Ted Gioia was a founder of Stanford's jazz studies program where he also taught jazz history and performance. Gioia is also a jazz musician in his own right, recording and producing albums. He has also written several books on jazz history and theory.
SMITH: When was the first time you heard Dave's music and what was your reaction?
GIOIA: When I was growing up, Brubeck's music was all around. He was the one serious jazz figure that had a huge popular following. I remember when I was very young first trying to learn jazz, one of the first recordings I got was one called Dave Brubeck's Greatest Hits, and I listened to that over and over again. It was magical; it really was. Even though I was quite young, I found it immediately appealing. I didn't understand all the things that were going on musically, but there was an emotional power conviction and it was just this wonderful sense of melodic drive that was captivating.
SMITH: What was it that made it so special?
GIOIA: He had a sense of being able to take a very almost popular listenable melody and bring it into jazz. And that was maybe the most remarkable of all and the ones people haven't really given him much credit for. But in fact you could sort of hum or sing a Dave Brubeck melody in the way that you wouldn't have been able to hum something from Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. And I think this contributed to his great success - the fact that he could bring all this modernism into the music but never lose the thread of the melody.
SMITH: What is it then? I mean you have really antagonistic critics landing on Dave Brubeck hard saying this is west coast jazz, this is cool jazz, this is intellectual jazz, this is white jazz, I mean you have a lot of negative stuff even when Time Out comes out you have a bunch of negative reviews. What's going on?
GIOIA: In many ways the jazz world likes to view itself as outsiders from popular culture, and jazz people are always uneasy whenever one of the fraternity crosses over to this large public acceptance. And I think Dave in many ways suffered the consequences of that. I think there was envy. I think there was jealousy. And the one thing I'll say about Dave Brubeck is that even though he was popular and his records sold well, he never, ever watered down the artistic commitment or the artistic elements in his music. He was not talking down to the audience, he was raising them to his level. And you really have to give him credit for that.
People have certain stereotypes in their head of what a jazz musician should look like, how they should act, how they speak, how they dress. Dave broke all those rules. He didn't use hip jargon when he spoke. He didn't dress up like Dizzy Gillespie or have a goatee and wear unusual clothes. He really was more in fitting with our stereotype of what a serious classical composer would look like and act.
SMITH: What's interesting is that you would think that the sophisticates, the jazz insiders, the people who knew jazz would be the ones who would be the most receptive to his music 'cause they'd understand it and that the public hearing jarring new rhythms of polytonality, block chords, hearing, Blue Moon, or Indiana played in a completely different way, it would be the public that wouldn't get it and it would be the critics who got it. And yet it's the other way around. How do you explain that the public seems to get Dave from fairly early on and the critics don't?
GIOIA: Interesting. I think if you look at what Dave did, he was able to take these very modernistic techniques and put them into the confines of popular familiar songs. In many ways this is the most striking element of his contribution. Anyone can write within a twelve-tone row; anyone can create dissonances, or unusual rhythms; but to take this and to transform something like Camp Town Races, or Blue Moon or The Way You Look Tonight or How High The Moon or Tea For Two, to take that music and to put all this huge weight of all these techniques, that's really remarkable. It's like taking Darius Milhaud and the American popular song form and squeezing them together.
He was able to take the familiar and make it fresh. You know it's interesting, Ezra Pound the poet he had his motto "make it new," and to him, the essence of modernism was to take something that was old and familiar and to make it new. And Dave does that with a piece like St. Louis Blues that people had heard hundreds and hundreds of times, almost the archetypical jazz song 'cause you go back, I mean almost from the very start, and Dave's able to take that and to put all his modernist techniques to bear on it and it becomes a new piece. But not so new that we lose that thread of familiarity when he came back to this piece that we've known since childhood.
SMITH: Do you see in his music any of the contrast that you see in his parents? I mean is dad the tough outdoor cowboy, go alone, kind of guy and this very cultured woman who almost became a touring classical pianist who wanted the family to always speak French at the dinner table?
GIOIA: It's interesting if you look at Dave's music, they're two different levels going on there. And I really think that this probably explains more of his achievement than anything else. There's this level that you can analyze; it's intellectual. If you're a musician, you can look at the chord structures, the rhythmic structures, and you can get satisfaction studying it. But there's also this emotional level; a level that you feel and you don't study. And someone that knows nothing about music theory can hear it and find it immediately appealing. They're very few artists in any art form that are able to work simultaneously at both these levels, and Dave is able to do that. And I really feel that the greatest achievement artist would be able to work at those two levels.
Billy Joel made a very interesting comment once. He said that what Sergeant Pepper was to most other rock musicians, Take Five was to him. Now this is very interesting. You look at someone who's working in the hard of rock and roll and he could find inspiration from Dave.
SMITH: And yet he's not a guy, for example, like Bud Powell that people cite as having a lot of followers of his particular style - the Dave Brubeck School of Piano Playing. Why not?
