Orange County may not be known as a hotbed of jazz, but tickets for the concert haven't been available for several weeks. This kind of contradiction isn't unusual with Dave Brubeck.
Growing up on a ranch in Concord, California, Brubeck had a mother who taught classical piano. He recalls, "that house...was built for strictly music. Pianos were in four different rooms...going all day long. My mother was teaching or my brothers were practicing . . . first thing in the morning, last thing at night."
But Brubeck's mother taught him differently from his brothers, mostly composition, ear training and theory, instead of making him study and practice. From the age of 4 or 5 he was improvising, taking in all the sounds and images around him.
Years later, it was Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland who followed a similar path with Brubeck's training, guiding him back to the study of "serious" music after he'd played for two years with a swing band in the army during World War II.
"When I went back to study under Milhaud, 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. 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 give up jazz, that it was in me and if I wanted to represent the culture, jazz was such an important part."
Here we have the sometimes conflicted nature of the musical persona that is Dave Brubeck. There is Brubeck the composer with ideas and Brubeck the performer who says, "I hated the studio and loved live performances. Even with the horrible pianos you find on the road, something else just takes over and you play the piano the way it demands."
George Moore, his assistant of 11 years, says of Brubeck's "program" in a given concert, "Well, he'll come backstage and give everybody a song list and talk through the order. Then, he'll go out on stage and change everything as he goes along. He thinks you have to go by what you get from the audience."
I guess that's why, at 80, he continues to compose and play not only jazz, but cantatas and chorales. He sets gruelling concert schedules that take him all over the world performing old and new standards with his quartet, and sitting in with symphony orchestras and choirs.
This "flying by the seat of your pants" is not a concept foreign to jazz as a genre of music. Improvisation is jazz. Etymologically, "improvise" derives from the Latin for "not foreseen." A jazz soloist responds to and plays off a standard tune, fellow musicians, his own emotions within the limits of his musical ability and imagination in ways he doesn't foresee. Of course, certain parameters define this music as jazz, and that's also a limitation, but Brubeck has, from the beginning, seemed determined to push those parameters as far as they would go because he listens so hard, hears so much and refuses to be narrow in what he allows. Few people have so democratic an ear. Brubeck's concept of improvisation comes out of who he is as a patriot, a family man and a human being as much as who he is as a musician. Or, they are all bound together so tightly as to be inseparable.
He says, "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."
There wasn't enough time to ask him in our 15 minutes on the phone what he meant. Then discovered some lyrics he and his wife Iola wrote for Louis Armstrong at a time when Brubeck was struggling with what he, as a white musician, could do about racial inequity:
I'm the real ambassador.
It is evident I wasn't sent by government to take your place.
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face to face.
I'll explain and make it plain I represent the human race.
I don't pretend no more.
In liner notes for "Impressions of Eurasia," a recording of tunes written out of a 1958 tour through Northern Europe, he says "I tried to create an impression of a particular locale . . . One way is to listen to the voices of the people. The music of a people is often a reflection of their language."
The Iron Curtain was still hanging when he visited Poland, one of his homelands. He had played 11 concerts and recalls, "I wanted to play "Dziekuje" ("thank you" in Polish) which was very Chopinesque, because they had been such a great audience and I'd been so impressed seeing the cast of Chopin's hands and his piano in the Chopin museum. There was no time to rehearse...I hummed it to the guys (Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello), and wrote out the basic chord changes. We performed it after the interpreter told the audience what it was. When we finished, there was an absolute, interminable silence in the hall, which was . . . frightening. And then suddenly the place exploded with applause. For some reason it was like the concert had become a church or a tribute or something."
The reason the concert became "something" is that Brubeck strives to make his concerts a tribute to so many people . . . in his past, his present, living and dead, near and far. For his daughter Catherine, there's "Kathy's Waltz." For Audrey Hepburn, there is "Audrey," a tune he wrote with Paul Desmond which the actress had looped into a recording that played continuously while she worked in her garden.
In turn, his children’s' musicality is a tribute to him. Sons Michael (saxophone), Chris (trombone, electric bass), Dan (drums), Matt (cello) and Darius (keyboard) have recorded with Brubeck, joining him in 1995 at a family gathering in Connecticut to make "In Their Own Sweet Way," a jazz recording on the Telarc label.
When I spoke with him last week on the phone, it was hard to get him to talk about himself. He seemed more interested in the careers of his children, their Web pages, recent successes. In the light of this, I asked him to comment on something he'd said in a 1985 interview with Ralph Gleason.
"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 would prefer to be a part of one community, accepted, with a job in a joint and not have to put the emotional strain on myself and my family that this has taken . . . to be an average part of society."
I asked him, "What exactly did you mean by average?'"
He just laughed.
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