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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: Stanley Crouch

Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano

Stanley Crouch has been a contributing editor to The New Republic, is an editorial columnist for the New York Daily News, and is a frequent panelist on television and radio talk shows. He is also a novelist and author of several books. He spent several years as a staff writer for the Village Voice and is artistic consultant to Jazz at Lincoln Center.

SMITH: You mention Brubeck's name and you'll get people on both sides and they feel strongly. What made Brubeck so controversial?

CROUCH: When I was coming up, people either liked Dave Brubeck or they hated him. Now if they hated him, they hated him for a couple of reasons. One, they didn't think he swang. Two, they thought his conception was garbage. And three, they thought he was getting a lot of attention because he was white.

SMITH: So there was jealousy?

CROUCH: First two weren't jealousy; first two were 'he can't play.' With Dave Brubeck you have these ways of looking at him. People either like him or they don't like him. But I think that one of the reasons why Brubeck was somewhat controversial was because his music has a lot of different sides to it and he didn't really always do the same kinda thing. And so I think that he, so some people, "Ah, Brubeck, I don't like. Aargh, I can't stand him." Then somebody might say, "But have you heard this Brubeck record?" "No, I ain't heard that." You put that on, he'll say, "Hey he sounds kinda good on that one." So I think he had a much broader range of ability than people realize.

SMITH: What was your reaction to Take Five or to Time Out, playing with all those eccentric rhythms and that kind of stuff. Do you think that was important, was it interesting?

CROUCH: I think Take Five is the only recording in a meter that odd quote, unquote, in 5/4, that was ever a popular hit. I mean everybody liked that record. It was on the radio, I mean it was on the pop radio. People would be playing some pop singer and then right then, the next they play next, "And now ladies and gentlemen, we're going to play for you Dave Brubeck's Take Five," and then boom, then they would play it. It opened some doors. But the one thing I like most about Dave Brubeck is this - he believed in playing. He was about playing the piano. Yeah, whatever his conception was, whatever the meanings were, he really believed in the art of improvising. And he played with the musicians in his band. When you listen to him playing, he's never playing by himself. There're a lot of people who are playing with two other people but they're really playing by themselves. [Brubeck] didn't play like that.

And if he heard something, he wasn't afraid to follow it, you know. Lot of times somebody will run up on something that is really different that they don't normally play and then you'll hear it, it's kinda like they put their hand on a hot oven. Dave Brubeck won't do that. If he's playing something and he makes a mistake or something that makes him hear something else, he'll follow that, he'll follow it; he'll develop it.

It's easy to play stuff you know. That's like somebody saying "Dinner at eight, wear a suit," you just have to go in your regular closet. Somebody throws you in another closet but the clothes fit you and they say, "Dinner at eight," you know, but you have the right combination, you can't wear a straight suit, you know, you gotta go um, those pants with this. You gotta go through that. Dave Brubeck wasn't afraid of that. See, he'd walk in another closet and he'd put something on that he'd look good in.

SMITH: So you give him high marks for innovation and improvisation?

CROUCH: Well improvisation, yes. I don't know if he was an innovator, not really. Max Roach's people had already played those without meters, it's just they didn't become popular doing that. Lenny Custonnel had done that in the early fifties, too. In fact, Lenny Custonnel was a big influence on Dave Brubeck. I think of Dave Brubeck more as a popular riser of things that have had already been done by other great musicians but I don't think of him as a copier even though he was influenced by Lenny Custonnel and even though his saxophonist uh, Paul Desmond, definitely came from Lenny Custonnel's alto player Lee Conus. That's his way of playing. He could play the way he wanted to play.

SMITH: How is Brubeck and his Quartet so popular with the public at a time they were having trouble with critics and other musicians? What was it about them that made them so popular with the public?

CROUCH: Well I don't think they were any more popular than [some other players.] I think Miles Davis was probably almost as popular as Brubeck at that particular time. Again, I think it was the originality of his sound and the fact that it was unpredictable. You didn't really know what it was gonna be. If you got a Dave Brubeck record at, during that period, all you knew was that his name was on the cover. You didn't necessarily know exactly what they were gonna be doing on the record. And I think there's much that has to be said about Paul Desmond, too. You can't leave out that saxophone, see, 'cause Paul Desmond um, played the way that the whores used to describe Lester Young's playing in Kansas City. They used to say, "Bring out that man that plays that silky saxophone." And Paul Desmond's saxophone had some silk in it. He played like he was singing. He didn't play like he was playing saxophone. And he had that kinda sound. And I think that in contrast with the power that Dave Brubeck brought. I thought that was a good combination.