GIOIA: Dave's style is actually very difficult to imitate, because there is so much variety within the context of his sound. You listen to Dave and you can hear that's the Dave Brubeck style. But then you look at the individual instances of it, and it's so varied. For example, there's never been another piece that sounds like Take Five even within Brubeck's own recorded works. Blue Rondo A La Turk, great piece; it's very distinctively Brubeck, but it doesn't sound like anything else. You go listen to his wonderful piano rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which he does completely without any syncopation; people would think it was impossible to do a jazz piece without syncopation. But just playing on the beat, he is able to create all these new sounds. And so really there are so many Dave Brubecks, that it was difficult for later musicians to grab one or two techniques, bring it into their music, and you'd say 'that's Dave.' And I believe what you'll find with artists like this is that it takes the jazz world a long time to come to grips with them and to assimilate them because there's literally so much out there.
Dave's music really cuts through boundaries. In fact one of the most quintessential aspects of his career is that when Dave saw a brick wall, he just kept on moving right through it. When he would write jazz, he would borrow all of these classical techniques and bring it into the music. By the same token, when he composed classical music, he was very free to bring jazz in there. He didn't see barriers between these two idioms the way we do. We try to categorize it after the fact. But Brubeck is only thinking in terms of making music and trying to find something that sounds good. Dave judges by the sound of the music, and if something works for him, he's not gonna ask whether this is a jazz technique or classical technique. He will fit it in and it will work because he's using his ear not some sort of intellectual component. The most striking thing about Dave's music was that no matter how experimental, no matter how avant-garde or progressive it was, it always sounded good.
SMITH: What was it that was going on between Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond?
GIOIA: Desmond was one of the great alto players of all time, but there was something magical when he got together with Dave Brubeck. You get something that you wouldn't have had with any one of them individually. I believe Dave was most inspired when he had Paul, and Paul was most inspired when he had Dave.
SMITH: What about Dave and Paul in the context of the classic quartet with Wright and Morello? How did that work? What made that group so special?
GIOIA: The Dave Brubeck Classic Quartet was remarkable for its ability to combine opposites. I think this is what made it so appealing to an audience. I'm reminded of the ancient Greeks; they said that the universe was made out of earth, air, fire, and water. And the Brubeck Quartet was just like that - I think you had these four individual elements. The earth there to my mind was Eugene Wright, a very earthy bass player; he was always grounded. The beat almost sounded like back in the Kansas City days, like Count Basie. The fire was Joe Morello on drums - one of the fieriest drummers in modern jazz. Not only was he able to play these very difficult time signatures, but he could make them swing - could really make it cook. And this brought a new element to Brubeck's Quartet.
Now the air, Paul Desmond - that airy, breathy sound, maybe the most beautiful alto sound anyone's ever had. But also with it, sort of logic and that sense of humor that he brought in. And finally the water; to me the water was Dave Brubeck. And like water, sometimes you can be a tidal wave; you can be very powerful other times it could be placid like a lake. And Brubeck brought that, that ability to flow in at the right moments in the right ways. And this all cohered together. It was remarkable that you could take these four disparate elements and make them work together.
Now you have to give Dave Brubeck credit for that. He obviously had the instinct that these four very different elements would work. Other people heard this and they said, "No, it won't work. You can't have Eugene Wright. You can't have a Kansas City bass sound with Dave Brubeck." Or "You can't have this melodic approach of Paul Desmond and make it work." But Brubeck understood that he was going to gain something by taking these different elements that didn't just repeat what he was doing - didn't just amplify it - but brought something new. I think what people found most appealing about the Brubeck Quartet was that they could understand and hear each of those individual sounds; they could hear Morello's personality and Wright's and Desmond's and Brubeck's, and there was that individualism but it also cohered. It was really magical how that happened. It was the classic example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.
SMITH: How do you rate them as musicians? I mean Brubeck at the piano, Desmond at saxophone, Morello and Wright, how good are they?
GIOIA: Eugene Wright is the most solid, most swinging bass player Dave ever had. In terms of having absolute confidence and you needed that in these unusual time signatures. Any slight hesitation, and those pieces wouldn't have worked. And Eugene Wright was able to contribute that to Dave, his very solid beat. Joe Morello was able to bring a type of rhythmic intensity and energy that Dave had not had before, almost willing to challenge Dave. And you know Dave was obviously the leader of the band, but Joe was not going to just defer to him, Joe was going to push Dave and the other people in the band, to try to get the kind of intensity that people didn't associate with west coast jazz or Dave. And the fact that this was able to work and that Dave was able to play on a higher level there, really showed people a side of his music that they hadn't seen before.
GIOIA: He really sizes up the other musicians he's with, the circumstances, the audience; every night is different. This is really the essence of what jazz is about. Jazz is supposed to be improvisation. Even today, after years and years, decades of success, Dave still explores differently every night on the stage.
Dave never lets himself fall into an expected pattern. One of the things I most enjoy about listening to his music is that I'm always going to be surprised.
If you listen to Dave's Octet and the context of the music being played at that time, there was nothing else like that. But I'll go even farther, if you listen to that Octet music in the context of what people are playing now, it still sounds fresh. And this is an example of Dave creating an approach, a whole body of music that was a foundation you could still build on. Some people will tell you that jazz has almost exhausted its possibilities, that there's nothing else new to do. But Dave has created a lot of these little landmarks in his career where you could see, he could keep on building on that. One of my disappointments is that Dave did not return in later years and do more Octet music. I would love to have a whole series of Octet recordings. As it is, we have this small body of music from the late forties, which gave us sort of a glimpse of an alternative jazz universe in which the classical influence is just as strong as the jazz.
