REDISCOVERING DAVE BRUBECK
One moment etched in my memory is the afternoon when Dave told me how he got the idea for "The Duke," his famous tune honoring Ellington. I'd been itching to ask because "The Duke," with its intricate twelve-tonal harmonies as rich as a rainbow, has long been one of my favorite jazz tunes. It's a beautiful and elegant evocation of the sophistication of Ellington. And it's vintage Brubeck.
The inspiration, Dave said matter-of-factly, came while he was driving his son Chris to a nursery school on a rainy day.
"You know I'm sorry but when I drive a car, I don't hear that," I confessed. "I don't know what's wrong with me, but I don't hear that. What is it that you hear when you drive a car that gets that kind of intricate thing going?"
"Just think of windshield wipers," Dave answered, his right arm ticking back and forth like a metronome. He fingered the first few bars on the keyboard. "It's gotta be in tempo. See, sometimes something will kick a tempo off to you - and you're moving and you're thinking of an idea."
Rhythm. A Brubeck trademark, like polytonality, or weaving the counterpoint of Bach into jazz. Brubeck's odd time signatures and his love of playing multiple rhythms simultaneously were born not in piano lessons, or studying with his mentor, the modern classical composer Darius Milhaud.
No, as I learned with fascination, Dave's distinctive rhythms took form during his boyhood, while he was riding the range, growing up on a 45,000-acre ranch, dreaming of becoming a cowboy like his Dad. He couldn't even read music. But to ease the boredom of riding all day, he would invent multiple rhythms to counter the slow, predictable 4/4 hoof-beats. His inventive mind was already at work, and so "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo" would flow naturally from those early beginnings.
Add what jazz critic Stanley Crouch calls "the silky sax" of Paul Desmond, and you have an unbeatable combination, a counterpoint of personalities and a style so distinctive that all of us who heard it decades ago, instantly recognized the Dave Brubeck Quartet and wore out the grooves of "Time Out."
As Crouch says, "Dave brought off what all jazz musicians want to bring off which is that he invented an individual style. That's the hardest thing to do in any art form. When you hear him playing the piano, you know that's Dave Brubeck playing."
I love the music, always have, and that's why I wanted to make a documentary about Dave Brubeck to start with. But there's more to it than that. For a year or more, I've had the special pleasure of getting to know Dave and Iola, sharing the joy of an incredible performance of his mass, "To Hope" in Berlin with the Munich Bach Collegium and Choir; talking with his conductor Russell Gloyd about what keeps Dave going strong at 80, creating new music; or listening to his sons, Darius, Chris, Danny and Mathew talk about what it's like to grow up with a famous dad for a father.
In a world where being a celebrity seems a passport to volcanic ego trips, it's refreshing to be with people whose feet are so solidly on the ground and whose sense of fulfillment comes not from attention-craving behavior but from creating something new for the sheer joy of invention.
At a time when so many people are anxious and numbed by terrorism, the story in "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck," will help regenerate hope. Dave's life is a quintessential American story - small town boy grows up on a ranch, pioneers a fresh style of jazz, wins the hearts of millions and becomes world famous, in spite of plenty of obstacles. Dave and Iola's life together embraces the American spirit and the best in our values. Dave's music embodies American optimism. People hear Dave and come away feeling better, happier.
That's how my wife Susan and I feel from our experience - better, happier. I know my colleagues feel the same. Dave's optimism and authentic pleasure from the life of musical creation are infectious.
I was born in 1954, and as a child of the sixties, my musical influences were folk music and protest music - the sounds of the times. I came into the Brubeck project with just a cursory knowledge of jazz. I knew who Dave was and was familiar with some of his work, but I had little understanding of Dave Brubeck the person. To come to know him, our production team decided to follow him and his quartet on the road.
Over the course of a year of shooting, we traveled from Germany and London to California, to his home in Connecticut. Dave stills spends a total of six months a year on the road -- lots of airplanes, hotels and limos. Now entering his 80's, he is still a man on the move and hard to pin down. But there was one incident overseas that stuck in my mind. It was a small moment, but I think it captures his spirit.
We decided to meet the quartet in the Berlin airport, coming off a grueling seven-hour flight from Istanbul. I quite expected handlers and helpers would surround someone of Dave's stature as he went from country to country on tour. Much to my surprise, as Dave exited customs, there he was, pushing his own cart stacked four feet tall with his and Iola's luggage. The quartet and their gear followed him, as they made their way outside into the cold night air. They expected to be met by a van provided by the local promoter, large enough for everyone and their instruments.
Everyone was tired from the flight from Istanbul and looking forward to some much-needed rest in preparation for the concert the following day. But no one arrived to pick them up. No promoter. No van. They waited for more than a half an hour. Instead being anxious or angry, Dave and crew joked around and thought up song titles and lines to describe their plight. Dave seemed as relaxed as he does after a good show. Some time later, after unsuccessful cell phone calls to the promoter, they finally gave up, piled into cabs and found their own way to the hotel.
To make matters worse, the hotel had them checking in the following night and they had to scramble to accommodate the weary musicians. Dave merely laughed it all off. "It's only gone on for fifty years," he said. I asked him afterward why he never got upset about the incident. He told of a lesson he learned from Duke Ellington about life on the road. "Never let that bad stuff get in your blood," he said. "Otherwise it can stay with you." In Dave's way of thinking, a bad experience may lead to a poor concert performance, or worse, make you a bitter person - if you let it get to you.
* * * * *
There is one other story that reflects Dave's easy going manner. It goes back to one of the first times we met at his house in Wilton, Connecticut. It was a getting-to-know-you-session, an informal meeting without the cameras rolling.
As he discussed his life, it was clear that Iola Brubeck was just as formidable as Dave. She contributed often to the conversation and had amazing recall of events that happened almost sixty years ago. But it wasn't just Iola's memory that was impressive. I later learned that she is Dave's principal lyricist and collaborator on sacred music and show tunes. She was also responsible for the idea of the quartet to tour college campuses, ensuring a lifelong base of fans. Iola also encouraged Dave to play certain compositions that will fit the venue. She has such a finely tuned ear and intimate knowledge of his playing, that I've heard her remark after a concert, "That piano had so little play that Dave had to really pound the keys."
In short, Iola is much more than a wife and a mother. She is every bit a part of Dave's success. She gave him the space he needed to be an artist and the timely criticisms and comments that helped him grow.
In the course of the get together, Iola suggested we see excerpts of Dave in the upcoming Ken Burns series on jazz. Their only VCR was in their bedroom so off we went.
The conversation continued there as our team sprawled out in chairs and on the floor. Dave and Iola were lying on the bed, holding hands, chatting away, laughing, and joking.
And that's my enduring image of the Brubecks. Loose, easy going and open -- just like the California countryside they grew up in.