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Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck

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Talking With Dave Brubeck

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Talking with Dave Brubeck

Dave on Playing with his Sons

Picture of Dave Brubeck speaking from behind a piano

SMITH: What's it like for your kids to grow up with a father who's a legend, who's a star in this field of music? Was it hard or was it great?

DAVE: Everybody has to go through a lot in jazz and in art to arrive where they want to. It isn't easy for anybody. It wasn't easy for me, if you know what my family had to go through. No person in their right mind would want to put their family through what I've had to put my family through. It's a tremendous amount of sacrifice on the part of your wife and your children to get to a point where you can just survive.

SMITH: So why did you do it? Why did you put 'em through it?

DAVE: I wasn't talented in any other way. This is about all I had.

SMITH: What are your first memories of playing music with your children?

DAVE: When Matthew was four years old, one of my sons came running to me and said, "Matthew's in there at the organ playing the blues."

SMITH: At four?

DAVE: At four. So they said, "Quick, get a tape machine and get this." So I got a tape machine and then when he saw all the attention coming to him, he kinda clammed up. And they said it was much better before any of us came around. That's the way he was even from four years old on. He didn't ever want to play in front of me.

SMITH: Could you teach him?

DAVE: Oh, yeah. If I pretended I wasn't his father I could teach him. And I used to put on a disguise.

SMITH: What kind of a disguise?

DAVE: Oh, a false nose and moustache and my name was Professor Nooseknocker. And I'd come to the front door and knock at the door and he'd come and let me in and say, "Good afternoon Professor Nooseknocker. I'm ready for my lesson." And he'd lead me down the stairs and to the piano and we'd carry on just like I was somebody else.

SMITH: And he'd play the piano?

DAVE: Yeah, he'd play a little then as long as I wasn't his father.

SMITH: That is really something. And what about the others? Could you teach Darius or Chris or Danny?

DAVE: Darius could have taught me. I didn't know how talented a kid could be 'cause I hadn't been around any other kids. And this kid had a mind far beyond anything I'd ever had. But I didn't know it. I just didn't realize how brilliant he was until I was around other children.

SMITH: But could you teach him? Or did he take lessons from somebody else?

DAVE: Oh, somebody else. I would teach him a little. But mostly at that point in my life, I was on the road and gone so much.

SMITH: Now he took up music in school, as I recall, and then he did some composing and so forth like that. What happened with that?

DAVE: There was the piece he wrote for four trumpets when he was ten, and at the end when the judges were awarding the prize, they said, "Tell your father he wrote a great piece." And that kind of thing kept happening to him. I had never heard the piece, didn't know he was writing it. Those kind of things kept happening all when he was growing up where teachers that I thought would be great for him would make some remark that would just destroy a kid. He got a lot of that. [While] he was studying with Darius Milhaud, my teacher, one of his assistants made a remark against him at the end of the summer session that devastated him. [He said], "You are the disaster of the season." It was in a counterpoint class at the end of the year. Now Darius Milhaud wouldn't have made that kind of remark to the worst kind of student. But this guy was out to make his mark. So he had a mark to make with a kid named Darius for a first name and Brubeck for a last name. What's a guy to do but sink him.

SMITH: Yeah, that's hard. But nonetheless the four of 'em became pretty accomplished musicians. So obviously they overcame it to a certain degree and then they wound up by playing with you again.

DAVE: They could do great if they'd become Four Brubecks or some damn thing like that. But they keep away from doing that, which I know in some ways would help them financially, because they can go out and play in any jazz festival and hold their own. And they could play with symphony orchestras and do their own music 'cause three of the four compose very well. But they're still staying apart for a while.

SMITH: When was the last time you played with your sons as a group?

DAVE: Well, my eightieth birthday would be the last time that we all four were together at the same time playing. They've done it when I was seventy, when I was seventy-five, and they bring the four sons in for each one of these five-year plans. That is scary because there's no time to rehearse and you haven't played together for five years.

SMITH: Now when you guys sit down together for the first time, do you just fall into a groove and you're comfortable and you can do it? How do you pull it together in just one sit-down session together?

