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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 Rocky Road to Success

SMITH:: You mentioned the hard times and what you'd put your family through. What's the hardest time you remember?

DAVE:: Well there's many hard times. Renting a place in the mountains above Salt Lake 'cause I couldn't afford the eight dollars a night for the motel room. And the place we had in the mountains had been flooded so there was no floor, just a dirt floor. And upstairs it was okay but there was no place to wash the kids except in the stream. And that was a pretty hard time. And one time I almost quit and went home 'cause we arrived late and had to move the wife and two kids into this old mansion that was just full of places for people to live even in the coal bin down in the basement and the laundry. And we were on the third floor where there was one bathroom for, I don't know, five or six apartments. And when it came time for me to go to work, Iola said, "Well there's no bedding and no sheets." And so I called the manager and he said, "Well I'll send up some." And he sent up flour sacks that were sewn together and had been washed but there were still blood stains all over them. And that was the night I thought I put them through too much, maybe I should go home. That's as close as I came to giving up.

SMITH:: But you actually thought of giving up jazz?

DAVE:: No, I thought of going back to the ranch and I would play weekends.

SMITH:: Here you are coming up the rise but it's so tough, you're nearly ready to give it up.

DAVE:: Yeah, sure. We wouldn't make enough money to be able to pay to get to the next town without going into the money that you held back from the men for taxes or union dues or whatever, you know. Just barely making it and living on the worst kind of food in the worst kind of situations. There were plenty of years like that.

SMITH:: What were you making, a hundred bucks a week?

DAVE:: The men were making close to a hundred a week. And I was trying to make a hundred a week but as the leader I always had to pay the union dues, the agents' fees and I would end up with less.

SMITH:: But I know, especially when you're first starting out, that you're struggling to find work. What did you do to make ends meet when you couldn't get a jazz job?

DAVE:: Well

DAVE: Van Creed's brother had.a truck, a van, that looks like a Brinks money truck and in there he had milk and juices and sandwiches. And uh, he would park in front of the uh, businesses and we would run in with….with wire baskets full of sandwiches and juice and everything into these big uh, offices and go up in the elevator to the top and work our way down selling sandwiches and juice or anything. Once in a while I'd run into an old college friend and "Brubeck, what are you doing?" "Selling sandwiches - you want one?" And Van Creed's brother was so nervous he had trouble with the car, with the gear shift and everything. And almost every time that we'd leave one office building, get ready to go the next, he'd let the clutch out too fast and all the milk would spill, all the sandwiches on the floor, then we'd have to pick them up. We'd be saying, "Be careful, be careful."

SMITH:: But you weren't making a lot of money selling sandwiches.

DAVE:: Hardly anything, yeah. It was tough.

SMITH:: So, when does the Trio get going? How did things pick up from this low point that you just described.

DAVE:: Well fortunately where the Three D's worked in the Geary Cellar was in the same block as NBC. And Jimmy Lyons had a jazz show every night and he would drop by and we gradually got to know Jimmy. And when Jimmy called me and he said, "I've got a job if you're interested for a trio in Oakland, California at the Burma Lounge. Are you interested?" And I said, "Boy am I interested." And um, I'll use Cal Tjader from the Octet on drums and Ron Croddy on bass and immediately things started happening. We started really making it and having a following. And then Jimmy said, "I think I can put you into a club in San Francisco called the Black Hawk. They want to switch to a jazz policy and I think they're very interested in you because you're doing all right in Oakland."

SMITH:: There were lots of people who had to go through circumstances like that but those at least in the world of jazz, some of them were playing stuff that was more popular.

DAVE:, you were going against the grain and determined to do it your own way. How did that affect your marketability?

DAVE:: Unless it was really a good jazz job, I wouldn't get hired. And we were broke -I was the only pianist in San Francisco that wasn't working New Year's Eve. That's as low as you can get. A piano player not working New Year's Eve - nobody would hire me. I went to see this guy about booking us and I sat in his office for about a half hour. And he came out of his inner office and said to me, 'Get outta here and never come back.' They're still in business, I'm still in business. I'm so glad I didn't go with them. But.that's the way people felt about me.

SMITH:: But what was that about? Was it just hard times? Was it you or was it hard times for jazz?

DAVE:: That was after the War so, it was pretty dismal time for jazz. The big bands were starting not to make it anymore. Most of them were breaking up. All across the country there used to be a lot of big bands in every city and uh, they were breaking up. A lot of the successful bands could not make it anymore. Only a few bands like Ellington and uh, uh, Count Bassie maybe Kenton.

SMITH:: Is that why you went on the road. Here you've had a lifetime of travel and it's clearly been a whole way of pursuing your career. You've had to adapt to it in terms of your personal lives. But in a way, it's also been a strategy. Why?

DAVE:: What I wanted most was a steady job in San Francisco, year round. But I could get a steady job three months in a club, then they would get somebody else for three months, then I'd come back for three months, then go away. In those periods where I would not be in the Black Hawk, there weren't other clubs that would take me because it was kinda understood that I would work the Black Hawk. My dream was to have a steady job, was not to be on the road, to exist like a guy that goes to work as a mechanic or a carpenter and knows he's gonna have a job.I never wanted this kind of life that I'm still living. I wanted to just make what you call union scale which is just enough to get by on.

SMITH:: I'm just wondering whether or not -- You've had a career now that's over fifty years. I'm wondering whether or not that 'hang in there,' that tenacity, that perseverance of your dad, the hardness that you had to learn on the ranch. I'm just wondering what's that meant to you in terms of your own -- the way you've lived your life and what you've been able to do. I mean hear echos of that and I see it in your life and I'm just wondering what that meant to you in your life. I'm just wondering what that means to you, what that experience as you look back on it.

DAVE:: You look back on how you were raised. And then you've got to realize that your wife was raised the same way where she spent the summers in the meadows in the mountains and camped out. So that when we were on the road as musicians and as a family we had a footlocker that was full of camping equipment, and that way we could save money because there were bed rolls in there and then collapsible pots and pans. And rather than go to a restaurant, we'd stop at roadside camping places to eat a lunch or fix a dinner. And all of that goes back to the way you're raised on a cattle ranch. And I think it helped us survive when we had no money was to have had that background.

SMITH:: Do you remember a moment when you sorta said, "Oh, it's gonna be all right. It's still gonna be tough but we're gonna make it."

DAVE:: You know, if you're gradually growing you could start thinking you're gonna make it. One great job isn't gonna make it for you. It's gotta be a gradual growth where you know there's gonna be series [of successes.] The recognition came faster than the money. That's the thing that's hard for people to understand --that you can be very well known and have this kind of publicity and recognition and acknowledgement of a talent and so forth, but the pay is not commensurate with that until it builds. It has to build over a long period of time.

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