Asked ahead of his performance at the 50th Monterey Jazz Festival on Sunday night how he spends his time, the 86-year-old Brubeck said: "Working, no matter where or what."
"I'm always busy," he said, wearing a white jacket and large oval glasses. "Relaxing isn't a word used often in our family."
Best known for his quartet's 1959 album "Time Out" with Paul Desmond playing saxophone on hits "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo A La Turk," Brubeck just last month released his latest album "Indian Summer" of somewhat melancholy solo piano.
The Wilton, Connecticut, resident still performs about 50 to 60 concerts a year, such as in Monterey where he also played at the first festival in 1958. He has slowed his pace from about 80-100 concerts a year a decade ago and 200 concerts in the 1980s, said producer Russell Gloyd.
"Until I stop going," is the time Brubeck said he plans to end performing and recording. He was already a big star in the 1950s and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1954.
His return to Monterey this weekend coincided with his 65th wedding anniversary on Friday to Iola, to whom he proposed on their very first date at a fraternity dance. "It is weird," Iola Brubeck said. "Sometimes your intuition is right."
Soon Brubeck took her to a black San Francisco night club for an important test. "I wanted my wife to see the environment I wanted to live in ... which was black night clubs," he told Reuters in a 90-minute interview. "She was right at home being the only white face."
With his 1950s preppy appearance of khaki pants, jacket and tie and horn-rimmed glasses, Brubeck has long served as a jazz ambassador, popularizing concerts on college campuses but also playing black clubs in the then-segregated South.
"I had a following that accepted me regardless of their race, my race," said the composer of standards such as "In Your Own Sweet Way" and "The Duke."
"It sounds bad but I'd be the only white guy they would hire and a lot of times they refused to believe I wasn't black," he said with a laugh. "They knew better, but I was one of them and it was wonderful."
Brubeck's huge popularity opened doors to befriend Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and meet world figures like Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. He attended one of the more unlikely White House dinners when Richard Nixon hosted Duke Ellington on his70th birthday in 1969.
"That was one of the few times I admired Nixon," he said. "But he didn't like my playing."
Actor-director Clint Eastwood has also linked up with Brubeck to film a documentary. On Friday, Eastwood sat down next to a piano with Brubeck in Carmel, California, to record an interview.
"I love listening to this guy; he's an institution. He's always had a tremendous amount of energy," Eastwood said. "He has an enthusiasm that the audiences just love, more than just being technical, you've got to involve yourself ... just like an actor involves himself in a character."
Before Eastwood arrived, Brubeck played his wife a love song to mark their anniversary. His playing remains distinctive with his trademark odd-time juxtapositions spicing up improvisations.
In a profession where drugs have plagued legends such as Charlie Parker, Brubeck has long projected an image of clean living. "You observe the physical and mental abilities that really start disintegrating, the helplessness," he said of drugs. "But it isn't just musicians."
As his six children (four of whom are musicians) adopted some of the wilder fashions of the 1960s and 1970s, Brubeck did let his hair grow and wore flowery shirts. "When I see those pictures, I really hate the way I look," he said.
The explosion of rock and roll delivered a tough blow to jazz. Brubeck is still bitter that his label Columbia -- for whom "Time Out" was one of the best-selling jazz albums in history -- let his contract quietly expire in 1971.
"How do people who have helped create the label suddenly find out they have been dropped and no one talked to you and explained it? Not a word," Brubeck said.
"I'll never understand how something as important as jazz is ... to our culture and to the world, gradually for some unknown reasons not getting the attention it should."
Adam Tanner - Copyright 2007