Today’s Guest: Dave Brubeck, jazz legend
(NOTE — I had the good fortune to interview jazz legend Dave Brubeck on August 24, 1984. Unfortunately, it was largely a wasted opportunity in that I knew little about jazz at the time and even less about Dave Brubeck, as you’ll gather from my initial question. But, for the 97th anniversary of his birth, December 6, 1920, I’m holding my head up and sharing it anyway. — Bob Andelman)
I hear you’re mad about Brubeck, like your eyes, I like him, too. – from New Frontiers by Donald Fagen
When the current executives at Fantasy Records decided the time was ripe to re-release their entire catalog of early Dave Brubeck recordings, they found a surprise in their vaults.
“The first 10 or 12 LPs on Fantasy Records are all me because I started the company,” Brubeck recalled recently. “The young guys that I would talk to hardly knew. They were really amazed when they found the first recordings which started the company (of) my trio, the octet or the quartet.”
The famed jazz pianist, now 64, said in a telephone interview that he lost the company over”8 contract interpretation” and moved on to Columbia. He said he was amazed to see how Fantasy had matured from a “one room hole in-the-wall” 34years ago into a multimillion-dollar business.
DAVE BRUBECK interview excerpt: “I think Paul Desmond came in my direction and I went in his direction. We influenced each other.”
BRUBECK, WHOSE style defines modern jazz for many people, is best known for his recordings of “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and his collaborations with saxophonist Paul Desmond. Brubeck will be the featured performer on the third night of Jazz Holiday, Saturday at 8 p.m. in Coachman Park.
Brubeck had no reason to linger over what could have been with Fantasy. He went on to record more than 50 records for Columbia and additional albums for Decca, Atlantic and his current label, Concord. He was at Columbia for 17 years, producing three to four albums a year.
“You know, when I look back on it, I can’t believe how much I’ve turned out and was able to maintain a pretty good standard. Almost everything I recorded was things I wanted to record. If you look at it, there was almost 100LPs. I think they’re all pretty even.”
Brubeck’s greatest musical moments are generally considered to be during the more than three decades he worked with Desmond.
“I was in the infantry in world War II trying to get into a band,” the pianist recalled, “stationed in places like Barstow, Death Valley, (both in California) out in the desert. I was in a band that was broken up because they wanted to get more men for D-Day. (One day) they sent me to a day room and sent some of the guys to jam. Paul Desmond was one of the guys. It was the first time we met.”
IT TOOK Desmond a while to figure out what Brubeck was doing when they began playing together regularly, but . he learned to accept the unique harmonic and rhythmic devices with which Brubeck had been experimenting. The two developed a strong rapport melodically and playing counterpoint in what Brubeck called “Bach-like themes.”
“I think he came in my direction and I went in his direction. We influenced each other,” Brubeck said.
Desmond, who died in 1977, was primarily responsible for the Brubeck Quartet’s biggest success ever, “Take Five.” Released in 1954, it was the biggest jazz hit up until that time. (“Blue Rondo a Ia Turk” was the first jazz instrumental to sell a million copies, six years later.) Its success landed Brubeck on the cover of Time magazine.
He explained in retrospect, “I wanted the guys in the group to contribute whatever they could. Paul came up with two themes he thought were unrelated. At rehearsal, we put. them together and got ‘Take Five’ out of it. The rhythm was Joe’s (Morello)idea. It kind of happened at rehearsal but we gave Paul the credit.
“EVERYTHING ABOUT the album was a breakthrough, from the cover to having no tunes in 4/4 (time). They had a policy against all originals on one album. We used a painting for the cover, which was unheard of.”
Brubeck defended his longtime preference for odd time signatures (“Take Five” was 5/4 and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” was 9/8). Time signatures are a technical way of describing the number of beats before the downbeat comes around again. Normal jazz time is four beats per measure (4/4), waltz time is three beats per measure (3/4) and march music is two beats per measure (2/4).
Brubeck said that it is an incorrect approach for music to always sound “like 8 European march, when you’ve got Africa’s part of the heritage.
“My natural way of playing when I. was young was to do things that weren’t exactly 4/4…. I believed in playing in other time signatures and polyrhythms – which is very African – and I was aware of it before anyone I knew in jazz.
“I listened to a recording called The Dennis Roosevelt Expeditions In to the Belgian Congo, which I discovered years later (Gene) Krupa had listened to, too. When I heard that, I knew there’s a whole world here that the jazz musician isn’t using and it’s natural to jazz, if we’d use it.”
AS A pianist, Brubeck is known for his playing of block chords, that is, playing as many keys at a time as possible. The style is identified with him in the same way George Shearing is known for popularizing the locked hands manner.
Brubeck says that Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett are among the younger jazz keyboard players he likes.
He scoffed at accusations directed against them for “selling out” pure jazz for commercial success.
“If you have somebody with that much talent that’s working, you’re only doing jazz a world of good. If anybody thinks they can outplay Chick or Herbie or Keith, they’ve got another thing coming. You don’t want to meet those guys thinking you’re gonna outplay them.”
From trio to octet to the famous quartet, Brubeck’s bands have changed in both size and lineup many times. For the past six years, Randy Jones has been his steady drummer; Jerry Bergonzi has been playing the clarinet for almost eight years.
Chris Brubeck is the only Brubeck offspring to remain in his father’s band. After nearly a decade, he still handles bass and trombone parts. Three other sons have come and gone over the years.
After more than 40 years as a jazz pianist, Brubeck is a firm believer in the music’s ability to keep him young at heart.
“There’s something that happens when you’re totally beat. You hit that stage and feel you don’t have any energy – What am I going to do? You get out there and when the concert is over you could fly to the moon.
“Something happens. I’ve seen it happen over and over again where I’ll play with guys…. I know their history. They might have had a couple of heart attacks and feel pretty bad before they hit that stage. They’ll get out there and you wouldn’t know they were sick a day in their life. They’ll come off feeling great. It must be something that’s very good for you.”