Dave Brubeck: Interview 1
Dave Brubeck: Interview 2

Dave Brubeck (1920–2012)

David (Dave) Brubeck was born in Concord, near San Francisco. A pianist and composer, he was a leading exponent of cool, ‘West Coast’ jazz and achieved a degree of popular recognition rare for jazz artists.

Brubeck wrote a number of jazz standards, such as “In Your Own Sweet Way”, and explored unusual time signatures in pieces such as “Unsquare Dance” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk”.  “Take Five”, sometimes misattributed to Brubeck, was composed by his long-time musical partner, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.  It appeared on one of the world’s best-selling jazz albums, Time Out, and has endured as a jazz classic associated with Brubeck.

Brubeck took lessons from his mother, a classical pianist, and drew inspiration from the classical tradition. While serving in Europe in World War II he formed one of the US armed forces’ first racially integrated bands. Injuries suffered in a diving accident in 1951 led him to adopt a technique which relied more on complex chords than dexterity.

Brubeck’s first eponymous quartet was formed in 1951. Stand-out members have included Joe Morello, Gerry Mulligan and Alec Dankworth. Four of Brubeck’s six children, Darius, Dan, Chris and Matthew, became professional musicians, and often joined him on stage or in the studio.

At their peak in the 1960s the quartet issued up to four albums a year. Brubeck made several visits to the UK and performed at Ronnie Scott’s. In his Guardian obituary John Fordham said “Brubeck's real achievement was to blend European compositional ideas, very demanding rhythmic structures, jazz song-forms and improvisation in expressive and accessible ways”.

Biography by Paul Kaufman


Jazz? It's as much European as African

In this second of three interviews with Les Tomkins recorded in 1964, pianist Dave Brubeck discusses his thoughts on how music of other cultures will eventually combine themselves in all aspects of jazz.

Dave Brubeck: Interview 3

Dave Brubeck: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1964
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Dave
Surname Brubeck
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

Although he is probably not generally thought of as a man with a gift for making accurate musical predictions, Dave Brubeck set down some in an article he wrote about fourteen years ago, which was published both here and in the States. They included his belief that as time went on the music of other cultures, polyrhythms and polytonality would all manifest themselves in jazz to a growing extent.

A lot of the things that I predicted are becoming more and more true. And I was condemned very heavily.

You watch—the very things I said are coming true. An excellent African musician named Rhodes has been lecturing in the United States saying exactly what I said—that jazz is essentially European. And the African t jazz is essentially European. And the African influence is felt far more in the Caribbean and in South America.

Europeans should not have any feeling that they’re not playing in their own idiom when they play jazz. If you just examine the musical elements that make up jazz the Europeans have contributed as much as the Africans.

The sooner the world gets over the conception of jazz belonging to one nation or one race the better off we’ll all be. We should just forget about that whole scene.

But because of articles written by some of the leading Negro jazz musicians, I think I’m almost forced to state that jazz has no racial boundaries. I’ve grown up playing with Negro musicians and the jazz world has always been one area where the segregation problem did not arise. It would be a terrible thing if a few unthinking critics and unthinking musicians could contribute anything towards creating such an atmosphere where there has been an example set to the world of true integration.

The reason for playing jazz, the spirit behind it, the desire for freedom—this was the biggest contribution made by the original Negro musicians in New Orleans.

This should not be minimised, but it wasn’t a musical contribution so much.

I predict that as more and more articulate people come out of Africa and as more and more research is done into early English ballads—the music that actually created jazz—you’ll see that jazz is definitely a music that can be associated with any European without his feeling that he’s out of his culture. The beautiful thing about jazz is that it’s a merger of these cultures.

It’s a dangerous thing that’s happening now in the United States and in other parts of the world. Of course, it happened in France a long time ago—this idea that the white musician can’t play jazz. This is absolutely ridiculous. The one time there was a Blindfold Test on me, Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith picked me as the guy who played blues like—I forget the exact quote but it was close to This man plays like he’s playing from where the blues were born. You see? The only important thing is what each individual who plays jazz has to say. His environment is very important—where he grew up—but not his nationality, not his country. This isn?t important. What he wants to do in life and his individuality—that’s all that’s important.

I interposed a question here, based on the fact that you can get two people listening to the same jazz performance, one saying it swings while the other claims it doesn’t swing. This has been the case with some of Dave Brubeck’s own performances.

It’s to do with your environment—what you’re attuned to. You might not think that a very complex African rhythm swings, because it’s too complex for you to understand. But after you’ve listened and listened you know it does. When we were in India I thought at first everything was very confused. But pretty quick I started thinking: ‘Gee, this swings like crazy’. You just get attuned to it. Some of the rhythms in India are fantastic.