SMITH: So would you say Desmond was the real heart of that group or was Dave?

CROUCH: I think he helped make the band popular, without a doubt, yeah. Paul Desmond was never as popular as he was when he played with Dave Brubeck. [Brubeck] wasn't as popular leading his own band as he was with Desmond. So what that proves is that the combination of the two of them on the same bandstand was better for both of them career-wise and perhaps for the ear of the audience.

SMITH: Do you think Dave made some mistakes later on? He had that whole period there where he played with his sons and Two Generations of Brubeck. I mean do you think Brubeck went downhill after he and Desmond broke up?

CROUCH: Well, you know, there is a saying in the business, 'Never play with your relatives,' that's often said. It's not a public thing but most people know that that's gonna lead to a problem of one sort or another 'cause you tend to accept stuff from your relatives you wouldn't from other people. The music is not necessarily the same way. So I think that, you know, sons and all that, I'm against it. I wouldn't do it. I don't think it hurt him but I don't know that it helped him either.

SMITH: Whether it's the cover of Time magazine, whether it's the polls in Metronome and Downbeat and stuff like that, did Dave Brubeck get elevated too high? And did that happen because he was popular on college campuses and he was white?

CROUCH: Well I look at Brubeck's being on the cover of Time magazine in a number of ways. One of them is that I think it was very good because Americans got a chance to see a jazz musician on the cover of Time magazine, which was saying a certain sense that jazz was an important thing because this is a highly respected news magazine. The fact that Brubeck helped bring a college audience into jazz is not something that I think should be looked at askance because jazz would be much better off if we'd a been able to keep that jazz aud that campus audience that he got forty years ago through the efforts of people like Brubeck and Duke Ellington and others who played campuses.

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His being elevated as a white man, well that just goes with being an American. I mean, see, that's one of the burdens of being a white guy in jazz sometimes, that you'll know that they put you out there to make them feel comfortable; that is the guys who write about music. They'll say, "We have a white guy in the band who's bringing people who tip better." But I think also that at that particular time when he arrived, there was a desire for some kind of a response to the complexity of the world as it was coming out. One of the public responses was to embrace him. Another one was to embrace Miles Davis, was to embrace Thelonious Monk, even Mingus - that these guys had a more complicated response to kind of the dangers and the neurosis and the complexities of that period of the fifties. And I think Dave Brubeck spoke as clearly about that as anybody else did. And I think that had something to do with his popularity as well.

SMITH: Brubeck was speaking about the neuroses of the fifties? I mean one of the things I get from Brubeck, at least other people have said this, is his music sort of embodies the optimism of America.

CROUCH: Addressing something and being overwhelmed by something are two different things. The thing of Dave Brubeck's music is I don't think this is the music of a na´ve guy. But at the center of the music is this statement that humanity is number one and that we can do this. We can get on a bandstand, we can stomp off a tempo, and we can sound good. Another thing that's important about Brubeck is that he helps us remember that there was a time in America when being able to play actually meant something. See, today if one were to go on a college campus with a saxophone, a piano, a bass, and drums that was not loud, like in pop music, students wouldn't necessarily have any idea what they're listening to because the value of being able to play has largely disappeared from our society. I mean for somebody to stand up and play ten, twelve choruses on something and each one of 'em is linked up and all of the notes are right and the swing is a certain level. That value is not in our society now. So you couldn't be successful today the way Dave Brubeck was in the fifties because what he was capable of doing and the people in his band could do, there's no major place in the world of success for that in America now because that factor of being able to play is not a part of what people think about when they go out to hear music.

SMITH: Do you think Brubeck was hurt by the stereotypes of jazz? I mean he wasn't cool; he wasn't hip; he didn't use that language; he didn't dress that way, didn't use dope.

CROUCH: I don't think it hurt him. But you have to understand something else, too. That at that period there were many different styles of jazz being played at the same time. And my understanding of Dave Brubeck was he just went the way he wanted to go 'cause he could have played in the style that Louis Armstrong was playing, if he wanted to.

SMITH: What do you like most about Brubeck?

CROUCH: The thing I like most about Brubeck is he believed in playing. He really believed in improvising he had a daredevil quality to him that I think is essential to being a first class jazz musician. You can, fear is something that you have to control because you can get out there. See you can get lost. Anybody can get lost, but I don't think he was afraid of getting lost. He wasn't the kind of guy who would play less in order to avoid getting lost; he played more.

