Dave Brubeck: Interview 2
Dave Brubeck: Interview 3

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



Pianist Dave Brubeck talks to Les Tomkins in 1972 about family, working with different musicians, trio's and quartets and composers.

Gary Burton: Interview 1

Dave Brubeck: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1972
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Dave
Surname Brubeck
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

Well, Dave, it was nice to see you back in Britain again with Gerry Mulligan, and reunited with Paul Desmond. How has the tour gone?

 It's been a good tour. We were in Japan and Australia; then we came to Europe. We stopped in New York, and did a big TV jazz show from Lincoln Centre, which also featured Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman's original Quartet, with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. Then they had a tribute to Louis Armstrong, with four trumpet players and a lot of his old sideman. For a TV show, it's hard to beat. Unfortunately, we were back where we could hardly see or hear; I'm going to miss the actual programme, too, because it'll be shown while we're still here. But it had some beautiful moments. We strained to hear Ella—she sang Body And Soul , I think. Just fantastic. She's had a lot of trouble lately with her health and her eyes; so it was great to hear that her voice is in perfect, wonderful control.

So it's still a way of life for you, to be dashing from place to place. Are you working mainly with a trio now?

Trio, quartet, quintet; sometimes there's fifteen of us on the road, with my various sons' groups. We're constantly doing things where we've got to work out some new music; so I'm very busy.

In 1967, your breaking up the quartet as it stood then was in order to have a break to do some writing, was it?

Yeah—and I did it. I'm working now on my fourth piece for orchestra, soloists and chorus. It'll be a story about Christmas. Certainly, I get a big thrill out of hearing something I've worked on—especially when it's well done; it's worth all the work.

Why, would you say, have you had this strong religious aspect to your music? Well you talk with almost any body, and they have some philosophical point of view. And religion, or philosophy, is at the core of most people I know; so I don't feel any different from anyone else trying to express that part of life.

And do you feel that your approach could widen horizons for people?

Well, it's different and it might attract people who are on the fence about a certain way of life. I've seen it affect many young people—especially if they're in the chorus. Like, in "The Light In The Wilderness" it's all the teachings of Christ, really, and when they have to learn a piece of music that's hard, singing the words over and over, it finally gets into their heads. I know it has an effect on the people working on the piece; if we do a good job, it has an effect on the audience.

Nowadays, what has most appeal to you—writing, or still playing?

Oh, it will always be the playing—that's the most gratifying. It's a lot more fun, because you get something done that second. Whereas I'll write for a year, and I won't even hear it until maybe a year– and– a– half after I've completed it. So the jazz playing is an immediate satisfaction; the other thing can be carried a year or two into the future before you have any real feeling that it made it.

When I first interviewed you, many still regarded you as the leading avant garde jazz piano player.

Ten years later, although you’re playing the same way, you can be said to have become part of the establishment.

Sure—and had we lived at a time where the public would have accepted more wild things, I think I could have been a lot wilder. I know: in my youth Paul remembers the first time he heard me, I was wilder then than I am now. And that was—oh, twenty– five years ago. But the public just didn't want to hear anything; too much in that way. Today, the kids coming up playing are allowed to express themselves and still make a living. It's a lot easier in some ways: it's harder to get a job now, but the audiences are more tolerant, more free, and allow you to be more free.

And your sons are getting the benefit of this, are they?

Oh they play some strange things. Darius's group played a concert with a fantastic German musician, Gunther Hempel, who is well– known in the avant garde circles. And Perry, the clarinettist with the group is a really way– out player. Darius himself plays pretty far out on piano. Then, of course, when he wants to work he has to do like Duke Ellington or anybody who has a lot of imagination—to present it in a way you can still hold down a job.

That's been what every great jazz musician had to figure out—how to satisfy himself and still keep a public. To do that and survive like Duke or Count Basie have done is really a fantastic goal, and a very hard one.

What do you feel your son has learned from you on piano? Have you given him any instruction?

Once In a while we talk. Now I ask him what he's doing, and he'll show me an approach he's using. He said that when I get out there I can keep up with him, you know. But I have to build to that point, where they just start there—you know what I mean? Their point of departure is much freer than mine: I usually need to progress to that level through a series of choruses.

And the kids play a lot of complex time signatures.

Chris's rock group has a new thing in thirty– five, which is very complicated and the public wouldn’t even know it.

Because it also works with the public.

This is the secret. You've got to satisfy the musicians in the group, the musicians in the audience, and yet, an another level, have the public not turn you off. And that is the answer—if you're gonna work. It's not the complete answer. If you don't want to work. you can do like I did for years, when I had the Octet stay at home and play, and not work. Eventually, when you have children, you have to face up to some kind of approach that will allow you to record, make a living —something more real. No—I don't even say it's more real; it's more real maybe not to do that. But I mean, you have to survive.

