Dave Brubeck had concluded a rehearsal for a concert of his sacred music in the Chapel of New York City’s General Theological Seminary. A walk across the Seminary quadrangle brought us to a quiet room in one of the buildings. A haven of peace in bustling Manhattan, the Seminary provided an appropriate background for what turned out to be a thoughtful interview with an international emphasis.
Uppermost in Brubeck’s mind was his recent trip to the Soviet Union. He and the quartet, plus his former bassist Gene Wright with whom he played a duet, performed during the Moscow Summit for American and Russian dignitaries, including President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The site of the presentation: Spasso, the American Ambassador’s residence. The 20– minute concert Brubeck and his musical colleagues gave, following dinner, was received with unusual warmth and enthusiasm and mirrored the change in attitude regarding jazz in the Soviet Union. The next morning the Brubeck Quartet—Bill Smith, clarinet; Chris Brubeck, bass and trombone; Randy Jones, drums; and, of course, Dave at the piano, with added starter Gene Wright, performed again, this time for the Embassy staff, the President and Secretary of State George Schultz.
“I have great memories of the Soviet Union,” Brubeck says. “Our trip to the Summit this year (1988) was one of the high points of my career. I was completely exhilarated by it. But there has been so much more. We also were in the Soviet Union in 1987. We toured for three weeks and gave 13 concerts in Moscow and Leningrad and in Tallinn in Estonia.
“One of the things I remember most vividly is our experience at the Composers Union in Moscow. The Union was so filled with nostalgia for us; we felt a deep sense of reverence. I remember the room in which we had tea had pictures on the wall of Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Prokofiev. They all had lived there.
“Our Composers Union concert drew so many composers. We were very flattered. There was room for 300 and over 500 filled the hall. Composers who couldn’t get in lined the streets outside the Union. When we finished our program, Soviet players came up onstage and jammed with us. Some of them were fantastic. I’m sure you’ll hear some of them here.
“In Leningrad,” Brubeck says, “we had packed houses, which was the rule for this tour. One night, the Leningrad Symphony was given a block of tickets for our concert. After it was over, the Symphony’s manager came back to tell us how much the orchestra had enjoyed the performance. He then invited us to a rehearsal the next morning. The quartet, Iola (Brubeck’s wife), my brother Howard (a well– known composer in his own right) and his wife were the only people in the auditorium for what turned out to be a mini– concert by the orchestra. It played two movements of Shostakovich’s 10th without stopping.
When these marvellous musicians were through, we stood up and applauded. They, in turn, applauded us.” The primary reason for Brubeck’s international popularity: He employs elements in his musical offerings that, of course, are particular to jazz. But he also uses techniques and ideas that are derived from other cultures and music, creating a compound that is generally attractive, meaningful and exciting. His personal attitude further ingratiates him to audiences. The sense his sincerity and dedication; an inner sense of optimism is apparent as well.
Equally important, Brubeck is always trying new things. He is not intimidated or put off by unusual musical ideas, no matter how of out– of– kilter or far– out they may seem. Rebellion against the status quo always has been typical of him. He insists that the artist has the responsibility to come up with new things, “to be ahead” and to take the audience with him. Remember, Brubeck was one of the first jazz musicians to deal with unusual time signatures and make them highly functional in jazz way.
The new openness in the Soviet Union and the increased appreciation of jazz made possible enhanced experiences for Brubeck during both of his visits. His stature and that of jazz in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics can be very readily illustrated. His latest album on the Concord label, Moscow Night , extracted from a live concert over two hours in length, was telecast in prime time in Moscow.
Brubeck has been travelling overseas for over 30 years. By the time he and his quartet began to play abroad in 1958, the tall pianist from California already was something of a phenomenon at home. He had opened the way for more complete acceptance of jazz and moved into areas that had not been adequately explored. Brubeck helped bring jazz to college campuses, to the symphony orchestra stage and ultimately to the world at large.
