David Warren Brubeck, at the age of 36, is a successful man in his chosen profession, a man who has designed his life to suit his own taste and despite the rigors of a high-pressure business, manages to spend more time at home with his wife and five children than can almost anyone in a comparable position.
During the year 1956, Brubeck spent only 180 days on the road. He frequently flew back to Oakland, Calif., for a week with his family. Perhaps it was for only one or two days. And during the time, he was off the road, much of it was devoted to digging and raking and shoveling on the mountaintop he owns in the residential district of Oakland.
He was born in 1921 in Concord, Calif., a small town inland about 30 miles from San Francisco. His father was a cattleman, buyer of herd beef and manager of cattle ranches. His mother was the daughter of a stage coach operator who ran a regular passenger and mail coach from Concord over the hills to Oakland.
Mrs. Brubeck, however, was an unusual woman. In a society where-except for those who had struck it rich-there was little opportunity to inquire into the arts because the business of scraping out a living was too time-consuming, she managed to become a musician and even in later years, after her children were reared, returned to college and resumed studies.
The Brubecks moved from Concord when Dave was 8 to a ranch in Ione, a California mountain town, where his father had been made manager of a ranch, but Dave's memories of the Concord home are still vivid: "I remember that house yet. It was built for strictly music. Pianos were in four different rooms there, and they were going all day long. My mother was teaching or my brothers were practicing. The first thing I heard in the morning was her teacher or them practicing. And the last thing at night. We didn't even have a radio in Concord."
Dave's mother was his first, and actually his only, teacher of any importance until he studied with Milhaud, and she gave Dave his first piano lessons. "It was apparent right from the beginning," he says, "that I would be a composer. I was always improvising from the time I was 4 and 5. And I refused to study! My mother saw this and taught me completely different from Howard, who is about as schooled a musician as I can think of. She didn't force me to practice, and she didn't force me to play serious music, but she gave me a lot of theory, ear training, harmony. From the time I was very small, it was impossible to make me play any of the classical pieces except when I'd sit down and play them by ear. So I developed differently from my brothers."
Through high school and college, Brubeck was working in bands in the California mountain country. He began appearing professionally with pianist Bob Skinner, who has been a great influence on Dave and who introduced him, via records, to jazz. Skinner and Brubeck had a tap-dance-ukulele-piano team when they were 6. "We were giggin'!" exclaims Brubeck. "Lions Clubs and socials. We could be hired for as little as getting out of school to $5 apiece!"
Later when he became more proficient on piano, he played with cowboy and hillbilly swing bands in California. Even after he switched in college to studying music, Brubeck says, he was a poor student.
"But I absorbed, almost through osmosis, from all my teachers, which is the real reason why you study, not for grades," Dave recalls. "I was NEVER a good student except in this way-I found that I had the ability to do something most students don't have. When I learned something, I could use it that day or that night. I found that if we were in counterpoint and we were going over two-part inventions, well, that night my piano playing would be two lines. Or if somebody had mentioned Darius Milhaud using two tonalities, on the job that night I'd be using two tonalities."
Brubeck's experimentation with the material from the classroom on the job at night prompted the usual reaction from the men he worked with. He remembers: "The reaction has gone on ever since I was a kid: What the hell is he doing? And it's a common experience for me. I was always experimenting on the job. Most musicians don't like that. I was always doing something where I'd just have to say to the bass man or the guitar man, 'Just stay in the key you're in, and I'll superimpose this on you.' Or I'd say to the drummer, 'Just play the beat you're playing; what I'm going to do won't disturb you as long as you do what you're always used to.'
"And from the beginning, I've always tried to superimpose on the known and what's going on around me. And when I started using polytonality in jazz (some people say I used it before I heard of Milhaud-I think that maybe I was influenced by Milhaud, Dave says with a wry smile), I always figured you weren't stepping on the other musicians' toes if you were superimposing something that wouldn't clash-either polyrhythmic or polytonal. That's really been the styles you could identify me with. And it started, I would say, when I was 18 years old. Fundamentally it's the style I'm using now."
When Brubeck is criticized for not having his roots in the mainstream of jazz, it is important to remember that aside from the records he heard as a youth-Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman-he heard very little if any jazz at first and until he was in college. "I had little opportunity to listen to much music in jazz after I moved to Ione," Brubeck says, "and our family didn't listen to much jazz on the radio. Occasionally, I could get the Benny Goodman show on Saturday night. That's one of the things I can look back on and remember having had an opportunity to listen to. "But as to records, I had only this one Fats Waller record, which I still have-I bought it in Sacramento when I was about 14. It was 'Honey on the Moon Tonight' and 'Close as Fingers in a Glove.' Of course, I imitated that when I was a kid, but I never saw Fats. That's another thing about being raised in the West. These people weren't available to you much.
