Editor's note: We received word this morning, that legendary jazz piano pioneer Dave Brubeck passed away due to heart failure. He was just one day short of his 92nd birthday. Known most widely for making jazz in time signatures other than 4/4 accessible to mainstream music fans with his seminal album
Time Out and it's most recognizable single, "Take Five," Mr. Brubeck was interviewed many times in
Keyboard. Beyond that, he was always a great friend to the magazine, having served on our advisory board. He had a lifelong passion not just for developing his own artistry, but for educating others as well. What follows is a repost of our cover story from the August 2007 issue, which was our most recent full-form conversation with Mr. Brubeck. We're also currently compiling a page of quotes and tributes from those who worked with him and/or were influenced by him. Watch this space for a link to it, and CLICK HERE to get a PDF of the Dave Brubeck lessons from our August 2007 issue.. --Stephen Fortner, Editor, December 5, 2012
Interview and story by MICHAEL GALLANT
“Was that the best you can do?” says producer Russell Gloyd into the talkback microphone at Manhattan’s Avatar Studio.
Sitting behind the piano in the studio’s hardwood cathedral of a tracking room, and freshly released from a beautifully interpreted rendition of “Indian Summer,” Dave Brubeck gapes at the control booth with mixture of mock disbelief and playful indignation. “Whaaaat?” he exclaims. “If that’s the best you can do, that’s spectacular,” continues Russell, practically glowing. “That’s history.”
What a treat to sit in the control room and listen as history is recorded by one of the most prolific and influential musicians in jazz. From the first cadence he plays on “Indian Summer,” several things immediately become apparent — first and foremost, though he’s an elder statesman of jazz at 86, Dave has lost none of the youthful vigor and exuberance that inform his playing. At the same time, the way he elegantly
harmonizes the classic tune shows a depth of wisdom that speaks to his decades of rigorous musical exploration.
To many, Dave is the epitome of jazz piano class and excellence, while others may only know him as the guy who does “Take Five.” Whatever your preconceived notions may be, you may find yourself surprised at just how wide his breadth of musical involvement is — and just how deeply he regularly goes into such areas as
music education, performance, and composition.
MORE THAN JAZZ
Even as he approaches age 90, Dave continues to create diverse music, recently receiving a call to fill in for none other than W.A. Mozart. “I wrote two fugues for the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, and one was just recorded in rehearsal,” says Dave. “The Commandments. We dropped the ‘ten’ because my attorney who is Jewish told
me, ‘We have 634 commandments!’ [Laughs.] So it’s just The Commandments.
“Then they did the great C Minor Mass of Mozart, and Mozart left out four sections, so the director of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, Richard Grant, contacted four American composers to fill in. And they performed it a few months ago in Berkeley [California] with the original Mozart. Three of the four people finished in time. Meredith Monk, David Lang, and me. I got the whole ‘Credo.’”
Dave’s sub work for lazy Mozart isn’t the only one ofhis compositions for voice togain recognition in recentyears. “There’s so much of my choral writing that’s being discovered right now,” he says. “A lot of it goes back to the Cincinnati Symphony and the recording of The Light in the Wilderness. Recently, the Milken Family Foundation recorded The Gates of Justice. It was performed at Lincoln Center along with The Commandments. I’m very happy with what’s happening now.”
Given his still-rigorous touring schedule, the time spent traveling gives Dave built-in opportunities to compose. “On the plane, I’ll often sketch as much as I think I can do, then I check it at a piano,” he says. “My teacher, [French composer] Darius Milhaud, wrote in ink, never checked, and sent it the publisher. I’m not that! [Laughs.] We used to hear him scratching at six in the morning with a pen when we stayed at his house. Phenomenal. There are very few who have that complete ability. He was like a Mozart. They just don’t erase!
“One night there was a party and two world-famous violinists were there,” Dave recalls. “Someone says, ‘It’s too bad the two of you can’t play together,’ and one of them said, ‘We have no music.’ Party’s going on and Darius starts to write. He writes one violin part, sends one guy to the bedroom to practice it, and writes the second part without seeing the first — I’ve seen him do this with his 14th and 15th string quartets, too — you can put them together [and play them together simultaneously as an octet], but he wrote them separately. How could he know what he did in the other quartet without going back to look? And I’m not kidding! I think they’re recorded both individually
and then together.” Does Dave ever try to imitate his former teacher with daring acts of symbiotic composition? “No, I’m not that good,” he says with a smile. “Sometimes I write a melody in a hurry when it comes to mind. When I can, I keep a little pad in my pocket in
case something happens.”
