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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 the Racial Barrier

Picture of Dave Brubeck speaking from behind a piano

SMITH: Have you ever felt that jazz was seen as African American music, and therefore, African Americans should go first?

DAVE: You know, that's a strange thing, because that question is going to be asked forever. And the answers are going to change, as historians know more, or know less, or buy the whole myth. But for me, all my heroes were black - Duke, and Art Chano - the great pianist, Teddy Wilson. Billy Kyle, who was a hero of mine, played with Louis Armstrong. And Fats [Waller.] So naturally you think of all these great black musicians. Jack T. Garden was my real brother musically. And then I think of all the wonderful things that black musicians admired about white musicians. Like George Shearing said, 'I can't tell the difference, 'you know, because he's blind. And he said one time, 'I don't care if somebody is purple, as long as they can play.' And that's the answer.

SMITH: But when you hit the cover of Time did you felt guilty, uneasy, ambiguous about being a white guy, singled out to celebrate the new jazz, as opposed to Ellington?

DAVE: You know, you're not the only one that asks that question. I was on a panel one time, and that question was asked, and it was all jazz musicians and me. Lionel Hampton was there, Billy Taylor, I forget who else, maybe Max Roach. And they were saying, it's difficult for white guys to feel this and feel that and play jazz, and then the person running the discussion said, well, how about Dave? And Lionel answered and said, 'oh, we don't mean Dave. He's got his own thing going.' And he just waved it off. And you see, that has happened to me all my life, is that I've been accepted. One time, I was doing a show in Rotterdam with Willie the Lion Smith, who was great, wonderful -- he influenced Duke Ellington and a lot of other great musicians -- and [there was] this Dutch MC …and he said, 'Mr. Willie the Lion Smith, isn't it true that no white man can play jazz?' And Willie said, 'meet my son,' meaning me. And that dismissed that question right away.

SMITH: There are people who said to us, "West Coast jazz was cool jazz and it was white jazz. Most of the guys we were playing with white. And a lot of the put down that was coming was coming from the East Coast and it was bop and most of the guys who were playing that was black, were black." Did you feel that you were handicapped because you were West Coast and white?

DAVE: No, because we had a tremendous following amongst the black audience - black colleges, black nightclubs. I always want to remember that at the same time that we're playing what the critics used to like to label us as intellectual performances for universities and colleges, we are also playing at the Apollo in Harlem and black clubs all through the south and black universities. The critics don't like to remember that we were doing both. They like to pigeonhole us into intellectual college, university concert halls. It's not true at all. We were doing everything, playing with symphony orchestras, doing ballets, opening all kinds of doors. All they had to do, if they're interested, is look at our itinerary and they'll see where we were playing. We weren't playing black clubs where we were the only white or mixed group ever allowed to play in there. We had that kind of following.

SMITH: Let me take you back to your days in the Army during World War II, where you started a band. Talk about that.

DAVE: I had the first integrated Army band in World War II. This old Colonel, the one that spoke German, was a humanitarian. And he allowed me to have blacks in my band. It was against principle. I don't know if you'll ever find a regulation saying you can't have blacks, but nobody had blacks when I did. I tried to get into a black band. And being white, they wouldn't let me. So I was glad to do it in reverse and bring two blacks into my band.

SMITH: What happened?

DAVE: A lot of hostility came from people that didn't think in terms of the equality of man, who were upset by us being what they called 'billeted' living together. And on a few occasions they tried to start arguments and fights.

SMITH: And then you had to deal with similar hostility when you toured the South in the early 1960's. Talk about that.

DAVE: I wasn't allowed to play in some universities in the United States and out of twenty-five concerts, twenty-three were cancelled unless I would substitute my black bass player for my old white bass player, which I wouldn't do. They wouldn't let us go on with Gene [Wright] and I wouldn't go on without him. So there was a stalemate and [we were] in a gymnasium, a big basketball arena on a big campus. And the kids were starting to riot upstairs. So the President of the school had things pushing him from every side: The kids stamping on the floor upstairs, me refusing to go on unless I could go on with my black bass player.

So we just stalled and the bus driver came and said, "Dave, hold out. Don't go on. The president is talking to the governor and I think things are going your way." And the Governor says, "You'd better let them go on." So we held on and the president of the college came in and he said, "Now you can go on with the understanding that you'll keep Eugene Wright in the background where he can't be seen too well." And I told Eugene, "Your microphone is off and I want you to use my announcement microphone so you gotta come in front of the band to play your solo." Well the audience went crazy. We integrated the school that night. The kids wanted it; the President wanted it; the teachers wanted it. The President of the college knew he might lose his funding from the state. So here's the reason you fight is for the truth to come out and people to look at it. Nobody was against my black bass player. They cheered him like he was the greatest thing that ever happened for the students. Everybody was happy. My point is those students had hired me in twenty-five universities. And twenty-three had to cancel because of what they thought they would lose from the state government. But they wouldn't lose it. We went back and played all of those schools in a few years. And we've had a lot of terrible things happen to us while we're fighting to have equality - police escorts from the airport to the university, or where I wouldn't go on [stage] until the blacks could come in or [until they] didn't have to sit in the balcony. I wouldn't play until they were in the front row. You gradually stop all these ridiculous old rules that nobody really believes in.

SMITH: There's one other very important and vivid experience you had with your dad that really made an impression on you in terms of fighting racial inequality. Tell me about that.

DAVE: I think I may have been six or seven, but I have to guess. And I don't know what was in my father's mind, but we were together. I used to go with him sometimes when he'd buy cattle. [We were down] on the Sacramento River. And my wife's uncle always hung out with a black rodeo rider. His name, believe it or not, was Shine. And so my dad just brought me up to this guy and he said "open your shirt for Dave and show him your chest." And he did and there was this brand on his chest. And my dad said "something like this should never happen again.." …You've gotta remember I'm around cattle branding and I know what it's like, that hot iron, 'cause I've branded hundreds of cattle. And the hotter the iron, the less it will hurt and the quicker you can get off, get off the burning and the smell of that burnt hair and skin. So you want to get that fire as hot as you can. And the whole picture came to my mind, because I've been around branding as long as I can remember. And to see a, a wonderful man having had to go through that was just too much for me….It had an impact on me that I'll never forget. All of my life I thought what I can do about this. It's like my dad telling me to do something about it.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck speaking from behind a piano



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