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05 February 2004

Wilton Magasine

Wiltons living legend: An interview with jazz pioneer and family.

From The Archives of the Wilton Magazine: The Arts.

Written by David Levy, February 5, 2004. Featured in the Winter / Spring 2004 issue of the Wilton Magazine.


Walk through Williams-Sonoma and you hear it. It begins with the drums, a head-nodding tempo that goes something like”oom-chucka-chucka-oomcha/oom-chucka-chucka-oomcha”.  Next the bass and piano enter, the rhythm section accenting the beat of drums. Finally, easing into the groove, the alto saxophone sings its sweet theme.

Jazz fan or not, you know this tune. The song is “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and it is the first jazz recording whose sales hit the 1 million mark.  “The song is part of our cultural memory”, notes Iola Brubeck, Dave’s wife of 61 years.

One of jazz’s most influential and distinctive pianists, Dave Brubeck has been composing and performing for more than sixty years.  He has been honored with a National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame. He has performed for eight U.S. presidents and was a distinguished entertainer at the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in 1988.  Brubeck is the chairman of the Brubeck Institute, established in his honor by the University of the Pacific in 2000. Last October, Brubeck received the Library of Congress’ “Living Legend” award, which” is bestowed on public figures whose achievements have enriched American culture”. Past honorees include Hank Aaron, Bob Hope, and Walter Cronkite.

This legend lives in Wilton. He has for more than forty years. Dave and Iola Brubeck have six children, four of them musicians and composers.  Perhaps the best known of the Brubeck kids is Chris. Born in 1952, Chris is a composer, lyricist, orchestral arranger, musical educator, and performer who plays bass, trombone, and piano. His musical tastes run from jazz to rock to folk, funk, and classical. Chris and his wife Tish live in Wilton as well.

When we sit down with Dave, Iola, Chris, and Tish at Dave and Iola’s home, we tell Dave that we want to cover different territory, focusing less on oft-told jazz stories and more on his family’s journey.  “Good!” he says.

Born in Concord, California in 1920, to a cowboy father and a piano teacher mother, by the time Dave is four years old, he’s playing piano.  But what Dave really wants to be is a cowboy, like his pop, and help run the 45,000-acre cattle ranch his dad manages.  As a teenager, Dave works in the saddle for a dollar-a-day.  He gets up before the sun and is in bed after it goes down.

But something happens when you’re out there on horseback, with nothing much to do, for days at a time. The rhythms of horse’s hooves seep into your brain and begin to shape a musical sensibility.  “The first poly-rhythms I thought about occurred when I was on horseback”, Dave says.  “There was nothing to do but think, and I’d improvise melodies and rhythms”.

By the time he goes to college at age seventeen, Dave is experimenting with harmony, rhythm, and tempo, the ingredients that will mark his distinctive sound.

Soon he starts playing in bands. Nearly all of them have his name” The Brubeck Octet, the Brubeck Trio, the Brubeck Quartet, and Two Generations of Brubeck”. He’s always the leader and, in those days, being the leader of the band brings more responsibility than wealth.  Out of his share, Dave pays for the band’s transportation, lodging, and other costs like union dues.  The leader usually draws the short straw.  And with a family to support in San Francisco, Dave’s straw seems even shorter. Consequently, the Brubeck’s face lean times.

Dave:  There were so many tough years, especially early in our marriage [we just celebrated our 61st anniversary].

D. Levy:  What were the toughest years that stick out in your mind?

Dave:  The toughest ones would be right after the war. [Dave served in the Army from 1942 to 1946].  After all, I’d been gone almost four years.  Earning $21 a month for four years, we didn’t have much left with which to start a life together. We were living in a housing project that was the bare minimum. For years, everything was pretty much the bare minimum.

One way I would get food was going to the dented-can food market. A big mistake I made one day was when I saw that there were cases of baby food that had been in a fire.  I bought many cases of those.  We were going on the road and the footlocker was full of baby food. But the kids wouldn’t eat it.  I had to eat it!

Chris:  There are funny things in my diet, like artichokes.  Dave knew all the guys that had the farmer’s markets. If you went on the last day when they were packing up, they practically gave away the stuff that was left.