DAVE: I'm glad to hear that there's that. You know, sometimes there isn't anything - just cold, walk on.

SMITH: But you mentioned a couple times going in - I think you mentioned Unsquare Dance, and Charles Matthew Alleluia, and going cold into sessions with your old quartet and it worked.

DAVE: Yeah, yeah.

SMITH: Do you do that with your sons?

DAVE: Maybe, but it would depend, because they're all very intuitive.

SMITH: But these young guys, they're professionals, they've been around. Are you guys just so much in tune that when you sit down, it works?

DAVE: There's four opinions instead of one, believe me. It's so different than most of my recording sessions where usually the producer will ask me a question. The last time we recorded together was an album called In Their Own Sweet Way, so that the producer finally said over the microphone, "Who do I talk to? There's so many opinions, it's driving me crazy. Everybody has an opinion. Who do I communicate with?" And the thing is he had to communicate with all of us, because each guy feels that he's in charge.

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SMITH: So it's harder with your sons than with your own quartet.

DAVE: Oh yeah. Sure. Because I don't want to dominate them and they don't mind dominating me.

SMITH: It's a little hard to know who the leader of the group is when you finally get together with those guys?

DAVE: Well, it's a lot of fun to play with my sons. It's like any family - everybody thinks he's going to dominate. My group would never talk the way my sons talk to each other and talk to me, try to influence each other about what kind of music should be played. Each one of 'em has grown up liking a different kind of music. I couldn't believe it when Darius liked folk music. Even Chris liked folk music for awhile. And then Danny comes along wanting to swing to Frank Zappa, you know. Each one will push their own idea of which way we should go.

SMITH: How do you sort things out? I mean, how do you decide which style you're going to play? How do you decide who's leading?

DAVE: This is the problem. It's who's going to dominate, you know? And then which direction are we going to go?

Matthew has such a different approach because he is so adventurous on cello and cello is such a difficult instrument. When Matthew the cellist plays piano, he flies on piano; it's much easier than his main instrument. Cello is so much more difficult to improvise on than the piano. I played cello when I was young and I didn't get any place. So I watch him and I think, "This is impossible to do." And, he takes chances. He can get really inspired; all of them can. But Matthew will take chances and do almost the impossible. And some nights he won't come off as successfully as other nights; but he's a chance-taker.

Chris plays notes that you're not supposed to able to play on the trombone, and bass trombone, and I'll think, "Geez, I hope he doesn't go where I think he's 'gonna go." And he'll go and make it a lot of times. And then he'll break the audience up by going so low on that instrument that it becomes funny and sad sometimes. Chris just wrote a piece for the Boston Pops. And they just played one movement of his trombone concerto on a broadcast a few months ago. And he's recording with the London Symphony the entire trombone concerto. So I think he's been so close to really making it.

Danny's one of the most complicated polyrhythmic drummers I've ever heard. It's amazing what he can get going. Course, he was very much influenced by two of my drummers - Joe Morello and Alan Dawson. And he learned so much from both of them. And then I think he just gets a little wilder than they would ever get. They're more controlled and perfect but Danny can get almost out of his mind on drums. I pray some night that he'll come back to us; he's so far gone. And so complicated and his face is so red and he's so physically into it. When he was younger and he'd start doing this, I'd think, this guy isn't gonna make it very long. If he keeps playing like this, it's gonna burn him out. I would be counting to myself to see where he was and what he was doing. And he would get beyond me. I couldn't hold in my mind where he was, but boy, he'd come out on that down beat to bring us back.

SMITH: And how about Darius?

DAVE: Ah, Darius. I remember playing The Hollywood Ball and Leonard Feather, who's a tough critic, saying that Darius was by far the most interesting soloist of the bunch. Well he had a hot day, and he was good that day. He's good, a lot like all of us, a lot. But that was the one that Leonard Feather picked out as the son really making it. So you never know which one of 'em is 'gonna just get inspired.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck speaking from behind a piano



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