"I remember we had to drive cattle usually all summer, and we'd be out on the roads from, oh, four in the morning to six at night, and cars would come through on their way up into the mountains-vacationers. "I used to dream about maybe Benny Goodman was going come down this road. All day I'd dream, as we drove the cattle, about how Goodman would have to come through the cattle-going from Stockton to Sacramento for a one-nighter-and I wouldn't let him through unless he's let me on the band bus, and there'd bound to be a piano on the bus, and everybody'd be jamming and somebody would get to hear me play!"
Once in a while, when Brubeck was at the College of the Pacific in Stockton in the early forties, he'd catch a band on a one-nighter.
"At the time," Dave recalls, "if I stood in front of a band, and somebody looked up at me or somebody would stop and talk, I was so thrilled it was fantastic. Now, when I see these guys all the time, especially Duke or Stan, I always think of the time I walked out of Duke's dressing room afraid to say hello to him!"
Despite the isolation from the mainstream of jazz in the early days, Brubeck branched out when attending College of the Pacific. He made frequent trips to San Francisco, where Skinner was beginning to emerge as one of the best jazz pianists, and sat in with such musicians as Jerome Richardson, Johnny Cooper, Vernon Alley, Bob Barfield, and Wilburt Barranco. Then, while he was doubling from classes at COP to night jobs in Stockton joints, he worked opposite Cleo Brown.
"She was a tremendous influence on me because of her left hand," he says. "She had a tremendous left hand, and she played boogie woogie faster than anybody. God, she could go! If she'd had a right hand like her left, she'd have given anybody a lot of competition."
In 1942, Brubeck enlisted in the army. Dave says, "I went right into the army. No traveling bands. This is important, I'd never ever been in L.A. until I went into the army." When Brubeck went into the army, he enlisted in a band which was supposed to be a permanent unit and was stationed at Camp Haan near Los Angeles. His reception there, he remembers bitterly, was the same as it had been when he first got to Stockton. The musicians put him down.
At Stockton when he first wanted to play, he went up to two musicians and announced that he was a jazz pianist. Dave recalls, "They turned around and said, 'Where you from?' I said, 'Ione.' They just turned around again and didn't say anything. I had to walk away! Later when they found me playing at the ballroom, they couldn't believe it. 'Aren't you the guy from Ione?' they said."
At Camp Haan it was the same thing. Brubeck was the kid from Stockton, the equivalent of coming to Stockton from Ione.
There were several bands at the camp, and the personnel was from the Hollywood studios mainly. It was three weeks before Brubeck got to play, but when he did, he says, "I shocked everybody. This was the first inkling I had that I would be accepted and allowed in the inner circle.
"I was 21 then and I was amazed. All the guys in these bands were wonderful musicians and very competent, but I was shocking everyone. I don't know of a pianist who's ever come along that has shocked the accepted guys like that. They just completely wigged over me there were so many new ideas.
"And, of course, they all thought I was too radical. The first time I wrote an arrangement for the band nobody would play it. So I took it to Kenton in L.A. Stan said, 'Bring it back in 10 years!' It was my first big-band arrangement, and I wouldn't be ashamed for Stan to play it today.
"I would say it predated a lot of things. It didn't have a tremendous jazz, swinging feeling, but it was very polytonal and harmonically it was tremendously advanced, and it had a message you don't usually find in jazz.
"I wanted to use jazz for something much more serious than most people wanted to. At an early age I thought this was a medium to express deeper emotion. Kenton said, 'What is this? A dirge? Where did you ever hear chords like this?'"
Brubeck spent 18 months at Haan. He began writing small-combo arrangements there, and "those were very similar to how I would arrange now. And here again I wasn't accepted. Only by the furthest-out jazzmen in the band."
Then the army broke up the four 28-man bands at Haan. Brubeck was shipped to the infantry. He got into Normandy, France, about 90 days after D-Day and eventually was sent to the front, near Metz, as a rifle replacement. "It was just the worst possible place to be," Dave recalls, "because the Germans were really wiping them out." At the last depot, Brubeck volunteered as a pianist during a Red Cross show, and because that was the moment when the area commandant had decided to have a band, he was selected to lead it. He missed going to the front by a matter of minutes.
After the German capitulation, Brubeck led his band accompanying USO tours throughout France and Germany. In 1946, he was discharged and went directly to Mills College in Oakland to study with Milhaud. "I had taken a couple of lessons from Milhaud before I went into the army," he says, and one of his brothers was Milhaud's assistant at that time.
"When I went back to study under Milhaud, to be honest, I was going to give up jazz because of all the hassle I had had, even in the army, to get the musicians to play my stuff. And I recalled even Kenton thought I was too far out. So I figured jazz wouldn't be the place to present the ideas I wanted to. It was too narrow. So I thought composition would be the answer.
"It turned out that Milhaud was the one who convinced me to go back, saying I couldn't possibly give up jazz, that it was in me and if I wanted to represent the culture, jazz was such an important part. He said it was more important to express the culture and not gain the technique. And he pointed out that every great composer had expressed his culture in which he was familiar and was completely familiar with the folk idiom and jazz was the folk idiom of America. He talked me back into it. It took a period of six months, I guess, and then I became interested in jazz again."
During the timehe was at Mills, Brubeck also played in and around the San Fransico Area.