As prolific a composer as he is, Dave never suffers from writer’s block. “Not yet,” he says. “I’m very lucky. I get to the point where I don’t want to write, and then somebody will call me. It’s like the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. [The festival’s general manager] Tim Jackson called me last year. [Iola and I] were on a kind of vacation and he called and said he wanted an opera. I turned it down and said, ‘I can’t write an opera. And the people in a jazz festival aren’t going to sit there for two hours on the last night!’ So he called me back and he said, ‘Dave, will you develop four of the characters?’ He wanted Cannery Row, the novel by John Steinbeck, as a libretto. So Iola and I went to work.” Despite his trepidation,
the mini- jazz opera that emerged was a success. “[The Cannery Row Suite] was performed in Montereyand it came off very well. It was a miracle becausethere was no time to rehearse except the day beforethe concert. John Steinbeck’s son Thomas narrated
the opening.“That’s the way I write,” he continues. “When somebody asks me to. But sometimes, I’ll write on my own. With The Commandments, I wanted to write it in 1944, but didn’t do it until last year. I just couldn’t get it all together. I’m always writing piano pieces,
and many of them have been recorded by John Salmon on the Naxos label.”
LEARNING NEW STEPS
“Have you heard the things that have been happening lately with my ballet?” asks Dave. “No,” I’m obliged to reply. “Neither had I!” he responds. “By surprise we found out the San Francisco Ballet did it in Paris. The Lar Lubovich Dance Company did it in New York. It’s called Elemental Brubeck, choreographed by Lar Lubovitch. It comes from the recording Time Changes and the piece ‘Elementals’ that I recorded here in New York with Rayburn Wright. Ray asked me to write a piece for the summer session at Eastman Rochester and I told him I’d never written for full orchestra. He said. ‘Well, I know you can from just listening to your piano. Just adapt that to orchestra.’ ‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ I said. He
told me ‘You record for me on piano the piece — write it in three movements — and I’ll orchestrate [the first movement] the way you indicate it on the piano score, what instruments you’d like to hear.’ So he called me and said, ‘You chose everything right.
Now the next movement, I want you to do the wholeorchestration! I promise you, if anything doesn’t work, I will tell you and get you to change it.’ So I said, ‘Well, I can’t lose.’”
“The Quartet played it with big band at Carnegie Hall last summer at the JVC festival,” adds Iola. “The same program was repeated at the San Francisco Jazz Festival,” continues Dave. “All of a sudden, something I wrote 35 years ago comes alive. Lar Lubovitch found the LP in an old record store, and now it’s part of the repertoire of his company, the San Francisco Ballet, and several other regional ballet companies.”
NEW YORK, NY; LONDON, UK
Many of Dave’s landmark musical experiences, including his recording sessions for the Columbia label, happened in the Big Apple. “The first Columbiawas on Seventh Avenue and about 52nd Street, I think,” reminisces Dave. “And there was a Chinese restaurant just to the left of the building. I remember one session, the engineer thought it was too dry — we were in a small studio upstairs. And they put some microphones in the stairwell of the restaurant and it sounded great! [Laughs.] But we had great engineers, Fred Plough and guys like that. When you go back
and listen to the old records, they have a pretty good sound, almost like today.
“Then we started recording at 30th Street, whichwas a great studio. I loved it there. We recorded so much that we just kept one set of Joe Morello’s drums down there so we wouldn’t have to move any drums in at least. That saved a lot of time and hassle. It was an old church that they made into a recording studio. You had the high ceilings and the cross beams. Then they painted it, because they thought it looked so old
and drab. It changed the sound so much that they had to take the paint off and go back to the original look of
the place.” [Laughs.]
“I recorded there with the entire New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein, so you can see how big that studio was. There was still a lot of room even with a 100-piece orchestra in there and the jazz group set up. We recently recorded in Abbey Road in London. We had the LSO, which was 100 musicians and a chorus of 60 adults, my jazz group, and a boy’s choir of about 50. And again, there was still a lot of room left! But it was a long way from my piano to themback end of the symphony orchestra and even further to the chorus. And that’s the kind of thing you could
pull off at 30th Street, too, and feel like the sound was still right.
