the test of time. And he has never done anything that resembled selling out for one iota. He instilled that in us all.

A renaissance musician as comfortable composing jazz as he is writing classical and chorale music, Brubeck was recently invited to help complete an unfinished Mozart requiem mass. Born Dec. 6, 1920 into a musical family, at age four he began lessons with his mother, a classical pianist. While working with his father as a cowboy on their ranch, on weekends he played piano with a local dance band. Becoming involved with jazz detoured him from plans to become a veterinarian. At the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California, he met Iola Whitlock, his wife and lifelong musical partner since 1942 and the mother of their brood of six, including four very active musicians and composers. She's also the lyricist of many of Brubeck's songs.

Dave Serving in the Army during WWII under General Patton, he led an integrated GI jazz band, which foreshadowed Brubeck's future pioneering efforts regarding integration in America. Of those Army days he just says quietly, "That wasn't easy. After the war, he studied with French classical composer Darius Milhaud. "It was the greatest experience of my life working with him, Brubeck states emphatically. "I had heard a piece of his called 'The Creation.' At one of our classes he asked, 'How many of you play jazz?' We raised our hands thinking, 'Oh boy, this is gonna be like every other conservatory in the country and I'm not going to be allowed to study.' He said, 'I want you all to start writing your fugues and counterpoint for the jazz instrumentation.'

"That was '46 or '47, and the Octet was born that night in his classroom. Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader came over from San Francisco State into that group. It was a fantastic group. Milhaud's encouragement to bring his own culture of jazz into classical music and not simply to imitate European classical has remained a seminal influence on Brubeck's music.

The musical partnership between Brubeck and Desmond (alto saxophone and flute) lasted nearly two decades, producing standards in the jazz canon. The Quartet's breakthrough album Jazz at Oberlin (Fantasy, 1953) charted in Billboard in 1954, and in 2005 Brubeck's own London Flat, London Sharp (Telarc) charted, making him the artist who has appeared on Billboard charts over the longest period of time.

Perhaps the Quartet's most famous album is 1959's Time Out, on Columbia. Recalling its history evokes much laughter from Brubeck. "The president of Columbia, Goddard Leiberson, had to fight the sales force. Goddard said, 'Dave, I'm so tired of hearing 'Body and Soul' and 'Stardust.' It's a new direction and I'm all for it.' It took him a year to convince the sales people, [who] said, 'You have broken three unwritten laws All originals on one album we never do. We'll put in show tunes or pop tunes to space it. And then you've got all time signatures that no one can dance to. We can't put that out. And you want a painting on the cover! We've never done anything like that.'

Nearly fifty years after it's release Time Out remains Brubeck's biggest seller at Columbia, especially memorable for the mega-hit, "Take Five. Legendary drummer Joe Morello, who joined the Brubeck quartet in 1956 and remained until it was dissolved in 1967, recalls asking Brubeck to write "a nice little drum thing for me. When I did a drum solo I'd start off in four and then I'd go into 3/4 and 5/4, 6/8. People never saw that before. Dave kind of enjoyed it because he liked to dabble in rhythms. He could speed up and slow down because he was interested in that concept.

"In fact he asked me one time, 'Do you think you could get a good jazz thing if I got into different tempos?' I said, 'Certainly you can,' and he said, 'Well you're one of the first guys who agreed with me.' So Desmond said, 'I'll write the tune.' He wrote 'Take Five'. The thing was supposed to sell hardly nothing. It was just a drum solo. The damn thing took off! Of his years with Brubeck, Morello says simply, "I really liked the guy. It was different and he took chances.

Dave Although not primarily known for working with singers, Brubeck has had his share of the greatest. "I loved working with Carmen McRae. She liked my songs and recorded 'Weep No More,' the first ballad I ever wrote. That made me feel good. I was on an airplane on the way to a festival with Carmen. She said she wished there were words to 'A Raggy Waltz.' So I wrote it for her on the airplane. Of Jimmy Rushing he enthuses, "Oh, boy! On tour [in England] Jimmy said, 'Dave, I want to make a recording with you. I have listened to you for years.' That surprised me. He listened to me! ...So without any rehearsal we did that album [Brubeck & Rushing (Columbia, 1960)]. Everything was just one take after another. And you can hear him laughing on the end of one tune, he recalls, chuckling delightedly.

No conversation about Brubeck's many accomplishments can overlook his pioneering combining of jazz with symphony orchestras (memorably with Leonard Bernstein) and especially bringing jazz to college audiences and, more specifically, to integrated audiences. Of those years touring when segregation was the norm, Brubeck recalls, "I can't say enough about how great [bassist] Eugene Wright was. And how great Paul and Joe were when Eugene couldn't stay or eat with us. I remember one night when Eugene couldn't get a place in Salt Lake City. Paul and Gene figured they could stay in the Pullman porters' hotel, so Paul went with Eugene. And sometimes Joe would do something with Eugene. I took him with me to the Summit meeting of Gorbachev and Reagan in Moscow, because after all that he had gone through I thought [it] would be a way of letting the world know he was still with me.

Of his current quartet Brubeck says, "I've had groups where the guys were great but as a group they didn't bring them in. I don't know, for some reason you never know why it works. The group I've got now works as good as any group I've had. [They] just bring the audience into what we're doing. And that's all you can expect.

Dave BrubeckBobby Millitello, who's been Brubeck's alto sax man for twenty-six years, came to work with him when Iola Brubeck remembered a great solo of his years earlier with Maynard Ferguson. Playing with Brubeck was a childhood dream of Millitello's, so "When he called I just said yes, I didn't say how much, I didn't ask what was happening, I just said yes. He flipped out because I knew all the standards and I'm an ear player like he is. So it's not a question of always looking at the pages. Close your eyes and listen and I can hear exactly where something is going. That's where Dave is. [He] has ears like a friggin' elephant! He starts doing chord things that you've never heard any other pianist do. Still to this day he'll flip you right out.

Brubeck's equally longtime drummer, Brit Randy Jones raves, "What is remarkable is that he has never stopped improvising. He himself questions his pianistic abilities but it's just breathtaking. Night after night he plays differently. ...He's an instinctive improviser.

Slowing down doesn't seem to be a part of Brubeck's vocabulary. The subject of a Clint Eastwood-produced documentary In His Own Sweet Way, due out next year, he continues touring and recording jazz and his classical music while serving as a very active chairman of The Brubeck Institute established by his alma mater, the University of the Pacific. Asked what his most significant quality is, Brubeck says simply, "Opening doors.

Opening doors. That's it, the resolute optimism that's carried him through the years, as he affirms in his own sweet way, "All kinds of good things are happening.

Selected Discography

Dave Brubeck, Indian Summer (Telarc, 2007)
Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond, Duets (1975) (Horizon-A&M, 1975)

Dave Brubeck Trio/Gerry Mulligan, Live at the Berlin Philharmonie (CBS/Columbia-Legacy, 1970)

Dave Brubeck Quartet, At Carnegie Hall (Sony/Columbia-Legacy, 1963)

Dave Brubeck, Time Out (Columbia-Legacy, 1959)

Dave Brubeck, Jazz At Oberlin (Fantasy-OJC, 1953)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Paolo Soriani
Bottom Photo: John Fowler

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