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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 Critics: George Wein

Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano

SMITH: When was the first time you heard Dave Brubeck play or heard his music?

WEIN: I remember when Dave Brubeck first came to Storyville in Boston. I think the year was 1952. He was totally unknown. There were a few articles in Downbeat and, they put him on the circuit to work at Birdland, the Bluenote in Chicago, to Storyville, the Rendezvous in Philadelphia and so forth. And the Joe Glazer office booked him and we paid him, I think nine hundred dollars a week. And they paid their own transportation from California; they were on the road driving by car. Paid their own hotels, they paid their commission. So they had to be losing money. And the first night that the group came in with Desmond, a few people were there. And by the end of the week, the place was nearly full. It was a classic example of a musician communicating immediately. Brubeck understood one thing. His music communicated. It communicated with an identity that he had. They had a sound that was their own. Brubeck's piano playing wasn't in the direct descendant of Bud Powell who was the hip pianist at that time, but when you heard Brubeck with his counterpoint and his counter rhythms and then Desmond's beautiful alto sound and the melodic and romantic feeling the group had, it was wonderful. And by the end of the week, the club was packed and you knew that this man was going to make an impression on the world of jazz.

SMITH: And now what was it about Brubeck and Desmond as a combination?

WEIN: Brubeck and Desmond knew every move that each other could make; they worked together. Their structure of harmonic development, their structure of rhythmic development, everything about the playing had a familiarity to each of them. And that's why they communicated because they showed to each other a musical joy. They loved each other, but they had different worlds. Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck were different people. But musically and there was a compassion and a feeling between the two of them that I've never seen between two musicians.

SMITH: Now what was your reaction when you heard Take Five or when Time Out came out?

WEIN: One of the great contributions to, jazz was the, playing of Take Five in five four time. It had never been done before that anybody knew or it had been done but it wasn't popularized. And here Paul Desmond writes this song and Brubeck plays it and all of a sudden this is swinging in five four and it caught the fancy of the whole world. And when you first heard it, you're trying to play it, and wait a minute there's something wrong here. It's not one two and two; it's one two three four five, one two three four five, one. And once you start thinking like that, it's so catchy, it just grabs hold of you and you never forget the song.

SMITH: And yet, you know, Brubeck has told us that he had a terrible fight with Columbia Records to get them to bring out Time Out precisely because of all the eccentric rhythms. They didn't want the thing that was that different.

WEIN: Take Five was different; there was no question about it. Record companies don't recognize these things all the time. But the Mediterranean countries are playing music in many different meters - Turkish music, Greek music. It's as simple to them as a four is to us or a waltz is to Vienna. The melody and the rhythm communicated. The record companies didn't understand that. They're thinking only in what's a hit record and they look for a formula. They'd never have new music and, Take Five was more important than the attitude of the record companies. It's probably the best selling record in the history of jazz.

SMITH: Do you think Dave Brubeck was hurt by being so normal, so conventional, not smoking, not being on dope, not drinking very much?

WEIN: I think so. But considering the fact that people want individuality in jazz, the fact that Brubeck was not part of the mainstream and was criticized by, for not being part of the mainstream, always amazed me. The fact that he didn't hang out with the guys, so to speak, and had his own concepts of structure of his music didn't make him any less of of a jazz musician. I think Dave just wanted his own world. Remember, Dave is a family man; he has his wife, Iola, who's one of the loveliest people in the world, he was raising children. He wanted to play his music and still be a beautiful human being.

SMITH: When did you line Dave up for a festival? When did he first come to Newport?

WEIN: I started Newport in 1954 and by the time Dave Brubeck came to Newport, which I think was the first year, he was already the number one draw in jazz because Dave had reached out to the college kids and no other jazz musician had really reached college kids yet. That Jazz at Oberlin really created a market that was not there before and every jazz musician owed Dave something for that. It was an amazing that he did, because he was playing pure and simple jazz. He was not playing down to people; he was bringing people up to his music. And Paul Desmond was a dedicated musician. And the two of them just reached out. It was something to see. And it helped all jazz at that time. We don't have anybody like that in jazz now. There was a whole movement in jazz that Brubeck was perhaps the leader of.

SMITH: What does it take to hold a group like that together and make it work?

WEIN: Every great leader had a strength that was really very difficult for an outsider to understand. There was a dedication to their life, to their work, to their music. They knew that to play the music they wanted to play, they had to have the strength to hold a group together. Brubeck, even though he was with a quartet had the same dedication. When Paul Desmond passed which was very sad, everybody thought, 'Brubeck, what is he gonna do?' Brubeck went straight ahead because he was such a strong, and is such a strong human being, nothing was going to keep him from playing his music. And he held another group together and he's holding a group together today. It's a unique passion and it's very beautiful to see.

SMITH: How did Brubeck and Desmond stay together for sixteen years?

WEIN: Duke Ellington had a great alto saxophonist by the name of Johnny Hodges. Johnny Hodges left the Duke Ellington, it wasn't long before he came back. Paul Desmond left Dave Brubeck but they came back. They were brothers -they meshed musically. Desmond would listen to people and say, "You should go out by yourself." Desmond was actually more of an intellect than Dave Brubeck. Not a musical intellect but a literary intellect. He wanted to do things for himself but he went out, he felt very lonely and he came back to lean upon the strength of Dave Brubeck because as beautiful and as intelligent and brilliant as he was, he did not have the personal strength that Dave Brubeck had and he needed that to lean upon.

SMITH: It's interesting you say that because there are people who will say, well the great figure in the Dave Brubeck Quartet wasn't Brubeck, it was Desmond. And Brubeck would have been nobody without Desmond. But you're making it sound as though the key guy was Brubeck and not Desmond.

