SMITH: What's the piano to you, this particular instrument?
DAVE: It's like a whole orchestra, the piano for me. And also it's to me the greatest instrument. I shouldn't say that, but I believe that this is the only instrument I can really feel happy about playing. And I love to play a good concert. If I play a bad concert, I'm in a terrible mood until I play a good one. If I'm playing well, I forget everything that's going on. When you're playing a concert, [you want to get] back into yourself, having a good time. And there are so many things that can distract you. The lights can really distract me, since I've had cataracts and cataracts removed. If I look at a stage light that's hitting me right in the eye, I'll close my yes to get around that, because I can't stand the light. Or if there's a bad PA system, or a bad piano. You've got to overcome all these things, and get into the joy of playing.
SMITH: You're lost when you're playing the piano. You're lost in yourself. Talk about that a little bit. What's going on? What happens to you out there?
DAVE: What I want to happen is to be really creative, and to play something new in the improvisations, every time. That's why you mentioned St. Louis Blues. You could play probably a span of 50 years of me playing St. Louis Blues, and most of the time it will be different every time. What I try to do is get beyond thinking about it at all, and just be playing, and not being analytical. Stravinsky said you can't use your analytical and creative mind at the same time. You're either in one place, or the other. You're either thinking analytically or you're letting it happen just creatively. And that's where you want to be.
SMITH: So, what you're talking about, for you in jazz, it's the spontaneity. It's just doing it on the wing. Give me an example.
DAVE: I'm singing this melody that became Unsquare Dance in my mind, all the way to driving into New York. We never wrote it down. We had to take two takes on it because we didn't have an ending. And on the record, you can hear Joe Morello laugh at the end. And I said, "Leave that on the record." And it's….it's still on the record. But this became a hit and we - it was never written down, never rehearsed. It was all just thought of at the moment. Then this stupid thing becomes a hit and I could work on something for five years and not get a hit. And that happens all the time. So you never know what's…what's gonna click with the public. The public uh, just seems to like this tune.
SMITH: But you're eighty, you've been performing for years. Why do you keep doing it?
DAVE: Because I love to play. We have tremendous audiences. Already they want us back for concerts all summer. And so it goes on and on. You hate to turn these things down because for years we played on the Riviera every summer for the George Ring Jazz Festival at Nice. And a part of that's a lot of fun. And playing is fun. It's just the hassles of getting there that are a drag that you put up with because the rest is so good. And I often think of Duke [Ellington], what else would you do? (laughs)
SMITH: I watched you at a concert and you start playing. And you're good. But as the evening wears on, you get more energy. You get more worked up. I mean what's going on? It's almost like you're drawing energy out of the music.
DAVE: That's true. It's adrenaline and excitement. One of my doctors told me that I had to cut back. I told another doctor that I was advised to cut back. He says, "I've just been to one of your concerts and I watched you get better. And you had more strength at the end, two and a half hours later." He said, "Don't cut back. There's something happening in your body that's very healthy for you for you to be able to create more and more energy as the night goes on. Don't cut back."
SMITH: But the minute you get your hands on the keyboard, everything else goes away. What happens to you psychologically?
DAVE: Well psychologically there are good nights and there are nights that are not so good because the day has been so bad. And then there are nights that are just fantastic and that's what you're hoping for…
There's lots of ways of playing. There's a way of playing safe, there's a way of using tricks and there's the way I like to play which is dangerously where you're going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven't created before. But if you're playing in the second category where you're using things you've used before, that's good but it's not the creativity I'm looking for. And there is a time where you can be beyond yourself. You can be better than your technique. You can be better than most of your usual ideas. And this is a whole other category that you can get into.
I'm always hoping for the nights that are inspired where you almost have an out of body experience. And that's unbelievable when that happens. That your coordination, your mind, everything is working above normal. And it doesn't happen that often but you're always hoping and hoping that that will happen again. And you keep trying for that. Then there's a level that you don't let yourself fall below. But you're shooting for something much higher. It's like an athlete. I played a lot of sports and it's the plays in basketball that weren't worked out that are the ones that are just fantastic that you remember. We don't know the power that's within our own bodies. And there are times when you can reach that. That's what you're constantly looking for is to get beyond your usual capabilities. And you know that that's possible. You've seen things happen that are beyond what is normally what you're able to do. A tractor will fall on a man, tip over and fall on, and his wife sees it happen and comes out and lifts the tractor. How did she do that? Five men couldn't do it so what's locked up in her? What's locked up in all of us if we could only call on it?
SMITH: What do you feel when you're there? I mean are you gliding, are you floating? Are you bursting with joy? Are you full of energy? What going on inside of you when you're just out there?
