It 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 writtenharmonically 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.
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.'