SMITH: Miles Davis said uh, to Brubeck at one point, "You don't swing." And lat he says, You swing but your band don't swing." I mean the rap was on Dave, you know, 'you don't swing.' Is that fair?

CROUCH: But see swing is hard to do. Swing's not like drinking a glass of water. I mean swing is a hard thing to do, particularly to keep swinging. You can start swinging, but to continue swinging, that's another thing.

SMITH: But do you think Brubeck started swinging, was swinging?

CROUCH: Oh, there's stuff with them swinging, yeah. There's a lot of stuff where they're not swinging on. But there's definitely stuff with them swinging. See the thing is that because he was an experimental player uh, he would come up on things that would take him out of the arena of swing. But because he was an experimental player, too, he would follow these ideas wherever they took him. But see swing is a very difficult thing to do. [It's] like playing basketball and constantly keeping control of the ball; that's hard to do. When you watch it, a team like the Lakers at the height of their glory with Magic Johnson, in that period, or the Bulls with Michael Jordan - that actually seems like it's an easy thing to do. You make two points, they get the ball, you steal the ball from them and you take it back down court, right? Pass it around and one of you gets another basket, right? And every now and then they get some. But basically you control the game. Now when you watch somebody like that play you think that's playing, right? But the reality of playing usually is what the other team sees, which is the ball keeps getting away from them. They'll get their game going for a little while. And that's what actually happens rhythmically in most bands.

SMITH: So how do you relate that to Brubeck?

CROUCH: Well what I mean is that he goes in and out like most people do. Sometimes he's swinging, sometimes he's not swinging. (

SMITH: Uh, huh) He doesn't have the kind of swing consistency of a Thelonius Monk, but don't forget that there was a period when people thought Monk didn't swing at all 'cause his style was so abstract. But I would, I'd say yes, [Brubeck] could swing. Without a doubt.

SMITH: There seem to be several things about Brubeck that you like. What's the shortfall on the Brubeck? Is he a major figure in American jazz in the second half of the twentieth century?

CROUCH: Well the only reason I wouldn't put Dave Brubeck up there is that he doesn't have that supremely magical quality that we really can never analyze finally. You know, it's like when you listen to Louis Armstrong, he does exactly the same thing that all of the sequoias of an art do. See you got sequoias and you got oaks and then you have eventually weeds, right. Now the oak would like to be a sequoia. I'm sure the oak would like to say, you know, "I wouldn't mind being that tall and that big around, have branches that big if I could do it. But I guess I'll just have to stick with this 'cause at least I'm not a weed." The sequoias said, "Yeah, that's right, you're not a weed." But an Armstrong, Duke Ellington, what they have is they have this ability to create a new logic that was not imaginable before them. That is that you, it's a logic and it goes from A to Z but nobody other than that person could have invented that.

SMITH: So they're magical and they're innovators. And what you said is Brubeck is very good but he's an individual performer but he's not an innovator and he's not magical, is that right?

CROUCH: But I also think that we're in a period where people are very unfair to artists at large because they always compare them to the wrong people. That is, if somebody's a writer and somebody says of the writer, "Well he's not Shakespeare." Then you say, "Well who is?" You know what I mean? If the crux of being a first class artist means that you have to be an innovator, that you have to change the direction of everything on the level that an Armstrong did or Charlie Parker or something, most people are gonna fail that test. And all art forms would be far less interesting if they only had Picassos, if they only had CÚzanne's.

SMITH: So are you saying that Dave Brubeck, then, is a first class jazz artist?

CROUCH: I'd say so. I would say that Dave Brubeck followed his own direction. He played the way he wanted to play and he made real art whenever he was capable of making it, which is something that very few people are capable of doing in or out of jazz. That he's not Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong is not a problem because no one else is either. Dave Brubeck did was that he brought off what all jazz musicians want to bring off which is that he invented an individual style. That's the hardest thing to do in any art form. When you hear him playing the piano, you know that's Dave Brubeck playing. I was thinking couple of weeks ago when I was listening to him, "Okay, so you have Bud Powell; you've got Thelonious Monk; you got Demitrius Donnell; you have Brubeck." I think those were probably the four most individual guys in the first part of the fifties, from the late forties - say by 1956, I would say those were the four most individual players.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano



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