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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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The Man

An Interview with the Brubeck Sons:

Picture of Dave Brubeck riding a horse

Correspondent Hedrick Smith sat down with Dave's sons after a rehearsal for the 80th birthday concert they played with their father and the London Symphony Orchestra. Here are some of their insights on jazz, making it the music business and what it was like growing up Brubeck:


SMITH: Okay, it's December twentieth, two thousand, we're at the Craxston Hall with the Brubeck brothers, Matthew, Chris, Danny and Darius. So what's it like playing with your dad?

MATTHEW: Playing with dad you kind of get back a lot of memories of household sounds. A lot of music is, for me, a lot like the way smell is to people, like the certain scent identifies something. And for me, hearing the way Dave plays piano, just kind of just reminds me of growing up. There's a lot…..there's a lot of memories associated and also with particular tunes like playing In Your Own Sweet Way and which I've heard so many times and I've heard it played by a lot of different people but it's not the same as hearing Dave play it.

SMITH: How do you deal with ego? I mean you guys have all got four egos and you're all professionals and Dave is a guy who's got substantial reputation to put it mildly, how is that, how does that all work?

CHRIS: Well, I think we've all got a lot of faith. We've each heard all of us whatever our combination of ego and talent is, do great things, not only musically but in recording sessions or with audiences. So I think we all have faith in each other and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. So no one runs around thinking 'I am perfect He-Man,' you know, so none of that vibe there. For music to really work, everyone has to really listen and everyone really has to help the other person. It's like, football clichés, you know, you really have to work as a team for it to be a good piece of music. So that really you have to sublimate your ego to make good music.

SMITH: What's is like when you all play together though? Your rehearsed with Dave the day before the concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and there were times when there was disagreements on how things should go. Who makes those calls?

DARIUS: Someone's got to make those decisions and often they're judgment calls, they're not necessarily right or wrong. But what is wrong, is five different people all doing it their own way.

CHRIS: Dave's intuition about how things ought to change are usually more right than any of our preconceived notions of how it should go. There's a quote in Dave's house: 'The audience is the fifth member of the group.' It's really true, you sort of feel this sort of thing in the audience, a collective unconscious, and Dave intuitively reacts to that and he'll stretch or wants you to be shorter or something, so there is a subconscious influence that changes arrangements.

SMITH: I guess I'm really talking about something psychological here. When you're playing with a guy like Dave, with that kind of reputation, even though he's your father, wow, I mean, you're tight or you're loose or whatever, how are you guys? I mean, you just used to it?

DANNY: We perceive Dave first of all as a human being, with all of his weaknesses and all of his strengths. So I don't think it's that different than all of our perceptions of one another.

SMITH: How'd you guys all wind up being musicians? I mean, was it in, was it in the air, was it actually encouraged or did Dave and Iola say, 'No, don't do that, this is a wacko world,' and you guys went ahead anyway?

DARIUS: All of the above, (laughs).

CHRIS: He definitely said a lot, 'you don't want to be a musician,' and I could never figure out why, because he didn't articulate the negatives. But from my point of view, why wouldn't I want to be a musician? Because I saw Dave playing with all these great musicians and I heard great musicians playing and doing well. Darius can remember the poverty years but I can't. By the time I was conscious, I was going to concerts where people really wanted to see Dave and they were happy to see Dave and I felt like hey, there's a good life path. You express yourself, and people come and hear you and they're happy. I'll take that.

SMITH: Darius, the poverty years, does that ring a bell?

DARIUS: Well, yeah but some of it's a bit secondhand because I didn't perceive it as that. I [thought] it was normal to spend the night in the car or something. It was fun. All these other kids had to live in houses all the time and it was the same place and we were from California but I got to see snow and go on trains and live in cars and…and have different stories. But they're really Dave and Iola's stories, they're not my stories, it was just my life for a while.

SMITH: But what's interesting is the messages you get from your parents often are not verbal and that's what you're talking about. The verbal message may be 'look out, it's costly, there may not be much money in it, it's uncertain' whatever but the verbal message, you see that Dave and Iola are happy and doing what they want to be doing and that's a much more powerful message, even if unspoken. I just wonder how much that was a message that was coming through.

DANNY: Yeah, I never really thought about it that much, but later in life, other musician friends of mine are like, 'Oh man, my parents were so bummed out when I decided to become a professional musician. They really wanted me to be a doctor,' or they really wanted this or that. And I've heard that a million times and I have to say, I never felt the forced to be a musician or to be anything other than what would make me happy. I mean, naturally we were attracted to music, maybe if we weren't we would've felt something but I don't really think so. There're people that would prefer that you just do exactly what's going to make you happy. Certainly that's what they did.