Dave:  Saturday afternoon, late, I’d go there, fill the trunk of the car with artichokes and lettuce and any other available vegetables.  We lived in an artist’s community in San Francisco and I’d divvy it up with all our artist friends.  Joe, the Butcher, would always say,” I saved some bones for your dog”.  I’d say? Great! Wrap them up!? I didn’t have a dog!

Go back a few years.  Iola grows up near the Brubeck’s cattle ranch.  Her family, the Whitlock’s, raises livestock in Northern California.  Despite their rural vocations, Dave and Iola’s parents know the importance of education.  “Education was driven into all of our heads”, Iola said.  “Education was the big leveler of society and if you were educated, you had a chance to get ahead. All the parents believed that.”

Educational opportunities, however, are scarce.  You must make them yourself. In this country, you must have the drive to succeed.

Dave:  My mother was very cultured and self-educated.  She went to college after her sons were born. She was even in a class with my oldest brother.

She struggled so hard to get an education.  There wasn’t even a high school in the town where she was born (Concord, California). She went by horse and buggy to the various farmers and orchard owners to have money pledged to build a high school. She graduated with the senior class of that high school.  You can see the drive she had all her life.

Tish:  She did that as a kid? I never knew that!

Dave:  That’s the drive that I think came from her mother having come to California to work as a maid at one of the farmhouses. So many people had to come and do labor as a way to get to the United States.

D. Levy:  Where did your grandmother come from?

Dave: We were never sure, but it could have been Poland, or the part of Poland that they called” White Russia”. She worked in Germany as a young girl and through a connection of the German family she made it to Concord, California.

D. Levy:  So she had this drive that she passed on to your mother.

Dave:  My mother was driven to become something. She had to do it on her own.

Years later now.  The Brubeck’s are living in their dream house in Oakland.  “It was one of the first cantilevered houses on the peak of a hill”, Iola said.  The demands of touring, however, force Dave to re-evaluate his work situation. They decide to move east.

“We loved that house”, Iola says.  “If we were going to leave California, we wanted to bring a little bit of California here”.

Dave:  We moved to Wilton in the summer of 1960.  So much of my work was centered on the East Coast and living in California made for a lot of travel.  My musicians were also from the San Francisco area. In those days, there were prop planes and it took longer.

I told my attorney I was going to retire from going on the road and he said,” Please don’t do that, your best years are coming up”. We had no money and we wanted to send our children to college. I argued with him and he said,” Try it for a year.”

There was a record executive who was moving from Wilton to the West Coast.  He said,” We’ll make a trade. You can come out and live in my house and I’ll find something in Los Angeles area”.  That’s how we came.

Iola:  When we first came, we lived on Newtown Turnpike. Just on the Weston / Wilton line.

Chris:  Literally. One side of the road is Weston, one side is Wilton. Near Cobb’s Mill.

Iola:  We thought the children were going to go to Weston schools and we went over there to register after we settled in. They said,” No, no, no, you belong in Wilton.  You’re on the other side of the road”.

Dave:  We stayed over there while this house was being built. It was 1962 before we got into this house.

Chris is a small boy when the family moves to Wilton.  Although his dad is a famous musician, Chris’ entrance into the music world is not inevitable.  He grows up in Wilton pursuing the things that other kids pursue, including team sports.  He’s tall, like his dad and his other brothers, so he tries out for the basketball team.

Chris:  When I was in 9th grade in Wilton High School, I really wanted to be on the basketball team.  I went through all the tryouts and I was the last person cut.  I really loved basketball and wanted to play.  When I got cut, I said,”Oh gosh, if I can’t play Basketball, I might as well go to music school”.  I was able to go to Interlochen Arts Academy halfway through 9th grade.  It’s in Interlochen, Michigan, near Travers City, Michigan.

This is where Chris’s journey begins.  He dedicates his life to composing and performing.  As a teenager, Chris plays with the Norwalk Youth Orchestra; as an adult, he composes for it and sits on the board. Chris and his brothers conduct seminars and concerts throughout the country, inspiring children to open their ears to the beauty of music. He records with his various bands (rock, funk, and jazz), with his father and with his brothers’ three of whom are also musicians and music educators.  He composes classical pieces.