There's fantastic pianists playing. Chick Corea is one of my favourites. And I heard this young German, Joachim Kuhn, who is incredible; he's working in Paris, and he came to the concert we did there. One of the greatest I've ever heard is a Cuban boy—I think his name is Chucho; something like that. If he could get out of Communist Cuba, or we could get in and make friends like we're going to with Red China, you're going to hear some of the finest jazz portents I've ever heard in my life—all Cubans.

I have Alan Dawson on drums; he's now head of Percussion at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He gets substitute teachers for all his classes when he hoes on the road with us. And we've been really working hard for the last three months; so he'll have to go back and make up classes with his students.

On bass is Jack Six. He's a Juilliard graduate in trumpet and composition; he turned bass player. because he decided he loved bass playing better than trumpet playing. But he used to be a big band trumpet player; a fantastic composer, arranger, musician—a real all– rounder.

Replacing a drummer like Joe Morello must have been a daunting thing in itself.

Yes. Alan's about the only fellow I've heard that I thought could do it; there will be other people. I had my doubts that anybody could come in and fill that chair, but I know Alan has. They both are fantastic. I'm fortunate to have had two great drummers and two great bass players—and now two great saxophone players.

And you have definite ideas about the people you like to work with? Oh yeah, I'll say. I would say that all the fellows I've had are ideal musicians, going way back to Cal Tjader, when he used to play drums with me. Ron Crotty, Jack Weeks, Joe Dodge, Gene Wright—I think about all the different players who have been in and out of the various groups have been very wonderful people, outside of being fine musicians.

I should think they'd also have to be people who see music your way.

Sure—it helps. Cal and I started doing interesting things in '46, getting on various rhythm kicks. Then the next drummers I had didn't want to experiment with time; they played straighter drums. So they don't always adjust to me—I adjust to the people I hire. Because you can't have guys that just want to do exactly what you want to do.

You remember that old trio record, "Singing In The Rain"? Well, in that we started to get out of the standard kind of approach in time signatures. Then in the Octet, 1946, we had this arrangement of "What Is This Thing Called Love" that used 3 /4 alternating with 4/ 4 in the bridge; you see, we were stretching out then and trying to break down the restrictions of straight 2/ 4, 3/ 4 and 4/ 4 time. But when I had guys that couldn't do it, I went to another thing, in the direction they could go. When I eventually got Joe Morello, he liked the idea of unusual time signatures—but that was almost ten years from the time I'd started doing it.

It's always a question of what the guys can do comfortably; you can't put people in a panic, you know. What often happens in my group is that I'll play solo, away from what’s going on, but the bass and drums have to lock themselves into each other. Sometimes they're in two different things and I'm in a third thing. Ultimately, they come together.

Really, the use of a variety of time signatures has, to a great extent, come about through your showing the way.

I think we did as much as anybody. When we first started, I hadn't heard anybody begin to do anything like that. Then I found out that Fats Waller had done "The Jitterbug Waltz"; which I wasn't aware of, although I'd heard a lot of other things Fats had done. That hadn't been popular with musicians, anyway. Somebody has always edged in there before you; but I would say we concentrated on it far more than anybody else ever did.

Regarding your orchestral work—what is the set– up? You tour with your group and your sons' groups, then combine with the local symphony orchestras in the towns you go to, do you?

 Sometimes we do all jazz shows; sometimes we play with orchestras. When we get home, one of our first concerts will be with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

We'll do a big orchestration on "Brandenburg Gate" for French horns and strings; then excerpts from "The Light In The Wilderness", orchestrated for symphony orchestra, and excerpts from "The Gates Of Justice". Now the new piece, "Truth Is Fallen" has a 1ot of good things we can do with symphony orchestra, rock group and jazz group.

Presumably you consider it a very valid thing to integrate these media?

Well, I know that, to keep the young people coming, the symphony orchestras have to join with rock groups. Or else it's gonna die in so many cities in the United States; a lot of recording companies are already starting to drop symphony orchestras. But once you introduce people to this sound, they love it. For instance, the symphony plays the first half by themselves, and you'll hear comments from young people: "Oh, that was fantastic. Man, this makes it. We should come here again." They just haven't been exposed yet. You put on a rock group with a symphony orchestra, and they come. That's what we're doing—getting them in and exposing them to it.

What particular composers have given you inspiration?

Oh, Darius Milhaud of course. Stravinsky, Bartok, Bach, Mozart. I love Bach, and the people who use counterpoint; I can get interested in all the baroque kind of things. On some of the concerts, Paul and I have been getting into some nice counterpoint; we love to do that.

As for listening to classical pianists—I do, but it's so defeating! Actually my mother came to London in 1926 and studied with Tobias Mattay. She learned his method of playing. which didn't rub off on me too well, although maybe that's where I got my flat– fingered touch from. But I wouldn't want to play classical piano, because there's so many who do that, and only that. When I'm there, they might as well hear what can do.


Copyright © 1972, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.