WEIN: Dave Brubeck is one of the strongest human beings I know and one of the most dedicated human beings. I wasn't worried for one minute what would happen to Dave Brubeck when Paul Desmond left the group 'cause I knew the two of them. I knew that Desmond would flounder 'cause he always wanted to play, he recorded with some guitar players towards the end; it was a nice thing. But Brubeck was the strength; Brubeck was the difference in the music. Desmond was the sound, Desmond was the voice that communicated but the guts of the music was Dave Brubeck. A lot of people just don't understand this because Desmond was loved by critics. Brubeck was not loved by critics. So it's very easy to go along with what you read. But when you listen to it and get into what's really happening and when you're close to it, you know what's happening and I knew what was happening with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

SMITH: Were you surprised when Dave Brubeck broke up his famous quartet?

WEIN: I don't recall too much about that but I do know one thing, Brubeck writes music. His primary love at the moment and always, has been writing music. He didn't write that much at the very beginning of his career. He was concerned with establishing himself. But as time went on, that desire to compose took over. Dave Brubeck became like Duke Ellington. He would be flying on a plane, he'd be writing music; riding in a car, he'd be writing music. This was a dedication of his. But he always went back to the group because he needed the group to play his music. And not only that, now he works with symphony orchestras, he's around playing all over the world. He is lionized as one of the great legendary figures in the world of jazz and classical music at this point, because he's writing a lot of classically directed music. And I think that was his real ambition in life.

SMITH: Do think the years with his kids was something maybe he needed to do for family reasons and it worked somewhat musically but it just wasn't up to the standard that he was normally at?

WEIN: Dave Brubeck is a family man. His children are very important to him. He's always asked people to work with his kids. And having his kids with him was very important. His kids are good musicians. I don't think it hurt Dave Brubeck at all. I think it was a great statement that he made.

SMITH: Was he perceived as being too cool or too classical? Was he too white? Was there a problem that is was a music that came out of slavery and was regarded as a black music and Dave was white?

WEIN: I don't think Dave Brubeck related the criticism to any ethnic diversity and difference between him and what African-Americans feel is their music. Because as much as they feel that jazz belongs to their culture, they realize other people can play it and realize other people have contributed to it. Even the musicians who speak very strongly about that understand that there were great white musicians. I think Dave's problem was he's not in the mainstream of playing. Dave Brubeck played his own music his own way. And to this day, he takes that knock from a lot of critics. And to me it's one of the most infuriating things that I know. I hate it when I see some idiot criticize Dave Brubeck for something that has nothing to do with what he's doing musically because they don't understand it.

SMITH: Do you remember the review after his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert? It's one that burned an ember deep in Dave's own conscious.

WEIN: I just remember that Brubeck has always been hurt in New York when he plays here because every critic thinks that they're so sharp and so hip, man, they're gonna show what they know when they don't know very much at all and it's very sad. You know when you're on top, people like to hit the guy on the top. He was number one, he was the one that was happening. You attack him. Brubeck is unique in the way the jazz world has reacted to him because certain jazz musicians have made hit records - George Benson, Chuck Mangione, you know who are very fine musicians. But they went a popular route, you know, to record something that would sell in their mind. Those guys are very needed because they reach a public and it helps the whole structure of the music. But Brubeck never did that. He just became popular playing his own music. And there was a little resentment in that I guess.

SMITH: Where do you put Dave Brubeck in the hierarchy of American jazz? How important has Dave Brubeck been for American jazz?

WEIN: That's a very interesting question how important is Dave Brubeck in the overall scheme of American jazz. Dave Brubeck personifies the individually that a jazz musician can have. He was not part of the mainstream. He did not influence,he was not a major influence on other players. He was himself. He made it easier for other jazz musicians to work and to earn a living because of his popularity.

SMITH: Are there Brubeck techniques that he pioneered or pushed that have now just become part of the vocabulary of jazz that you can see as his legacy? Or is that so diffuse that it's really not a fair case to make?

WEIN: The concept of different time meters and five four, there's no question that Brubeck's record had a major influence on developments in that direction. Musicians are playing with it all the time. To me it doesn't have that much meaning. I'm not that concerned with it and I don't think most musicians are that concerned with it because it becomes a gimmick after a while. But Time Out went beyond being a gimmick and they played so comfortably with it that people play five four now very comfortably. Brubeck's contribution was important. Now whether Brubeck's contribution was because they played Take Five or whether nobody else had done this before they did it, I don't know. I don't know the history of those things. I know that that was a major contribution. The polyrhythmic style that Brubeck played, which is what he was criticized before, because they said that didn't swing. Believe me, that was swinging and it got people excited. People cheered in the middle of his solos.

SMITH: How should Brubeck be remembered?

WEIN: Dave Brubeck will be remembered in jazz as Dave Brubeck - a unique contributor to the great music that is jazz. He was and is unique and that's what jazz is all about. He defines that individuality, that personal expression that reaches out and that people love and it's jazz. And it's strange -- the negative reaction towards Brubeck is one that is beyond my scope. But Brubeck will be remembered; he'll always be remembered.

SMITH: Why do you think Brubeck always made it more with the public than with the critics and his fellow musicians?

WEIN: In reaching for a jazz musician to reach the public, there's a simple word that is rather indefinable. It's 'communication.' He communicated. He made people feel that the music he played was difficult to understand and you felt proud that you understood it. But really the music was not difficult to understand. That's a secret of communication.

Polyrhythms are so difficult. They weren't difficult with Brubeck because he brought them right to you. You just smiled and he brought the room alive; he brought whole festival crowds alive. The energy he put through, his energy was incredible. And, he just communicated.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano



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