DAVE: Uh, the feeling that you can't do anything wrong, where it's all working. And this doesn't happen all the time. It happens rarely. One time a lady asked Louis Armstrong, "What are you thinking about when you're playing?" And he said, "Lady, if I told you, your mind would explode."
You can't say what causes you to be inspired like Einstein will say, 'There's always the unknown." In anything that he thinks about, there's something beyond him and beyond man. And this is the area you want to get into whether a guy is jumping off a ski lift, all of a sudden he's gonna fly further than he ever has in his life. And he couldn't practice to do exactly that. He practiced other techniques but one day all the technique is behind him and there's this other inspiration. You can call it uh, God or faith or almost anything but it's beyond yourself. [Or it's] in the final seconds of a basketball game and you know the buzzer's gonna go and there's one guy on the team that they think they'll give the last shot to. Think what's going through his mind. And he makes it, you know. It almost impossible some guy can make that shot under that pressure. It's beyond him. He probably could take a hundred shots at that basket and not make it.
SMITH: And what about you? That's where you want to be.
DAVE: At that second .in time, you hope you're that inspired that you'll make it.
SMITH: Now you go in for that every night?
DAVE: Yeah and it doesn't happen very often. That, but that's what you're going for. And I've had it happen where no way could I ever do that again. It's beyond; it's beyond me, it's probably beyond anybody else. It's just almost technically impossible. What happened in that flash, you don't know and you can't rehearse for it.
SMITH: How late do you work composing at night?
DAVE: If there's a deadline, I work late. If not, I like to have normal hours, and get up early and work. When things are going well, I hate to quit. And then I'll work 'till exhausted. And then, uh, other days, I'll have a normal life, and work at some normal hours. There's one oratorio that I finished in three weeks, 21 days. And I was working night and day, sleeping very little. And it was just a constant flow of music. Now, one of the other oratorios of the same length might take a year. But if it's coming along good, you better grab it.
SMITH: So if you hear the music, you will invent it and you don't invent it in order to have it out there, you invent it because you hear it. I mean it's coming out of you; it doesn't stop. When do you relax?
DAVE: Relaxing is not a thing I do well. The last three or four nights, I've been so beat from the road and from the concerts that that's a real good situation for me. That when I go to bed, I'll be so exhausted that I'll go to sleep. But if I'm at home and kinda rested, I'll be awake half the night or maybe all the night. That's no good. I like exhaustion.
Q: In terms of the creative process, what was the most important thing you learned from your teacher, Darius Milhaud? I mean, is it counterpoint? Is it polytonality ? Is it composing music in a couple of different keys? What was it that was so important, that he gave to you?
DAVE: A strict background in counterpoint and real respect for Bach. And then when it came to composition, absolute freedom. He didn't impose what he knew, or did in music at all. We were absolutely free. He never pushed his type of thinking on any of us.
Q: So when did you write "The Duke," which I gotta tell you, that is one of my favorite pieces of music. It's a complicated piece of music. Tell me about it.
DAVE: I wrote this in my head. A lot of times, when I'm driving the car, I'm beating out the rhythm on the steering wheel, which can drive Iola nuts. I was taking my son Christopher to nursery school. On the way back, I ran into the house, sat down at the piano, and got some manuscript paper and wrote it out. And I thought, boy, this is a pretty good tune. And it became a tune that a lot of other jazz musicians play.
SMITH: I'm sorry, but when I drive a car, I don't hear that. I don't know what's wrong with me but I don't hear that. What is it you hear when you're driving the car that gets that kind of an intricate thing going?
DAVE: Just think of windshield wipers … it's got to be in tempo, see? Sometimes something will kick a tempo off to you, and then you're moving and you're thinking of an idea. You can feel the movement of it. This reminds me of early Duke Ellington music. It just reminds me of Duke.
SMITH: You just composed a song for your mother. It's fluid, it's very different from "The Duke," it's a very different feel. What's going through your mind as you're putting this together?
DAVE: My mother loved Chopin, and played Chopin all the time. So there was a lot of her in that piece. And you see, although I never played classical piano, I heard it from the first thing in the morning practically to the last thing at night. I heard all the great piano literature, because that's what she played. So although I didn't play classical piano, I heard it, and it was a big influence in my life.
SMITH: But did you ever get, feel the pressure to go with the crowd? Did you ever feel the pressure to go play Bud Powell's way that everybody was playing? Did you ever fear that you weren't gonna get the audiences or the jobs or the money and get pulled in the other direction?
DAVE: What's more important is to play the way you want to play or play the way they want you to play? Every individual should be expressing themselves, whether a politician or a minister or a policeman. For me it was more important to play the way I wanted to play. Often it got me fired.