In 2002, a chamber orchestra in Northern California commissions him to write a piece for an opera singer. Someone suggests,” Why not set famous poems to your music? Wait! Here’s another idea.  Why not use poems written by children?  Take them from River of Words, an international poetry contest for kids on the theme of watersheds”?  Chris says,” Yes!” The piece is a success, which brings a friend to suggest an even BETTER idea.  “Why not do the same thing, but with Wilton kids”?

Tish:  After hearing about Chris’ piece with the chamber orchestra, Kathy Leeds and Beth Mason from the Wilton Library had the idea, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something like that in Wilton”? They were the inspiration to do a similar project in Wilton.

Chris:  Beth said,” What if we ran a poetry festival. Get all the kids in Wilton to write poems.  Then you could choose some poems and set them to music”.

Tish:  This was July 2002 and we really had to jump on it to get the schools involved right away.  The superintendent of schools was very helpful and agreed to set up a meeting with the principals from all the schools.  We talked to them about our idea and they loved it!

The teachers in this town were so wonderful.  At the beginning of September, they had to adjust their planned curriculum for the full school year in order to focus the kids on poetry.

Chris:  I’d say out of almost a thousand poems, we presented about 300 to a poetry panel.

Tish:  The panel selected about twelve that spoke to us the most, and Chris, in particular, because he had to set them to music.

Chris:  The music teachers then had to teach the kids how to sing these pieces.  The choir directors of the 3rd - 4th grade and girl’s choir for 6 - 7 - 8th grades did a great job.  We had the Wilton High School Madrigal Singers and Chamber Singers and The Wilton Singers join in, because we needed a bigger, more mature choral sound as well.

Tish:  One thing that will give you even more appreciation for what these music teachers went through was that we didn’t receive the poems until December.  We had the holidays and Chris was in Prague in January.  It wasn’t until the end of January that Chris actually started writing the music.  And the singers and musicians had to prepare for a March concert.  They really worked hard.

Chris:  And it was a really wonderful, positive miracle.  It was such a town-wide event.  For us, our biggest thrill was, even at the earliest stages, before the music was written, going to this poetry panel, looking at all these poems, just to think that we were able to pull all these kids out of the MTV-bombarded universe that we live in to get inside themselves for inspiration.

Kids.  School.  Activities.  Welcome to Iola Brubeck’s life. Five kids at home.  Dave on the road. What can she do? Take action, that’s what.  She searches the World Almanac for every college and university and writes to each one suggesting, “Wouldn’t you like the Dave Brubeck Trio or Quartet to play for your students”?  To make it even easier, she develops a handbook, a” how-to-put-on-a-jazz-concert” manifesto that she sends along.  If they bite, then Dave can come home after gigs. Boy do they bite!  Practically all the schools want him.  One band-mate describes the experience as” doing sixty one-nighters in a row”.

But what Iola does is more than keep her husband closer to home; she revolutionizes the jazz world.  New venues, college campuses, open to Dave Brubeck.  These gigs generate several live recordings with names like “Jazz Goes to College and Jazz Goes to Oberlin” and nurture a grateful following of record buyers.  Anyone who has seen a professional jazz performance at his or her college since then can thank Iola Brubeck.

Tish:  Iola’s my role model.  She’s a tough act to follow.  I feel very lucky because I have been blessed with in-laws that are really loving people.  I call them” Mom” and "Dad”.  I see what Iola does for Dave and how hard she works all of the time. She is my inspiration.

Chris:  I guess that I would add to that, other than the normal feelings of love that one has for his mother, that my mom is extra special because when my father was gone on tour so much of the time, she really had to raise six children with half the team gone on the road.  She always knew that Dave had this great musical mission and the world appreciates that.  But I don’t know how often the world stops and says who is taking care of other half of this equation.

Tish:  Can you imagine this woman being in charge, her husband is on the road all the time, packing up a house in California, moving cross-country with five kids and getting everybody settled here, unpacking them, and getting them into school! I just think of that and it’s mind-boggling.  I think that as a woman I know how difficult that is.

