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

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The Man

A Conversation with Iola Brubeck

Picture of Dave Brubeck riding a horse

Hedrick Smith interviewed Dave and Iola Brubeck over the course of a years in several locations, including on the road in Europe and at their home in Wilton, Connecticut. Here, Iola shares her thoughts on life on the road, taking jazz to college campuses and collaborating with her husband.


SMITH: Iola, how much of life is on the road?

IOLA: How much of life is on the road? Well you know in recent years - and I say recent by meaning that after our youngest son was off to boarding school - I've been traveling with Dave. And, but there were many years before then when I was home and he was on the road. So my life on the road - I guess we're gone, is it as much as six months out of the year. Usually in chunks of two or three weeks at a time and then home for a bit. Just enough to pay the bills and catch up with the laundry. (laughs) And that sort of then and then we're off again. But I have to say that most of the time I enjoy it.

SMITH: I mean six months out of the year is a lot of travel. I'm just wondering what that means to a lifestyle. I mean you have to organize that kind of a lifestyle around that.

IOLA: Yes, you do. And in some ways it's kind of an insular lifestyle because at home we're always playing catch-up. And so most of ourů.most of our friends and acquaintances really are related to this kind of lifestyle. The people we see over and over when we're on the road. And I think in every city in the country, almost the world, there will be people that when we know that we will see. And but as I say, it's somewhat isolating, you know.

SMITH: What are the things that go through your mind when you flash back to the travel thirty, forty, fifty years ago and travel today?

IOLA: Well I'll tell you something, at the time that we were married Dave was in the Army and we had no idea what the future was going to be like. And he said to me, "I don't know what the future is going to be like at all. But I promise you one thing, you will never be bored." (laughs) And he's kept his promise. (laughs)

Well we had to learn to just to adapt to whatever our circumstances were. And when we were on the road and traveling with children, we would come into a place and look around and see how we were going to fit in. And we learned that the big old hotels with high ceilings and big closets were wonderful because we could put air mattresses and sleeping bags down into these big closets and the kids had a bedroom. And babies could fit into big bureau drawers. And we always carried a footlocker and also their toys, books, games, everything was in that. And I feel that I learned a lot of that from my own parents because, my family had very little and our way of having a vacation was not to go to a resort, we always went camping. And we learned how to make do out in the wilderness someplace. And we loved it. So, fortunately, I think my background and Dave's ranch background gave us sort of that, I don't know, pioneer fortitude, I guess to okay, these are the circumstances, accept it and make the most of it. Make it work, it will work.

SMITH: Camping out on the road, in effect.

IOLA: That's exactly what it is. It's just in a hotel room, not under a pine tree.

SMITH: Yeah. Now Dave was recalling, just yesterday with us, he was recalling the night in Pittsburgh.

IOLA: Oh, yeah, his saddest night.

SMITH: Yeah. What's your memory of that night in Pittsburgh?

IOLA: In feeling, this is pretty low down on the scale but, it's only going to be a week, not going to be forever. And knowing that everything was going to be okay, you know. I never, never felt that we're stuck in this permanently. I went down to do some laundry, and I thought I was alone down there. But then a door opened and out came a man what had been a coal bin, that was his room. And when the door opened I could see there was a cot in there and someone was living in that situation. And I often think, you see for a man like that probably there was no hope of doing much better, and we were the lucky ones because we know this isn't going to last. And we put up with it for a few days and then we'd go on and the next place is going to be much better. One of the stories I remember was that the walls were paper thin because they weren't really rooms, they were just partitions that had been made in this big old place that at one time, I guess, was a mansion. And a huge fight was going on next door; screaming and all kinds of obscenities and everything. And Darius, who was, I guess about four, five maybe at that time, said, "They must be rehearsing a play." (laughs) And I said, "Yes, I'm sure they are." (laughs)

SMITH: Real life seemed like melodrama. But Dave describes himself as pretty close to saying, 'I've had it with the road.'

IOLA: He was, he was. Because I think that he felt for us, for me and the kids, and felt this was unfair to us. I think that his feeling was, 'I'm fulfilling my ambition and I can put up with it. But why am I imposing this on my family.

SMITH: And Salt Lake City, up there where there was no running water and you were doing the wash and bathing the kids in the stream.

