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Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck

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The Critics: Ira Gitler

Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano

Ira Gitler is a college professor and the former editor of Downbeat Magazine and The Encyclopedia of Jazz. He wrote one of a review of Brubeck's album Time Out for Downbeat in 1962.

SMITH: When did you first hear Dave Brubeck's music?

GITLER: I first heard Dave Brubeck in the early fifties, I became more aware of him when he started appearing on Fantasy which was a newly minted West Coast label. And when I was at Downbeat, I was called upon to review Time Out which was kind of a revolutionary record using all different time signatures. My reaction to Time Out was very mixed. I didn't like Take Five, I thought the five four was boring, repetitive, the patterns that Joe Morello was asked to play got monotonous. But on the other hand, I like Blue Rondo a la Turk and that was in nine eight. That I liked perhaps maybe I liked the theme as well, but I liked the way it was stated. So I was divided. It wasn't just because it was in an odd time signature that I didn't like one and like the other.

SMITH: So looking back on it, do you reassess or you still come out the same place?

GITLER: I think I do. I like Blue Rondo a la Turk. I love Dave's ballads, Strange Meadowlark, and of course, The Duke was something that - and it wasn't on that album but I liked that very much. Everyone picked up on that. In Your Own Sweet Way and The Duke became jazz standards and of course, when Miles Davis played them, that gave them the official stamp of approval.

SMITH: It's interesting, Davis could give it the stamp of approval in a way that Brubeck couldn't. How come?

GITLER: Well because Miles Davis, in giving his stamp of approval to these Brubeck compositions by recording them here was a black jazz man who was respected in both the black and the white circles, and when he did it black people had to say, you know, 'that's cool.'

SMITH: You're saying Miles Davis's endorsement was important and you said here was a black musician finally saying it so more blacks had to accept it. The implication is there were some reservations about Brubeck and Desmond 'cause they were white.

GITLER: That's true. The black audience liked certain white jazz men and they didn't like others. You had to swing in a certain way to get to the black audience. Now Stan Getz got it, even though he was considered a very cool jazzman, although he could swing hard but his sound was cool.

SMITH: I wonder if you had any personal encounters with Brubeck yourself.

GITLER: I met Dave Brubeck actually on the way to Detroit for a jazz festival. - and this is after I wrote that review [of 'Time Out']. He was very nice about it and we had a nice discussion about that and other things. I had in the same time period reviewed Cannonball Adderley's record of Dish Here and I panned that; I said it was contrived funk. So when we got to the festival Cannonball was playing there, too, and they staged this photo op where Brubeck is brandishing his fist at me and Cannonball's actually choking me. (laughs)

SMITH: Talk a bit about Desmond and Brubeck. They're about as unlikely a combination as you can imagine. You got to know Desmond, you know Brubeck a little bit. Why did they have such magic together and how did they fit?

GITLER: Well I think it happens on the bandstand. Even if two people, maybe different personalities have different interests when they leave the stand if they can have a meeting of the musical minds, then you have a chemistry that's unique and that's what I think they had. One of my favorite records is the thing that was taped at an afternoon rehearsal at Storyville; they were just playing, the two of them. And it eventually was put out on record; it appears on a CD called simply 'Dave Brubeck/ Paul Desmond.' And it's about a seven, close to eight-minute version of You Go To My Head and it's one of the most lyrical versions of that song or any other song you'll ever hear. And it's the interaction of the two of them that creates it -- and Gene Wright and Joe Morello and Joe Dodge and whoever was playing in the band. I think the great years of Brubeck were the years with Desmond. When the group was Joe Morello and Gene Wright, Desmond and Brubeck kind of coalesced, I think they really hit something. I think Morello brought a new sense of swing with….But I think the unlikely chemistry of Brubeck and Desmond is what made the group because they each brought something to it.

SMITH: Were you surprised when Desmond and Brubeck - I mean you talk about the marvelous chemistry there - were you surprised when they broke up in 1967?

GITLER: When Brubeck and Desmond parted company musically - 'cause they remained great friends - I don't know if I was surprised or shocked or what. I was somewhat surprised. But in this business or in any collaboration in the arts there comes a time when people want to go their own way.

SMITH: Why do you think Brubeck was so controversial? Why do you think Dave Brubeck's music was so controversial back when he burst onto the scene?

GITLER: Brubeck was controversial when he appeared because he was not in the mainstream of what was going on, although he came from jazz roots. He always talked about Cleo Brown, a boogie woogie pianist who he admired. And he certainly knew the jazz literature and, the people who proceeded him. But I think jazz people are always suspicious of anyone that comes from a somewhat classical background. 'Oh he studied with Darius Milhaud and he's doing some of these things that are coming from a classical standpoint.' I think a lot of the critics just felt he didn't swing. He was stiff. It didn't swing in the way that jazz people were used to, the Count Basie essence of swing. The Kansas City four/four, or Ellington swinging in his way. I think people felt that Brubeck didn't swing and that was one strike against him and it was a big strike.

SMITH: Where do you think the Brubeck Quartet stands in American jazz in the second half of the twentieth century? How do you assess them? What's his legacy, what's his contribution?

GITLER: I think the Brubeck Quartet is one of the important groups in jazz in the past half century. And I think instead of diminishing with the passage of time, I think their position has been more solidified. And I like, particularly about Dave some of the things he's done in recent years. I think that shows the fact that he has continued to grow.

SMITH: Gene Lees said, 'Dave always was more popular with the public than he was with the critics. And I've gone back and I've listened to his stuff and think maybe the public was more right than we critics were.' Would you agree with Gene Lees that the public's been with him all the way or pretty much and the critics are maybe a little bit more favorable, if not much more favorable than before?

GITLER: I think that today a lot of the critics have a higher opinion of Dave than they did then. But we have to remember that a lot of the critics who were functioning back then are not with us today. So it's hard to make a real pinpoint judgement but I'd have to say that he is looked on more favorably.

SMITH: Is Brubeck a major figure or a minor figure in American jazz in the last half century?

GITLER: He's had too much success in things he's done artistically as well as commercially. And you know, it's longevity plus maintaining a certain level of excellence and he's done that.

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