Chris:  At the same time she’s doing all that, she’s also doing great things in terms of business.  She was Dave’s original manager. She had the idea of jazz being presented in college.  She even wrote a 40-page book for college kids on how to put on a show with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  Just follow the checklist.  Like planning a wedding or something.  This is what you do.

Then all the little details, like when all my brothers and my sisters were taking piano lessons, she somehow found the time to make sure that we were practicing, encouraging us.  As we got into different instruments; can you imagine the chauffeuring?

Dave:  She had to drive to 22 lessons a week.

Iola:  I know all the backcountry roads and short cuts in Fairfield County.

Chris:  Taking me to Norwalk Symphony every Saturday morning.

Dave:  One son always wanted to have horseback riding lessons.

Iola:  New Canaan Mounted Troop.

Chris:  Constantly!  All that stuff.  Only as a parent can you begin to appreciate the possibility of pulling all this off. But, even as a kid, I was quite amazed.

Tish:  I think that only as a parent can you realize what it took.

Back on the road.  It’s the sixties and Dave’s Quartet [including Joe Morello on drums, Paul Desmond on alto, and Eugene Wright on bass] plans to tour colleges in the South; George Wallace’s segregated South.  Dave has a problem.  Eugene Wright is black. Many of the universities demand that he get a white bass player.  What does he do?  He cancels twenty-three of the twenty-five shows. No room for that nonsense in jazz.

D. Levy:  Throughout your career, Dave, you have demanded equality of the races. Has that battle been won or is it still being fought?

Dave:  It is so much better.  People like to think it hasn’t progressed, but if you have my memories, you know it’s progressed a lot. It will continue to progress.  You look at a symphony orchestra now; if the camera pans in on it, you’re going to see many, many different groups represented.  You’ll see African-Americans.  You’ll see Asians.  You wouldn’t have seen that before.  Now it’s common.

Iola:  Women, too!

Dave:  Yeah, women, too!  It has changed so much.  I have known so many African-American musicians that could have played in the symphony orchestra; they made their living playing jazz or in the studios in Hollywood or the studios in New York.

They were absolutely qualified to be in the symphony orchestra, but they were not allowed.  Now they are.  You can see it changing throughout the orchestra.  This is a great thing. It’s happening all through television and movies and right across our artistic community. I see great changes that have moved too slowly, but they have moved to be great changes for the better.

Jazz is America’s art form.  Its tension between improvisation and structure reflects America’s struggle to express freedom within the bounds of a law-based society.  “Jazz represents freedom under discipline”, Dave says.  “Great discipline and great freedom for creativity. That is why it’s so important to America”.

In 1958, the State Department has the same idea that American music can demonstrate the power of American freedom to the world. President Eisenhower sends the Dave Brubeck Quartet on a tour of Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.  “The President sent us on a cultural exchange.  We were one of the first groups to go behind the Iron Curtain.  We went to Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Iran, and Iraq.  I learned a lot about music and talked with the musicians from the various countries”.

What, however, do those countries learn?  Forty-five years later, it appears that some of them have yet to be won over by the notion of American freedom.  The events of September 11 demonstrate that reality.  With his career as an American artist bridging cultures, representing what is known as America’s classical music, what does Dave Brubeck think about the world we live in today?

Dave:  I have lived through a war that killed 60 million people.  I saw a lot of things that made me want to “in a small way” try and get people to think of peace as the only solution for the world to survive.

The only thing that is really going to save the world is the recognition of the brotherhood of man. Like Martin Luther King said,” We must live together as brothers or die together as fools”.  That should be taken very seriously.

Our interview ends.  Dave walks over to his piano and starts to play.  “Someone to Watch Over Me”, performed as only Dave Brubeck can.  The wind blows the clouds away and the sun finds a resting place on a pair of hands moving deftly along the piano's black and white keys. While notes that have traveled around the world and across this country from California to Connecticut rise to the heavens, it seems possible, at least for a moment, that through the power of music we can live together in peace.

Editor’s note:  This year, the Wilton Library will thank the Brubeck’s for their forty years of contributions to the community by dedicating the Brubeck Family [Resource Room].  In a future issue, Wilton Magazine hopes to feature the Brubeck home as one of the town’s architectural highlights.  Our thanks to Dr. Alex Mantel for introducing us to the Brubeck family.