Perhaps the wrong thing to do would be to ask Dave Brubeck to discuss his career as a composer and performer since, when you talk to him, you get the feeling that he is more interested in you than you are in him. But somewhere along the line he will say that he's nothing more than "just another musician". "You would have to see Dave in action to believe what he's like", says his composer son Chris, "work is so important that he'll never stop. Wherever he goes, he takes manuscript paper with him and, when he was a bit younger and was supposed to be riding a bike for exercise, he built a special platform for an electric keyboard to be on so that he could cycle whilst he was practising the piano or writing music!"
Dave is proud to inform anyone he talks to that he has been a professional musician for 67 years. With his quartet, he completes this month a gruelling tour of Europe that takes in thirteen concerts in several major cities; later this year, the recording made at his eightieth birthday celebration concert last December is due for release. John Woodford caught up with him shortly before he left his home in Connecticut for Europe.
I first came across the name Brubeck at about the age of seven or so, when I saw a Norman Wisdom film, the name of which, over thirty years on, escapes me. In fact, just about everything to do with that particular movie has slipped my mind, except for a piece of music that accompanied a scene to do with boats. It was mildly exotic, and contained an odd time signature and a rhythmic drive of which I might, in one of my more academic articles, refer to a perpetuum mobile figure. My dad, who was busy making sure that, on that particular Sunday afternoon, my mother received her well-earned rest away from both my sister and me, since getting into trouble was a frequent occurrence during those lazy childhood days when there is little else to do, noticed how attracted I was to the music and immediately went to that holy of holies, the inner sanctum where his records were kept and where I wasn't allowed to visit, pulled out a disc with an abstract cover design and proceeded to play the same piece to me. And thus began a love affair with the music of a composer who can not only boast the highest number of current albums on the commercial market, but the respect of both modern classical, jazz and pop musicians the world over. Twenty years on and I was still listening to that disc and even now, forty-one years after my father paid ten shillings for it at Woolworth's, it remains on my shelves. The artist was Dave Brubeck and the work in question, 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' from the 1960 album Time Out.
As a jazz musician, Dave and his quartet are credited with the foundation of a new jazz, which was to be later termed the 'West Coast' style of playing. "We had no idea that we were forming what was later to become known as the 'cool West Coast' style of playing…we never discussed that, it came from critics and people writing about it. It was us just being musicians." And that concept of 'us just being musicians' is one that has also taken Dave away from the jazz arena to become the prolific composer of fourteen major choral cantatas, several major symphonic works, TV and film scores and a host of numerous chamber compositions that include the four-movement Chromatic Fantasy, a string quartet based on the opening bars of JS Bach's work of the same name. "Bach holds a special significance for me", he says, "not just because of the sheer beauty of his music, but also because of his technical mastery of counterpoint and conciseness of form."
Yet for most jazz musicians, the arduous task of composing complex serial counterpoint is at odds with the very basis of their art as improvisers; perhaps here, tribute must be paid to a very unlikely source, since after serving in Europe during Second World War, Dave went on to become a graduate student at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his brother Howard was the teaching assistant of none other than Darius Milhaud. "I was struck so much by The Creation of the World, that I decided that I wanted to study with him: I was really excited by his use of small instrumental forces, but more importantly, by the fact that his music had the sound of jazz at its roots. There were two sides to him as a teacher", remembers Dave, "as a teacher of counterpoint and fugue he was very strict; as far as composition was concerned, however, he was about as free as anyone could be. So, although structure was left to us, the approach had to be quite rigorous." Chris added a little more: "Dave had awful problems with his eyes when he was younger and this, coupled with his extraordinary invention as a jazz musician, caused his music-reading to suffer.
In fact the dean of the college where he was an undergraduate wanted to fail him until someone reminded him that Dave was possibly the best student the college had had! So it was agreed that he should pass…as long as he promised never to teach!" Judging by our brief conversation, I'm not sure that would have bothered Dave too much, since the be all and end all of his studies seemed to revolve around Milhaud and what he could offer not only as a teacher, but as a friend. "He was kind to my whole family; in fact, my oldest son is named after him. We even lived with him for a short while, when his wife, Madeleine, was appearing with Stravinsky in a New York performance of Persephone." But the Milhaud influence is definitely present in Dave's early modern classical writings, not only through his use of serial and bitonal techniques, but in the nature of the counterpoint: perhaps more fugues and intricate structures come from his pen than from any other jazz or modern classical composer of the past century. "One of the things that Darius Milhaud seemed to inspire in Dave", said Chris, "was a method of bringing the worlds of classical and jazz together. Everything Dave does is intuitive and when he first wrote Elementals in 1963, the first piece he worked on alone that combined a jazz combo with an orchestra, I remember that he was very nervous but at the same time excited about it. I think it was really important for Dave because of this feeling that not only was he getting into the orchestral world, but that he was completing the mission that Milhaud had instilled in him."