Deeply dedicated to jazz and the dissemination of jazz ideas, Brubeck went into music because nothing else made sense to him. He pursued the muse and education, graduating from the College of the Pacific in California as a music major. Before and after service in the Army during World War II, he studied with the esteemed French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College.
Brubeck’s experimental turn in mind, manifested via his compositions for an Army band, really took shape in an octet formed in San Francisco in the late l940s. It recorded and was influential, though the group seldom performed outside of San Francisco. Brubeck’s piano work helped give the unit an identity. Paul Desmond, the great alto saxophonist who was a member of the octet, described it, saying it had “the vigour and force of simple jazz, the harmonic complexities of Bartok and Milhaud, the form (and much of the dignity of Bach), and at times the lyrical romanticism of Rachmaninoff.” Brubeck toured the west and east coasts with a trio, with which he had recorded, before forming the soon– to– be– famous quartet featuring Desmond in 1951. Progressively the quartet began opening new markets for jazz, breaking out of California.
Brubeck has always known who he is and where he wanted to go. In jazz, he found a vehicle for his thoughts and philosophy. Dedicated to improvisation as a means of exploring the inner self, he consistently finds gratification when composing spontaneously during his piano solos or when in engaging in exchanges with members of his group. But he is not averse to the more meditative route to composition. In the creation of his longer works, particularly the sacred compositions, a concern of his since the l960s, he takes the time to work his thoughts through in a less concentrated, more careful fashion.
An internationalist who remains so characteristically American, Brubeck has written in various forms and played with his own groups since coming to the music scene.
After almost 20 years with a foursome showcasing Paul Desmond and himself and for much of the time drummer Joe Morello and bassist Genc Wright, he worked with Gerry Mulligan in a quartet context, then with his sons Chris, Danny (drums) and Darius (keyboards). Now he performs with Bill Smith, Randy Jones and son Chris.
The music played, a mixture of Brubeck and other composers, retains the basic jazz character, the intensity, pulsation, humour and invention that originally identified Brubeck bands. He remains a pianist with historical perspective and great respect for the past. It is refreshing, during a Brubeck solo, to hear traditional “stride” intermingled with contemporary techniques and ideas.
A man with countless recollections, he is particularly intense when recalling his trips to various segments of the globe: “During our first tour in ‘58, we played in 18 countries. We did 120 nights in a row in places like Poland, Turkey, India, Ceylon, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, England, Sweden, West Germany. Always there were fine musicians around. Stephane Grappelli in France, Tubby Hayes and Phil Seaman in England. So many good musicians.
It’s a myth that players in Europe and other parts of the world are way behind us. As I pointed out, we heard promising jazz players in the Soviet Union where the music was not looked upon as a positive thing for a long time.
“There were so many great things that happened to us overseas. We played to very large and appreciative audiences everywhere. But Australia and Japan were something! I remember performing for 30,000 people in Japan in the open air, on a baseball diamond. We were on the bill with Woody (Herman) and Jaco Pastorius.” “But you certainly remember the bad things as well.
Several times we found ourselves in the midst of revolutions in various countries. From his hotel room, Paul (Desmond) watched the marines land on the beach in Lebanon in 1958.
One thing is for sure: When you’re at the centre of political turbulence and violence, you can feel totally alone and without hope of immediate help.” Seldom down or negative about his experiences, Brubeck bounced back in a manner typical of him when asked about what the future held.
“I look forward to the future. There is so much more to do,” he says. “We have to get jazz musicians back into the schools—everything from primary schools to universities. There were far more jazz musicians playing in our educational institutions years back than is common now.
“We’ve got to open up new places to play. There should be a concentration of effort when it comes to TV; it’s so important. Young people have to find new ways to present their music! They’ve got to go where no one has been before. And they will do it! “My own plans? I’ll continue writing all kinds of compositions. The sacred pieces are particularly important to me. I’ll keep on in that direction. I have to keep playing; it’s almost second nature to me. Down the line—who can tell? I’m still searching. You have to do that as long as you’re alive.”
Burt Korall - BMI’s Director- Special Assignments.