When he was working at the Geary Cellar, a small club in the theater district, Desmond began to sit in regularly with him. Norman Bates was the bassist, Frances Lynne (later with Gene Krupa and Charlie Barnet) was the vocalist, and Darryl Cutler was the tenor, doubling on cocktail drums.
The Geary Cellar became the No. 1 spot for visiting musicians, Jack Egan, then an advance man for bands, wrote a piece about it for Down Beat, becoming the first to mention Brubeck in a national publication. One night Benny Goodman dropped in.
"I'll never forget that night," Brubeck recalls. "I had been playing for about 10 minutes, and I wondered why Cutler didn't play. So I looked over at him-he used to play sock cymbal standing up with the tenor around his neck-and he was just looking at the sock cymbals. And I said, 'Play,' and he said, 'No, man, no!'
"So pretty quick I looked right in front of me, and there's Goodman! I quick turned away! Bobby Ross was always around there, and he says, 'Whatsamatter with you, you seen a ghost?' And so I said, 'No, Goodman's sitting there, man,' and I tried to keep playing, and I was just panicked because here at last was Goodman. And Ross said, 'Aw what's the matter with you? Why should that make you nervous?' And I said, 'If you're not nervous get up and sing, because I can't play and Cutler won't play. So right away Bobby Ross comes running around the piano, and he starts singing 'Body and Soul,' and to this day he won't admit he left out two bars!"
Then in the spring of 1949, the Brubeck octet was presented in a concert at the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco by Ray Gorham. The octet had been a rehearsal band all along and never actually a working unit until several years later when it played a series of Sunday afternoon sessions at the Black Hawk. At the Marines concert, disc jockey Jimmy Lyons heard the group and flipped.
The next morning he went in to the office of the KNBC program director and talked him into a new program, "The Lyons' Busy," to start that fall featuring Lyons and a trio led by Brubeck. It was the first live modern jazz show on radio in the West.
Brubeck, in addition to the Lyons' show, began teaching a course in jazz history at the University of California extension school. At this time also, his two articles on jazz appeared in Down Beat, reprinted from the Local 6 Music News. The fall of 1949 was very important for Brubeck. Not only did his trio start its first regular job-at the Burma Lounge in Oakland, where they were to stay until April, 1950-but they also were heard regularly on KNBC and cut their first records, for trombonist Jack Sheedy's label, Coronet (later changed to Koronet).
Lyons arranged for the record date, and later when the Sheedy firm had difficulties, an arrangement was worked out which begat Fantasy. Sheedy had pressed his records at Circle Record Co., the only custom record-pressing plant in the area. Sol and Max Weiss, the proprietors, took over the Brubeck masters and started Fantasy with Brubeck as a partner in his own sides.
He never owned Fantasy nor was he involved in the recording of any other artists. In fact, the original plan was for Fantasy to record only Brubeck.
In August, 1950, the group made its first appearance outside of town-a date at Salt Lake City for disc jockey John Brophy-and then returned to the Black Hawk in San Francisco. All this time, Lyons on his nightly radio show was plugging Brubeck and the Fantasy Records heavily. The KNBC signal is 50,000 watts, clear channel, and soon an audience for Brubeck rose throughout the West.
In the spring of 1951 Brubeck broke up the trio, which then included Jack Weeks and Cal Tjader. Dave's next step was to form a quartet with Paul Desmond, who, meanwhile, had been playing with Alvino Rey at the St. Francis Hotel. This was the group which, on its eastern tour later that year, was so successful. By the beginning of 1954, the jazz boom had caught the attention of the major record companies. Brubeck was bombarded with offers to depart from Fantasy. One company offered as high as $5,000 an album, and another offered guarantees of concerts totaling $30,000. The Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz at the College of the Pacific Fantasy LPs had created a national stir in the record business, and everyone wanted in.
Brubeck signed with Columbia, and his first two LPs for that label, Jazz Goes to College and Brubeck at Storyville, were hits. Then came the Time magazine cover and his coast-to-coast tour with Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Duke Ellington.
But before the days of plenty, there were days of famine during which the group played for scale and the Brubeck family traveled on the road with him, living in trailer courts and furnished rooms. Later, when the money came, there were compensations, but it was still a grind, sometimes with jumps of 1,000 miles a night on the college tours.
Is Brubeck surprised that he has made it so big? He replies:
"I remember telling my wife when we were discussing how I would make a living at jazz in 1946, that I could be one of the outstanding pianists in the country if I were in New York or some place where I could be heard. That's how I felt." On the other hand, Dave now says, "For years I thought only in terms of wishing I could get a job for scale. And if I had it all to do over again, that's all I'd want. I can truthfully say that. "The tremendous strain I had to put my wife and family and myself and the kids under to arrive where I am, it's too much. I think that anybody who arrives in jazz has to have more courage per unit of success than in any other profession.
"I would prefer to be a part of one community, accepted, and with a job in a joint and not have to put the emotional strain on myself and my family that this has taken. I would prefer not the feast or the famine, but to be an average part of society."
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