IOLA: A flood had come through the cabin. That was the reason why it was available. So there was no floor on the downstairs living quarters. And upstairs where beds were, that was fine. No mud there. But, of course, there was no running water. And I must admit, it was a little spooky out there at night because it was a long way from civilization and no lights in sight. And when Dave would go in to play at the club I felt a little alone out there. (laughs)

SMITH: Dave was going against the grain and he was determined to do it his own way. Did you all talk about that? Did you talk about 'I gotta do it my way and hope you understand.' I mean what was the dialogue about that?

IOLA: I don't remember ever having that kind of discussion. I just knew that's the way he was and that's the way he played and nothing was going to change him. It never occurred to me to say, 'well you could be more commercial,' (laughs).

SMITH: One of the things that you're best known for in terms of widening the world of jazz is taking jazz to college campuses. Why did you start going to college campuses? How did that happen?

IOLA: That came because the success of the Octet at Mills College, where it was performed with a good music department, and then shortly thereafter they played the University of California, Berkeley. They'd had such terrible response in the commercial world trying to play clubs. But this wonderful response from university students, especially where there were good music departments, that that seemed to be the way for them to work. And then I also figured that students don't have a lot of money, they can't pay the tariff to go into the clubs often if there's a big cover charge, many of them are underage as far as drinking is concerned. Bring the jazz to them where they can attend a concert as they would a classical concert. And this began to catch on, first just in California and then the ability to go up to southern Oregon and then to Washington and then to Salt Lake City and then to southern California and it began to build from there.

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SMITH: This was an enormously important new audience for you, but for jazz.

IOLA: For jazz in general, yeah. Because jazz bands would come in to play proms, dances and that sort of thing. But for a concert, just people to sit down and listen was very, very seldom done. And, of course, it built an audience later after Dave started recording with Columbia, in particular. They started out with Jazz Goes to College because that basic core of fans had begun to develop among the college audience.

SMITH: Iola, you've written the lyrics to a lot of Dave's religious music. You obviously have a partnership in life and in your family but you also have a very unusual partnership in your work.

IOLA: The first piece that Dave started to work on was The Light in the Wilderness. When the, what we call the 'old quartet' broke up in sixty-seven a part of the reason was that Dave wanted to complete that oratorial. I don't know how I got into the mix but I started looking for portions of the Bible that I thought said what he wanted to say. I have some background in drama and I think I contributed to a dramatic sense of how to juxtapose certain things and how to lead to a certain climax.

SMITH: But how does this work? I mean do you come up with ideas and give 'em to Dave for the music? Does Dave come up with a musical idea and then say to you, uh, "What do you think?"

IOLA: Dave usually plunges in first. He takes the plunge and then I see the direction where he wants to go and then I will say, "Well if this is what you want to say, this is a good example."

SMITH: But what about the Real Ambassadors, for example. I mean you're talking about audience being shocked out of their seats the way you described the way Louis Armstrong sang it. But how did those words evolve? How did that get put together?

IOLA: It was collaborative. Dave had already written the tunes and he had sort of lyrics begun and some I just wrote the lyrics to the music, Summer Song, for example. And then a lot of times it came from Dave. Then he'd say, "Well this is a corny idea but can you do something with it?" (laughter)

SMITH: But now you're working on Dave's autobiography together.

IOLA: Yes.

SMITH: Tell us about that. What's going on?

IOLA: Well I try to get him to remember (laughs) and some, certain things he's very good about remembering. And there are a lot of things he'll say, "I don't remember that at all." And I'm trying to piece together things from old clippings and old date books, old diaries. I have my own version of shorthand and I take it down.

SMITH: Your own memory's pretty good. You remember a lot.

IOLA: I remember pretty well. (laughs)

SMITH: What would you want to tell us about your work, your lives, your values, your experiences that maybe we haven't asked about.

IOLA: Well I think Dave's kind of summed up everything, I think, that is truly in his heart and our hearts in the music. Either in the individual pieces where words are involved, where I'm involved or in a performance, in a jazz performance where that inspired moment is looked for. And I think that Dave and the people in the Quartet's willingness to open up their emotions and their hearts and expose it and communicate with the audience. There is something in that communication that makes everybody one for at least the duration of the music that I think is very essential to life. It's a connectedness.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck riding a horse



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