Now, you see, if jazz had reflected the African culture as much as it should have, it would have been far more polyrhythmic than it has been. Jazz should have been more African in the beginning. Eventually we will be using truly African rhythms, but it shouldn’t have taken all these years.

When these educated Africans start coming out and saying ‘This is truly African’ and explain and play these rhythms we’ll see something. This hasn’t happened yet.

There’s a start being made in this direction. But the African culture was so far ahead of ours rhythmically. It really wasn’t captured in jazz. It’s closer to European rhythms.

The slight syncopation isn’t going to make it African.

There are the fine rhythms used by composers like Stravinsky, but these are written things. I’m talking about group improvisation. Culturally the Africans and the Indians are hundreds of years ahead.

We’ve branched out with the Quartet and started to use rhythms that aren’t used too much in jazz. But I expect somebody to come out of’ this environment—again I stress the word environment—who will understand European melody and harmony but really understand African rhythm. Watch out for that guy. When he comes along this is going to be the guy.

There are no more good jazz night clubs that I can work. Morello makes more in one week than the good jazz night clubs can pay my group. The good jazz clubs are still there for the guys who are making scale. It’s simply that. And the places that can pay me really cater for drunks. I have to be brutal about it.

How can a kid that really likes jazz come in and—Pow!—twenty bucks. That’s what it’s going to be for him to stay for an hour with his girl– friend. And if he stays two or three hours he’s going to have a nice fat check of sixty dollars.

You got to watch out for wealthy people who can afford this kind of money. They usually really don’t understand jazz and I’m often at the point of jumping off the stage and removing them from the club. Which is not the atmosphere that I can play well in.

I almost got into some difficulty after something I did in one club. I got up and announced to the audience: ‘Would you like to see something that one of my musicians can do that’s very out of the ordinary? We’ll pour kerosene in his horn, he’ll stand on his head, we’ll light it and he’ll play a hot chorus! ’ I said: ‘If you’d like to see this, just give him a lot of applause’.

The place went wild with applause! I said: ‘I thought so’ and walked off the stage with the group. And this was one of the top night clubs in New York.

So I decided I’d had it with the clubs that can pay my bills. I’d love to go back to some of the clubs that are fun to play in, but I couldn’t possibly do it now. I’d much rather play a concert. The kids can get a seat for from a dollar and a half, whereas in the average New York night club—the jazz clubs as they’re called—they couldn’t even tip the fellow at the front door to get them a seat.

It shouldn’t be this way, but this is the way it’s grown. The concert audience pays very strict attention.

They’re there for one reason—to hear you. They’re not there to be seen and to drink. Drinkers always take the front table in a club because the spotlight usually hits part of their table. I’ve noticed this. And they’ll order a quart of booze and it’s goodbye session.

Do I think the possibilities of television as a jazz medium have been fully exploited? No, they haven’t. It could be just great. And we’ve done some shows. Again, you see, the shows that don’t pay were very good—put on by The National Council of Churches. We’d finish our job at the original Basin Street at four in the morning in New York City and then we had a call for this religious show at six o’clock Sunday morning. So we’d just stay up till six, go play this show and get to bed about nine.

These were pretty good shows. They let you alone.

A lot of the jazz musicians just contributed their time to do this show. I know what it paid. It had to pay scale. I think I did about six or seven of them. We all enjoyed doing them.

But gee, when you get on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it’s a completely different audience, it’s very hard because you have a million cameras looking at you.

There’s the lighting—and you’ve got to be timed to the second. And to time a jazz musician is murder, because he might want to play twice as long as the stopwatch is allowing.

On these religious shows—the Look Up And Live show—they gave us the privilege of playing just as we wanted. So there could be good shows. I know if you had a good director you could have excellent TV shows—with the guys ignoring the camera as much as they ignore a microphone in a night club.

After all, a microphone used to scare guys. The first time I used the PA system I was afraid of the thing.

Eventually you don’t even know it’s there.

Eventually, jazz musicians could play a TV show and ignore cameras, lights, directors, and just let it go.

What could be better than witnessing through a camera a session where the guys aren’t aware too much of being televised? Everyone thinks that I have Paul Desmond under contract—but he’s the one musician that I haven’t got under contract. It’s many years now since I signed Paul. His contract was up years ago. There’s no sense in tying a guy into a group.

If I did have a contract on Paul it wouldn’t mean anything. Because if the individual wants to leave there’s nothing in God’s world that’s gonna make you want to keep him. Somebody dissatisfied in a group as small as a quartet can ruin it.

I give the fellows a contract which they never sign. I sign it. They know the terms, and I know the terms. But they’re not tied.

Copyright © 1964, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.