SMITH: What was the most fresh and most radical idea represented by Dave's Octet?
GIOIA: Dave Brubeck's Octet music may be the strongest example in his whole career of letting the classical musical approach almost predominate over the jazz. If I were going to pull out a number out of the blue, I would say that music is probably seventy-five percent, avant-garde classical music and just twenty-five percent jazz. As you get later in Dave's career, his music became more and more embedded in the jazz tradition. But if you listen to his early Octet recordings, you could put that into a classical concert hall and it would be right at home. I wish he had done more works in that vein because it really was opening up a whole new panorama that people in modern American music hadn't heard before and as is typical with Dave, is just when he's getting momentum with that, he left that and moved onto the Trio. Similarly, he had this great burst of creativity with the Trio, and he could have built on that, and then he moves on to the Quartet. So what you find with Dave, is that he's a restless musical mind, and he's always looking for the next creative obstacle to challenge. And even when he's begun something where you could see as the fan, as the listener, several other steps he could take it, he's already on to the next musical problem that he can solve.
SMITH: And the Trio represents what?
GIOIA: If you look at the Octet, a lot of that music is really embedded in what Dave was studying under Milhaud. When he got into the Trio, you begin to see more overt ties to the jazz and the American popular music tradition. Now Dave is playing songs like Tea For Two or Blue Moon. But what he's doing now is he's literally creating his own vocabulary if you listen to the way he's creating the chord textures and the melodic lines, he's not imitating what the modern jazz players are doing back east. He's not imitating Bud Powell or Charlie Parker. He is really taking a vocabulary that he picked up from Milhaud and other places and rewriting it afresh in this modern American idiom called jazz - very invigorating.
SMITH: And the Quartet is what then?
GIOIA: When you get into the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Dave is now at probably the most complete realization of his musical ideas in which there's obviously a jazz element; there's a classical element, very avant-garde classical element; there's this popular song element; but at this point he's blended it together into a unified whole which is very difficult to trace back the influences. And I believe this is a level that artists get to when they really are assured of their own vocabulary and their own approach. There are influences and you can trace them, but even more powerful than the influences is the new statements being made that hasn't been seen before. You could take Picasso, you could analyze the influences on him, but there's a certain point in Picasso's painting career where you don't say well he got this from whoever, a Renoir or from Van Gogh, you say that's Picasso. Similarly when you get Dave by the time of the classic Quartet, that is Dave Brubeck pure and simple and the influences have disappeared and blended into his own statement.
SMITH: Is that the peak of his career?
GIOIA: It's difficult to say what Dave's best music is. I have a tremendous fondness for those early sides on Fantasy before the Quartet. I mean that is great music in its own right. But then when you get into that classic Quartet, that is, an equally powerful body of work. And then after that, Dave has gone off in many different directions. He's had many careers, and you could take any given decade in Dave's life, and the music he made would be enough to spur someone else's entire career.
SMITH: What is it about Time Out that makes it such a radical record album?
GIOIA: Time Out is a unique recording, and it's not just the unusual time signatures - there've been other people that have played in 5/4 or 7/4 any number of strange meters. What distinguishes "Time Out" is that Dave was able to play the unusual meters and also make it melodic and appealing. That is a very difficult achievement. And I would say even today we've gone decades after that, no one has really been able to build on that foundation of taking something with that level of experimentation and also that level of intrinsic appeal. I believe you could still build a whole career out of just the implications of "Time Out," that haven't been fulfilled.
SMITH: But at the time it was released, it generated a good deal of criticism.
GIOIA: It's often a sign of great artists that people have extreme views. And it's to Dave's credit that his music gets such provocative responses from people. People felt that to be a great musician you also had to be self destructive. And then you have Dave this unique figure who has this tremendous optimism. This is the classic American optimism we associate with people like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, and Dave was showing that yes there was this futuristic approach, there was this avant-garde approach but it was going to be all right and was going to be something that we can enjoy and we could find appealing. Within the jazz world, though, this was unusual that you could have modernism with a smiling face. And that's what Dave Brubeck represented. Dave Brubeck's contribution was that this was a quintessentially American approach to modern jazz. America always has this sort of upbeat, embracing, forward-looking view that everything is going to be all right. And that's why the average person who is not going to find nutrition in the more dysfunctional modern jazz could look at Brubeck and say, yeah that represents me, that represents where I wanna go.
SMITH: Forty years after the breakup of the classic quartet, Dave is still making music, taking his career in other directions, and yet he still has such a following and wide popular appeal. What's the secret to his longevity as an artist?
GIOIA: Dave Brubeck is a quintessentially American figure. One of the things that's most striking about Dave is his basic decency as a human being. And this comes across in the music. His music does have this embracing warmth. Similarly, if you look at Dave's career outside of life onstage, as a family man, what he did for civil rights, you get a sense of that same warmth.