All of us at KMHD were saddened to hear of the passing of Dave Brubeck (Dec 6, 1920-Dec 5, 2012) earlier this morning. We’ll be celebrating his career and life through a special memorial spotlight this week. We hope you’ll be able to tune in and enjoy some of his wonderful music with us this week.
As an added bonus, please enjoy this interview with Mr. Brubeck from 1995 with KMHD’s Raoul Van Hall.
-Matt Fleeger, Program Director
Listening to the music of Dave Brubeck and his original quartet during my youth was my first exposure to jazz. His music has been extremely influential on my tastes in jazz, and later became the foundation of my jazz radio programs.
R: What were your earliest musical influences?
D: I had classical from my mother. Jazz from my older brother Henry. Another brother, Howard, played things like Gershwin and a lot of the classics. My father was a rodeo roper and manager of a cattle ranch so I heard a lot of cowboy music. My father was born not too far from here In Susanville, and his father had a lot to do with the development of this part of the world. So you can see I come from a diverse background. Being raised in the town I was raised in California, you weren’t hearing some music at a university you know. You were actually hearing Portuguese music once a year at a Portuguese parade, you heard Mexican music, Spanish music, German music, French, so that I write from my background In California. A lot of my music, whether it’s classical or Jazz was from by background. Also, I think that the European composers that have lived through the ages use the folk music of their own culture. The same thing with myself, except that I have many different cultures to draw on. If you think of who’s going to live on in America, you’ve got to think of Gershwin, Charles Ives, Bernstein and the guys that use the jazz idiom, which Is really the strongest influence In our culture.
R: When you look back at your body of work, what are your favorite songs, your favorite album?
D: There’s so many that it’s hard to know. There’s over a hundred LPs, where it’s mostly my music. Then there’s ten big sacred works, there’s three ballets, then there’s pieces for orchestra, pieces for two
pianos and solo piano. You’d have to look at a lot of different kinds of music.
R: I’ve been listening a lot lately to your Blues Roots album where you worked with Gerry Mulligan.
Did you enjoy that collaboration, and do you anticipate working with him again?
D: Well, we’re still friends, and we had quite a few years where we were together. We started as young musicians In what they used to call the “Cool Jazz” period. We both had our own quartets, so you never
know what will happen next. I think we had a few good years there. That’s a good album.
R: You’ve played for every president since President Kennedy. How did you get Into the presidential loop playing In the White House?
D: Pierre Salinger used to work for the Chronicle in San Francisco, and he used to come in almost every night after work to a nightclub where I was playing. Pierre, as a young man, was almost a professional Classical pianist; he’s a very bright guy. So when he started working with Kennedy, and being that we knew each other from San Francisco, that’s how it started.
R: This is probably an unfair question, but which was your favorite president to play for?
D: Well…the most human really was Nixon. He’s a warm guy, and he always took the time to come over and talk to us. Some of the other presidents would just thank you. I remember President Reagan saying, “I have to make the rounds of the room, but I would like to say goodnight to you personally. Go stand over by that door because that’s the door that I’m going to leave by.” The quartet walked over there and he came over and talked to us for about ten minutes about how he always loved jazz and he used It on his Big Band series that he did with Ford Motor Company. And he went into his background as a radio announcer. Nancy was a big jazz fan, and when we played for Reagan and Gorbachev, they took so much pride that they had invited us there and that the Russians really liked us … you can see it in the book. They were very friendly. Other presidents you just had different Impressions of. One that I really didn’t like as a president was Nixon, yet he made one of the most wonderful speeches. He gave a party for Duke Ellington at the White House and Nixon said, “We’ve entertained our first Duke in the White House.” And he said “In this room we’ve gone full circle because Mr. Ellington’s father was a waiter in this room.”
R: So I guess you are the house band for the White House?
D: (laughing) I don’t know. We’ve just been invited back to Washington. We’re trying to work it out. We do appear there a lot.
R: You mentioned your trip to Moscow back in 1988. What was it like to play for Gorbachev?
Was he familiar with your music?
D: Yeh, and his interpreter had most of my albums I Many of the people high up In the Communist Party listened to my albums illegally and bought them, I guess through diplomatic pouches from Washington. Our last album is the first one to be recorded In Russia and put out in conjunction with Melodia, their state-owned label, and the California label called Concord Jazz. We had a lot of nice things happen.
