For years, New York was hub of the American jazz scene. But in the 1950's a new sound started coming out of California that challenged the Big Apple's pre-eminence in the world of jazz. This new sound, dubbed "West Coast Jazz," or "West Coast Cool," generated both excitement and controversy - and Dave Brubeck and his music were at the center of it all. Here jazz historian Ted Gioia, author the book West Coast Jazz and critic Stanley Crouch discuss this movement and Brubeck's place in it.
SMITH: You talk about Dave Brubeck in your book West Coast Jazz (hot link to the excerpt from the book - will send as a separate file) as the leader, the driving force of west coast jazz and an unlikely revolutionary. What do you mean?
GIOIA: You've gotta realize that when Dave Brubeck began forming a modern jazz movement in Northern California, this was a radical departure for the area. There had been a very vibrant modern jazz movement back in New York, but the whole Northern California scene was very traditional. There was the Dixie Land Movement that was very pronounced in San Francisco. If you go over into Oakland, the area there was very strongly influenced by the blues. The concept that you could do jazz and make it modern was very new; and here Dave came and not only was he doing modern jazz, but he was even more modern in many ways than a lot of what was happening in New York - taking the advance compositional techniques of Milhaud and others and trying to bring it into the jazz idiom. And this hit the Bay Area jazz scene like a lightening bolt; and really it's never been the same since. You look at San Francisco today; it's a center of modern jazz. And if you want to trace back the originator there it was really Dave's influence.
SMITH: So Dave, you would say, is kind of the originator of San Francisco's jazz modernism avant-gardenism?
GIOIA: If you look at the San Francisco area, the very first doings of modern jazz there really circled around Dave's record label Fantasy of which Dave was really one of the founders, although he later separated and went to Columbia. And through Dave's instigation, Fantasy recorded Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. You have people like Cal Tjader, and you have a whole host of other modern jazz musicians that congregated around Brubeck - it was almost a Brubeck school.
SMITH: So, was Dave Brubeck the pioneer, the centerpiece of San Francisco jazz when it went modern?
GIOIA: Dave's arrival into the San Francisco scene was really the key event in terms of setting up a whole school of modern jazz. What you see is that Dave's participation in the Fantasy label not only created notoriety for him but it created the commercial wherewithal, the financial wherewithal to record other musicians. So you had Dave, you had Dave's Trio, you had Dave's Octet and the other musicians involved with that - people like Dave Van Crete - you had Cal Tjader who was a member of the Trio became a recording artist. You had Fantasy recording people like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker. All of this would have been inconceivable without Dave's influence. By the time you get into the mid fifties, San Francisco had established itself as a leading area for modern jazz, as a leading place where they talk about west coast jazz back east. And really Dave was the key individual to make that happen.
SMITH: You were born in California, you grew up there. As you were growing up uh, how big was West Coast Jazz for you and how big was the San Francisco group, Dave Brubeck?
CROUCH: At that time I was coming up, everybody knew that there was a West Coast sound and it was supposed to be this cerebral, cool glass of water, if you will, version of jazz. And at the same time, though, there was this movement in New York that was rejecting that. It was called 'the hard bop group.' So you had these guys with these light tones playing at the Pacific Ocean, then, at the Atlantic Ocean, you had these guys who were playing this hard, powerful kind of stuff. So in some sense, one group thought of the East Coast sound as a masculine sound and the West Coast sound as a feminine sound. The guys from the East Coast, they also thought of it as a white way of doing it. They thought it was just white jazz.
SMITH: West Coast Jazz?
CROUCH: Yeah. West Coast to them was a code term for 'white' at that time, yeah. Because most of the guys who played that way were white guys -- Jerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Brubeck - all those guys, those were the guys. Shorty Rogers, there were a bunch of guys. They were mostly white guys.
SMITH: So it was white jazz and it was more feminine and cool?
CROUCH: See there's always been a white jazz. And the white jazz has always been about taking the less aggressive aspects of the music and making a style out of that. Now, there have always been black musicians, though, who had that same feeling; so it's not a matter of [race.]" The West Coast style mostly came from people responding to Lester Young's way of playing. Now you know, Lester Young was a black guy playing in Kansas City or in the Kansas City and came to New York with the Count Bassie band. Now he had a light tone. He, as they used to say, swung like crazy with a very poetic approach to playing. So a lot of white guys zeroed in on him. They liked his approach to playing.
SMITH: Dave took a lot of criticism for his style. The critics saw Desmond as lyrical and etherial and floating over but Dave is banging away. In fact, a lot of the critics said, "He's just playing those block chords and he's bashing the piano." They didn't get it.
CROUCH: Some of 'em didn't like him, yeah. Dave Brubeck doesn't really fit in the light version of West Coast Jazz. See Dave Brubeck is interesting because his way of playing seems to have not very much to do with those other guys. But I think that was the appeal of his band, too, was that he had those two elements. In other words, you had like the cool, fluid kind of playing that you got with Paul Desmond and then you had a much more aggressive kind of powerhouse approach from Brubeck. So you got that big contrast between the fluid way Paul Desmond played and the way Brubeck played. And I think that that was a lot of the appeal of the band.
SMITH: So Brubeck's a bit different himself, personally, 'cause he's pounding those block chords and he's playing Back Home in Indiana and things like that. He's really, you know, he's really bashing it. Um, but he still gets a rap from the East Coast that he's, you know, West Coast, white, too cool, too sophisticated?
CROUCH: I think Dave put out a record called Jazz Red Hot and Cool, which was recorded here in New York sometime in the mid-fifties. And I think that that was his response; that was his answer was that, in other words, we got both of 'em. You come to hear us, you hear both inclinations in the music. But the same thing could be true about Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington had very ethereal, refined things that he played in his band. And he also had hair-raising, wild, stomping pieces. So I think that Brubeck was the kinda guy for whom the music meant both of those things.