“We recorded four days in a row,” Dave continues. “We did an old Gregorian chant, ‘Pange Lingua,’ that I was given by the Catholic Church in Sacramento, California, to compose six variations on. We recorded that and then we recorded a piece called ‘The Voice of the Holy Spirit: Tongues of Fire,’ which is really one of the wildest things I’ve ever done. I wrote it about 30 years ago, but never recorded it. And then we
recorded a piece called ‘Regret,’ which is just the strings of the LSO. And that’s been recorded by the Bach Collegium and will be released on Sony Classical in Europe. It has also been recorded by the Canadian group Pieta led by Angele Dubeau.”
TAKING IT ALL IN STRIDE
Sitting behind the piano at Avatar, Dave referenced a wide variety of styles for Indian Summer, including some tasty stride piano. “It’s part of my approach,” he says. “The next record coming out, Monterey Jazz Festival Live — it’s on Concord — there’s some stride
on there, too.”
Dave has been incorporating the rollicking left-hand style into his playing for decades. “You ever hear of Cleo Brown?” he asks. “I worked with her when I was 19 years old. She had a fantastic left hand. She played boogie-woogie. I came by it at an early age. And I loved Fats Waller. First record I ever bought was Honey on the Moon Tonight, and Let’s Be Fair and Square in Love. And I’ve toured with Willie the Lion [Smith] —
he can stride! In my experience with early pianists, stride was played a lot. You remember Billy Kyle? When I was 12 or 13, the guy next door was a pianist and he had a Billy Kyle recording. When I recorded with Louis Armstrong, Billy Kyle was the pianist. You know The Real Ambassadors?” Dave asks, referencing the civil-rights jazz musical he and Iola penned in collaboration with Louis and his band. “Billy Kyle’s the pianist, and we do two pianos behind Louis singing ‘Summer Song,’ which I just recorded here yesterday [for Indian Summer].”
“I’ve heard Liberace play stride. It was fantastic. That was before he was Liberace — he was Walter Liberace. It was ‘Tiger Rag’ about as fast as you could play it. And people don’t realize what a fantastic technique Liberace had.”
YOUNG PLAYERS AND THE BRUBECK INSTITUTE
Though highly dedicated to his own music, Dave shows deep enthusiasm for future generations of jazz musicians. Young piano lion Taylor Eigsti, featured in our March 2007 issue, for example, caught Dave’s eye and earned his admiration. “He’s recorded with two of our sons,” says Dave. “Chris on the bass and on trombone and Danny on drums. They played a concert maybe two or three years ago in the afternoon in Chicago, and I played at night with my quartet. What they were doing was so great rhythmically. Everything you want to hear — harmonic structure,
the inventiveness. Do you know Eldar?” he continues, referring to the outstanding young Russian pianist. “Eldar has attended our summer Jazz Colony of the Brubeck Institute. Well, I’ve known him since he was 11. When you hear the talent, it’s unlimited. They’ve got so much from the time they were just little kids. Their talent and technique and wisdom — it’s all going on.”
Dave and Iola take much pride in the University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute which, among other activities, sponsors fellowships for young players fresh out of high school. “To get into the institute, they have to send audition tapes that teachers listen to, then Iola and I and other professionals go to the finals. One after another, the kids come up and play, and they’re so advanced,” says Dave. “The Institute Fellowship gives them a period of concentrating on music, not having to worry on anything else,” adds Iola. “It’s heaven for these kids who are so devoted. And then they have to make a choice — if they’re going to go directly into the professional world, or go to Eastman, or to the Manhattan School of Music or some place like that. All of them want to eventually get to New York,” she says, laughing.
“We had one guest who’s a well-known pianist make a remark. It was someone who came to the institute to do master classes. He said, ‘It’s a bit of a challenge to teach somebody who is a teenager and can play better than you.’”
“That’s the way I feel about the kids,” Dave continues. “They’re better than me, than anything I was! Maybe I can do certain things, but as far as technique and ability, I have a few things still going for me [laughs], but boy, they’ve got so much more than almost any of the people I ran into growing up. Every year, you wonder how [the students’ performance at the Institute] could get better. I’m thrilled with the young people. Their attitude towards what they’re doing is great. They mature and leave the institute and go on into conservatories to get a degree or into professional
life. It’s been a wonderful experience to hear all these phenomenal young players.”