R: That must have been an incredible trip. What is your impression of what’s been happening politically in Russia?
D: Well, you see we were there at a real turn with everything that was going on in ’87 and ’88, and so we were very impressed. We couldn’t believe what was happening!
R: Jazz seems to be enjoying a renaissance on commercial radio stations these days. Why do you think that’s happening all of a sudden?
D: Well like I said earlier, we are truly the American art form that in many ways has kept us ahead of the world in ways that people don’t even begin to understand. The very movement for freedom that’s going on all over the world, If you’re going to pick one art form, you couldn’t pick one more democratic than jazz. Every day the drum beat from my Take the A Train went around the world on the Voice of America, and then went on to the Ellington version.
R: What do you think It takes to be a truly great jazz musician?
D: The most training you have to really express yourself as a musician is in jazz. I mean you’ve got to know things that a classical composer knows, but you also have to put it out immediately on stage in front of an audience, you’re not in your room hiding. I’ve done both, and I can tell you that the knowledge that goes into the great jazz performances of somebody like George Shearing or Oscar Peterson are more amazing to me than almost any composer. If Mozart were alive today I’d want to hear him improvise. I wouldn’t want to hear another symphony! You could hire him to improvise. In the days before classical music got into all written music, Beethoven and Bach improvised in church every Sunday. So what the jazz musician is really doing Is keeping alive the greatest part of what I think classical music is. My mother was a very good classical pianist. And she didn’t understand why I wanted to play jazz until she heard Art Tatum play, and then she understood. You get someone around George Shearing and they’ll go away on their knees. Jazz musicians have to have a tremendous knowledge of composition and classical music to understand how much a George Shearing has right at his fingertips that a president of a college of music who studied all his life may never have. Pow! These people have it. Like a Mozart had it, or a Shearing has it, or an Art Tatum. Then you stop talking about jazz or classical. You’re talking about genius. You can’t say where it comes from. It comes from a great string of DNA or from God.
R: What are you listening to these days?
D: I really don’t get much time to listen these days because I’m always involved with my next project. My favorite composer is Bach. And right next to Bach I’d put Art Tatum, the great American jazz pianist. And Ellington.
R: The introduction of the compact disc seems to be helping some people rediscover your music. Do you enjoy hearing your recordings on CD?
D: Yeah, they’re re-releasing almost everything. They’re going all the way back to the old 78’s before tape. I’m amazed at the quality, especially the old acetate recordings sound fantastic. They sound even better than when we first recorded them.
R: What is your recollection of the song Take Five?
D: Well that’s 1958, written while we were still in California. It was written in Oakland, California up on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. The two things that are in Take Five were brought to rehearsal; It wasn’t a piece and the quartet put it together and we gave the credit to Paul Desmond. I had told the guys that I wanted to do an album called Time Out where we start using different time signatures. I wanted to really make a breakthrough album.
R: Strange Meadowlark still sounds like a breath of fresh air to me. What can you ten me about that song’s origin?
D: The Meadowlark call is right in that melody. I just built a melody around that birdcall. A lot of my tunes come from nature. Lots of birdcalls.
R: Blue Rondo A La Turk has always been one of my personal favorites. What is the origin of that piece?
D: That’s been recorded, in 80 many ways allover the world. You know AI Jarreau put words to it. He got the Grammy Award for that. There’s even a bird call that’s the exact notes of Blue Rondo A La Turk. One day I was down at my pond–I have a little pond with an island in it–I often go down there and write. I heard all these birds singing Blue Rondo, so I went back down to the house and I got my youngest son and my wife, and I said come down and sit on the island with me, I want you to hear something. And they started laughing and they said that all of the birds are singing Blue Rondo. I have a friend that studies bird calls, and I told him about It. and he said “you’re absolutely right. It’s the exact rhythm in 9/8 of Blue Rondo A La Turk.”
R: What was your most memorable performance?
D: Well, it’s hard to say. But I would say that when I wrote the music for the Pope that was performed at Candlestick Park, that was way up there. And playing for Gorbachev and the Reagan summit, that was was up there too.
R: When you first started your professional career, did you think that you’d still be at it all these years later?
D: Who knew I’d be alive? When I was twenty-one I didn’t think I’d be alive to see twenty-two-you know what I mean?
-Raoul Van Hall, host of “Jazz From the Left,” Saturdays 3-6 PM