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

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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: So...you 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)


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