SMITH: Danny, how about you? You're a drummer. We were talking earlier about Joe Morello and your brother Chris was talking about these great musicians and they were making people happy. I mean is that important in terms of why you got into music. Why not be a writer or a banker?

DANNY: For me personally I was just attracted to playing drums and I know everyone else would probably say, yeah because you had so much energy and so drums is a place you can really direct a lot of energy and you can hit things. I think for me it was just the right choice for my energy level.

CHRIS: Definitely. Because Dan has the most assertive personality of us and you know I really like the drums and played them a little bit and everything, but I tell you the truth, and I don't mean to insult Danny because I'm so glad he's a drummer, but drums make too much noise for me.

SMITH: But you had a saxophone your dad told a story about meeting Louis Armstrong. What did he say?

CHRIS: Well, he took me backstage to meet him and I had just started playing trombone and I really did have a sense at how amazing it was to be Louis Armstrong, you know, he was like the musical ambassador to the world and I thought it was really cool to meet him. I really felt that he was a saint, but like a jazz saint. And so when I met him, you know, my father said, 'this is Chris and he's playing the trombone' and [Louis] said, 'oh yeah,' and he looked at me and said, 'yeah, you got the chops for it.' It's like, it's like Willie Mays telling me I can be an outfielder or something.

SMITH: Matthew, how did you get into the cello?

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MATTHEW: Fairly early on, I heard it and I liked it and I could already read base cleft and they needed a cello in the school orchestra. It was really very just pragmatic. It's an unusual [instrument for jazz], there's a few people who are doing it. I do some work in classical orchestras, but I don't do any classical solo work. I sort of knew by the time I was in my twenties that I was never going to be one of those people, so I just naturally kind of went back to my family roots and sort of started exploring improvisation.

SMITH: So the same kind of thing uh, drew you towards music as your brothers? I mean, that you were just surrounded by it and it seemed natural and looked like fun?

MATTHEW: Well, I think you end up doing what you do best, naturally. I mean, I think I would be a really bad accountant. (Laughs) Judging from my bank books.

SMITH: In a lot of ways, having Dave as a dad really opened incredible doors. I mean you, rattled off several names here of jazz greats, musical greats that just were the folks in and out of your house.

CHRIS: Absolutely, I mean, Paul Desmond was Uncle Paul, and he was the guy. Paul and Dave had a really amazing relationship. It was very vicarious and Paul never had kids but I think he got enjoyment out of buying Christmas presents for [us]. And he always gave the most original, bizarre, and wonderful gifts. And Joe Morello and Gene Wright, and Jerry Mulligan, I mean these are people we really got to know and fortunately really got to play with too. You know, from being the little rug rats that they tolerated at their rehearsals to being actual musicians with give and take.

SMITH: How tough is it to walk in the footsteps of a guy like Dave, maybe start with you Darius?.

DARIUS: Well, we've all had very different careers. Perhaps because I'm a pianist it was very difficult not only because he's more famous. I mean a very high standard as of achievement has been set at something that's a combination of being creative, physical; you have to have thought, conditioning, skill, coordination -- it's all these different things. His composing is amazing and the number of media that he's working with -- he's handling a world that is so immense, that has so much range, I know at my age, I know now, that I'm not going to get there. But when I was in my twenties, maybe in my thirties, I sort of thought I was, so it was tough. Now, I've done other things very successfully, I have a reputation on the basis of what I can do and what I have done but it's not gonna come close [to Dave] and that is a hard thing to take, but you can sort of also deal with that the same way everyone else in the world realizes they're not going to be Duke Ellington or Babe Ruth or Dave Brubeck and just do what you can do.

SMITH: Damn good answer. And you Danny?

DANNY: First of all it's really nice because Dave's fame isn't the kind that means that every meal you eat, you know, some bimbo's gonna walk up and interrupt your vibe of whatever you're doing. But when I had to show the passport checker my work permit, and he sees my name is Brubeck. He says, 'You're not related are you?' And I say 'yes,' [and he says] 'good God that's great!' There is this enthusiasm there. And I called the driver service that got us to this rehearsal studio and he goes "The name Brubeck -- you're not related are you?" It's fun to know that Dave is connected with all these people.

