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19 June 1995

Interview with Steve Capra

Steve Capra's Interview with Dave Brubeck  

June 19, 1995 Boston MA


Dave Brubeck is one of the most accomplished musicians to come out of the United States. Although he's best known for his jazz quartet, his compositions and performances exhibit the broadest possible range of talent.

SC: When censorship has been directed toward music, jazz has often been the object. Does this worry you at all?

DB: Nothing I've done per se in jazz has ever been censored. I've had a project stopped that were more in the ballet category, because it was political, and all of a sudden the money that was going to the project, which would be similar to PBS, was cut off. It was during the Nixon administration, and there must have been pressure from the top that stopped anything that criticized the government in any way. That's about the only experience I've had.
The project had to be shelved - never was produced. And it was going along quite smoothly. I'd already written a lot of the music, and the ballet troupe was very pleased, and we were about to start rehearsal, when everything stopped.

The ballet was about the Democratic convention in Chicago. The cameramen had been run out of the park, for the most part, and this one guy was shooting from a window in a hotel, so he had limited angles that he could catch anything from, but what he was catching became - to me - the stage. And there were people being beaten up in this area of the park, and being run out of the park, and as they all would move across this stage part, that you could see through the camera, he would pick up different expressions of anxiety, or fear... a lot of the emotions that you could dance.

Then one girl was knocked unconscious, and was lying right in the middle of - we'll call this the stage - a place in the park that the camera was catching. And a guy came back and picked her up - like a ballet performance. And I had all this in the ballet - it was terrifying, and yet beautiful and tender, the way he came back and picked her up, very much like a ballet.

SC: So you were taking incidents from the convention itself and putting it on stage - but you never managed to realize the project?

DB: No, no. I don't know how it got stopped. I know that all of a sudden there were no funds left for the ballet. And, at the same time, there came word, through the gossip that goes around any politics, that funding was going to be hard to get for anything that was critical.

SC Yes.

DB: To me, it wasn't critical - it was depicting something that need to be seen and a situation that could have been handled easier. So I don't consider that being critical. You're trying to protect the rights of the nation, the survival of the nation, When you see something like that, you start getting afraid that things shouldn't go in this direction - "This is too far, and it should be discussed".

SC: Certainly.
I've read references to you that refer to you as a revolutionary jazzist, a classical jazzist, a crossover musician... How do you see yourself, sir, in the history of jazz, and in jazz today?

DB: I don't bother to look, you know... I just keep doing whatever I want to do. I think if you start analyzing what you're doing, right away you're in trouble. And you shouldn't listen to any of these categories that people try to put you in. I know a lot of very intelligent people writing about jazz, but I personally don't know anyone that knows everything about me.

SC: Certainly.

DB: And they don't know everything about my music. It's there, if they would be interested enough to search. But they don't have time to do a study of everything I've done. There's a man now doing his doctorate on me, and he's getting the scores to everything I've written, but even he probably will miss out in certain areas.

SC: Sir, as I understand it, you've just returned from a tour of Eastern Europe?

DB: Yeah. We were in Germany, and Austria, Switzerland, and Poland.

SC: Do other cultures respond differently to your music than America?

DB: It depends. It isn't a national trait, so much. If you just concentrate on playing jazz, they either understand it, or they don't. And it doesn't make any difference what nationality or culture you're in. But, if you're trying to reach people, and you know something about their culture, if you can incorporate it into your jazz, that's good. And I often do that.

SC: Do you incorporate their music - their traditional music?

DB: Yeah. Sometimes, sure.

SC: So you can do this improvisationally, then?

DB: Yeah.

SC: How wonderful! The former iron curtain countries - you said you haven't been there in thirty-seven years?

DB: I've been to Yugoslavia and Romania a few times. In 1958, I was in Poland for twelve concerts, and I just returned to Poland - to Poznan - last month. I hadn't been there for thirty-seven years.

SC: Has the music community changed since the change of government?

DB: Yeah. But there was always a good underground. Jazz had to be underground. Even to listen to jazz in a communist country was against the law.And it's certainly true in Russia, too. I've been in Russia - in 1987 and 1988 - and we had a tremendous audience. Tickets sold in two hours for five concerts, in Moscow - same thing in Leningrad. You had to move to larger auditoriums, and things like that.

SC: If the government bans jazz - is jazz a political statement?

DB: Yeah. Sure... even part of the underground, in World War Two. The underground had a code that had to do with serial numbers on the recordings, and if you knew what music was on the recording you could piece together a message from the titles. And then jazz was forbidden in Germany, and all the countries that they occupied - but it was played underground.

SC: How does the music translate into politics?

DB: Well you see, when any society or group of people have their freedom taken away, they find ways of expression through art. And a good example of that is the Polish poster art. They weren't allowed to paint in a contemporary way, but for some reason, the communists didn't notice that the posters all over town are beautiful expressions of anything that the artist wanted to do. They weren't catching that. And wonderful poster art was all over Poland - and, I imagine, other countries. There's always some way that people express themselves, whether it's underground poems, or books that are given from one person to another.
My music and a lot of jazz was taken off of the Voice of America when it was broadcast, by doctors and technicians in a hospital, on X-ray screens. They could make a copy some way on an X-ray screen and make that into a recording. A lot of my music was done that way.

SC: I see! Well, good for them!

DB: Yeah! They usually find a way. Then, when they play, they play it in a place where it can't be heard from the hallway, or outside. It's very closed. I've been to meetings - which were against the law - of jazz clubs. And I'll never forget being in this downstairs, hard-to-find room of a hotel - way down, maybe two, three flights below the lobby. And everyone stood, and the toast was "Don't forget that we Poles love freedom as much as you Americans".

SC: I expect that there's a wonderful sense of release now, for the past several years, in Poland.

DB: Oh, yeah!
Jazz in the United States was a form of expression that the Afro-Americans had that, fortunately, escaped censorship The blues and the spirituals were the forerunners, probably. It's very hard to know the difference between Mahalia Jackson singing a spiritual, and a great blues singer, because, outside of the words, it's very similar. And the spirituals are so beautiful, and so much a part of this country - so much a part of our music.
And the same thing is true of the native American. Gradually we'll discover, as we have with the African-American, their spirituality... and the importance of their philosophy... and their ecology, which is so superior to ours... and their song... and their expression of the Great Spirit through their music, and through their dance. We've almost killed that - as a nation, we tried to kill it - kill the entire nation, rob them of all their spirituality, but there was enough saved that it may return, and be taught again. I have a friend that I'm going to see soon, the spiritual leader of one tribe, and he will show me what he's doing to revive the music and the dance of that tribe.

SC: I'm sure that many people in your audience find a spiritual element in your work.

DB: Monday, a week ago, we recorded my Mass - in the National Cathedral in Washington. There's ten large sacred pieces.

SC: Is the experience of playing that form very different for you than the experience of playing jazz?

DB: No. It's... The approach is similar, but it's different. The great thing that Stravinsky said is "Composition is selective improvisation". So, when you're improvising as a jazz musician, you're very close to Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington... all the different forms of music. To me, there's so little difference.

Copyright - All Rights Reserved - Steve Capra.