Dave's first choral work, The Light in the Wilderness, came about not only through his own enthusiasm, but also because of the enthusiasm of a number of musicians. It was initially inspired by Ernest Farmer, then president of the Shawnee Press, who had asked him to expand on a piece written for his brother, whose son had died at the age of sixteen. The celebrated American organist Richard Dirksen can also lay claim to having a part to play in its composition. "I was performing with the quartet at St Alban's School, which was situated right next door to the National Cathedral in Washington. After the concert, Richard introduced himself, said how much he had enjoyed my improvisations and asked if I would like to hear him improvise. I said 'sure, but what do you mean?' whereupon he took me next door, sat at the organ and began to play a wonderful improvisation. When we were chatting afterwards, he suggested that I write an oratorio. I said that I was already working on one and, the following day, showed him some ideas that I had with me (he maintains to this day that they were kept in an old shoebox). He was really enthusiastic, however, and said right away that he would perform it at the cathedral when it was complete."
The next stage in its evolution involved Erich Kunzel, who approached Dave at his home to talk about a concert with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, which, at that time, was being formed. Seeing the sketches on his piano, Kunzel also showed interest in involving the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in its performance. "That was the first time I wrote a choral piece, and to show how little I knew of choral writing, I wrote the tenor line in the bass clef, which Milhaud was the first to criticise!" The first performance, using small forces, took place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, under the directorship of an editor at the Shawnee Press, Lara Hoggard. That was followed by a full performance under Kunzel and, later, a tour of Europe. Concerts were reviewed enthusiastically, something he admits waylaid many fears: "I didn't know what they would make of this jazz musician who thought he could come along and write classical music", he said, "but I think that the best notice of all was the one I received in Lyons, where they called me an eagle…to them I looked like an American eagle, sitting in the midst of this orchestra with my prominent nose and my white hair."
"There's such an innocence in that piece", says Chris, "and therefore so much more power than in a lot of the music that was being cranked out in those days. It's so emotionally direct…and the craftsmanship is superb: he even uses serial techniques in the composition, but it's always tonal and always approachable. That's what makes it so important."
Catholicism plays a major part in Dave's life as both a Christian and as a composer. He joined the Church during the early 1980s after writing Mass To Hope, and, as with everything, it seems, there is an endearing story attached to its composition. "I had been approached on a number of occasions to write a mass by Ed Murray, who published a small paper that is handed out in most Catholic churches on a Sunday. The first time he talked to me I said that I'd never even been to a mass and that I'd only set foot in a Catholic church once, when I was a child, and that I knew nothing of the mass. But that was just what he wanted, a completely fresh approach. We agreed that I would write the first three movements and have them performed at a friend's church, and if he liked them, I would complete the rest of the work. When it was ready, he arrived with a couple of priests for the first performance and, at the section 'When We Eat This Bread', I turned around to see their reaction. All three had tears in their eyes! They said that it was more than they could ever have expected because I had really managed to capture that part of the mass."
He was still uncertain and asked that it could be looked at again by other liturgical musicians. It was so enthusiastically received that he went on to complete the work. "When we performed it at Providence, Rhode Island, the priest, Ron Brassard, said, 'Dave, I'm disappointed in you…you've left out the Our Father'. I didn't even know what the Our Father was and, because I was going on a vacation with my family, I was a little reluctant to put it in: I didn't know where it could go because, structurally, the work seemed complete to me. But on the second night of the vacation, I dreamt the 'Our Father', complete with orchestra and chorus, awoke and jumped out of bed to write it down! When something like that happens, you know it's for a reason and, to my wife's incredulity, I joined the Catholic faith."
Truth is Fallen, which features Chris' group from the early 70s, New Heavenly Blue, has recently been released on CD by Atlantic Records (7567-80761-2). It must count amongst one of the most outrageous pieces in Dave's total output as a composer. It is certainly one of his favourites: "The first performance was great, especially when you consider that the rock musicians were placed amongst the orchestra – they didn't have concert dress, but tried their best. One kid took off his shoelaces and made them into a tie! So the conductor just gave up and said something like 'I suppose that's the best I can do! But it's really quite a funky piece and was great fun to write and record."
The celebration of his eightieth birthday, which featured a collaboration between members of his quartet, four of his sons, Darius, Chris, Dan and Matthew, and the London Symphony Orchestra, was given in December last year under the baton of Russell Gloyd. The release of the live recording, later this year, will see a collection of Dave's most personal compositions. It features, of course, Brubeck standards such as Blue Rondo a la Turk and Unsquare Dance, orchestrated respectively by sons Darius and Chris, as well Take Five, Summer Music, a Darius composition written specially for the event, Four Score and Seven and a work that holds a particularly special significance for Dave, The Basie Band's Back in Town: "There was a big party for Count Basie in Kansas City, to which all the Basie 'alumni' and friends, which included my wife and me, were invited. We were sitting with Basie and each musician there was called up onto the stage to perform. It was that kind of night when you wouldn't have a clue who you were playing with, and I ended up with Max Roach on drums. It was a wonderful evening and, when we went back to the hotel, I immediately sat down and wrote the piece." Ultimately, however, the quintessential 'classical' composer is to be found in the supple and exquisitely scored Chorale, a fitting tribute to one who has, over the period of his life, regarded himself as "just another musician".
"It was quite an experience working with such a wonderful band as the LSO – they first invited me to celebrate my seventieth birthday, then my seventy-fifth. Now we've done eighty and I'm looking forward to five years' time when I go back again! And I'll just keep on coming as long as they want me to." I'm certain he will.
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