There was a time around Christmas where we got a phone call and it was very interruptive of whatever was going on as a family, and Dave comes back with this like strange look on his face. And he told us, 'the damndest thing happened.' He got a phone call from someone that he didn't know, but he wanted to share this Christmas wish with our family: One of his best friends decided to kill himself by jumping out of an apartment building in New York and it was one of those scenes like you see in Superman movies, the guy's on the ledge and there's clowns running around with, with things to catch him if he does jump. And the cop negotiators were there trying to say 'you gotta come back in.' And he says 'No, I have no reason to live. My wife doesn't like me anymore.' And his friend said, 'If you jump, you won't hear Dave Brubeck's next record,' and the guy came back inside. You make this piece of music but what it means to someone else, I mean, it literally can turn someone's life around and that's the example of how I've seen it.

SMITH: Dave's influenced you guys, obviously enormously in lots of ways. Have you guys influenced him do you think? Or how?

CHRIS: Absolutely. Like Darius got deeply into Indian music and brought Indian musicians to our house and that influenced [Dave], as did the whole funk kind of thing, and rock thing.

DARIUS: The Truth Has Fallen, that's an Atlantic Record that was made. It's Dave's piece but it was done in collaboration with Chris and Chris's early seventies rock group that was based on the Kent State incident. It runs a gamut from being quite technical but there are also passages where he's just letting youth speak in its own voice which is Chris and his group.

We're close enough that when we bring things home perhaps they're paid attention to in a way, and kind of filed away and it's kind of in a drawer full of cultural references which he does pick up from us I think.

DANNY: In the moment too, I'll feel like we'll influence what he's playing. We'll be playing something Chris and I, and in the rhythm section central start playing a certain way, and he'll pick up on that and shift to more where we're coming from. A good example would be Jazzanians. We did this record together where we did this tune that was sort of supposed to be South African influence for Darius and when Dave was playing, we set up this really intense groove and I think he played very differently than he normally plays. It sounded like a James Brown segment.

SMITH: But Iola said you also got some brick bats from critics, and stuff like that. How hard was that?

CHRIS: Dave's gotten much more relaxed. When we first were playing together I think he was kind of uptight about it and I wouldn't blame him, I would be too, because he disbanded his famous group and he wanted to play with us. How were we gonna be just as great as all those wonderful musicians who were all thirty years more experienced than us? And so of course, he wanted us to go out there and not embarrass him. But it's an Achilles heel. If a critic wants to get in there and carve, he can have fun. And now Dave is literally outliving his critics, actually physically and he kind of doesn't care anymore. He just wants to make music and he's much looser about it. So it's different playing with Dave now than it was twenty years ago. We're just way beyond him worrying about proving anything because it's a double edge sword. Like when we play at the Hollywood Bowl and Dan plays the drum solo on Take Five and it just knocks every one out and brings everyone to their feet, it's like an extra proud feeling 'cause he's my son. On the other hand, if I went out and played really bad and blew fifty bad notes, it would hurt more because I'm his son. It's a more powerful swing in either direction.

CHRIS: I was just gonna to amplify what Dan was saying. When you talk about success, we're talking about really good reviews, fabulous audience reaction, a fantastic group, so the only thing that didn't happen was selling, a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand records. One forgets that when Dave started taking up, jazz was really popular music. And so now I have students and they say, 'I want to be a jazz musician,' and I say, 'well that's great,' but you realize now that's like saying 'I really want to develop this talent of putting the Bible on the head of a pin,' because that's about what slice of the pie of people that are going to care that you're great at it.

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DANNY: But I think anyone involved in jazz, I mean, I'm sure a lot of people that will say 'oh man, they're great, they're doing all kinds of stuff,' and then you find out that they're really scuffling, they're not making any bread and you're image is blown. It's like 'oh my God, ' I thought that was just me going through that,' but it's pretty much everyone.

MATTHEW: Yeah, Frank Zappa when he was acting, he saw Duke Ellington just trying to get some advance money from some promoter. I mean, here's Duke Ellington, the great American institution, having to lower himself to try to get a hundred dollars from a promoter to try to cover parking and stuff.

SMITH: Was it hard to break up after you had the group Two Generations of Brubeck going?

DARIUS: The Brubeck Quartet as a way of finding out what's really out there and then trying to do it one's self. And it was just difficult, you know, if you had a tour with Dave and there were like fifteen dates, well obviously you wanted to do them but right in the middle of one of those might be something that Gathering Forces, which is a group Dan and I had together, might get really a plum date, a rare chance for us to work together doing music And then there would be this tension, which side do you let down? We were in a relatively secure and privileged situation but we wanted to do other things. We needed to do other things.

SMITH: Do you miss it Danny, playing on tour together?

DANNY: Yeah I do. I wish I could do it a lot more than I do it but like Darius was saying, there was a point where there was a curiosity about well, 'if I go out and I try this or I try that maybe I'll get involved in a completely different direction.'

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Picture of Dave Brubeck riding a horse



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