Visiting the finely tuned jazz great Dave Brubeck
By Wendy Carlson (video below)
Dave Brubeck quite possibly could have ended up roping cattle instead of composing some of the most memorable pieces in the history of jazz. The legendary pianist credited with crossover, mainstream songs like “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way” celebrates his 90th birthday this year. But his life did not always flow as mellifluously as his music. “There were many years it was very, very rough. I remember my dad saying to me, ‘You can always come home,’” says Brubeck, at home in his sun-filled studio in Wilton.
Brubeck’s father managed a California cattle farm, setting aside four cows for his youngest son to tend after he graduated from grammar school. Brubeck Sr.’s intention was that his son would return one day to the ranch. At times, with money tight and a family to raise, ranching seemed to Dave a promising alternative to the relentless grind of road tours. But once the Dave Brubeck Quartet released the 1959 album “Time Out,” which fast became one of the best-known and biggest-selling jazz albums of all time, life as a cattle hand had long faded away.
For more than 70 years, Brubeck has been making jazz. He continues to compose and perform with the latest incarnation of his quartet in such venues as the Ravinia Jazz Festival in Chicago and up in Kent at this year’s Litchfield Jazz Festival, August 6-8, which is dedicated to him. A documentary on his life produced by jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood, and Bruce Ricker is scheduled to air on his birthday, December 6. “Ah, Eastwood,” muses Brubeck. “He’s been following me around since he was 15 years old.”
Throughout his career Brubeck has won numerous national and international awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor last year for his lifetime contribution to American culture. Though the awards keep coming, for a few quiet minutes at his Wilton home, Brubeck sits reposed in front of one of his two 1949 concert grand Baldwins, reflecting on the future of jazz and his contributions to the genre.
Best known for his innovative, odd-time signatures in pieces like “Take Five,” written by the Quartet’s late saxphonist Paul Desmond, Brubeck’s later contributions to jazz have been equally creative. There’s the jazz opera, Cannery Row Suite, based on John Steinbeck’s classic American novel, and a composition set to the photography of Ansel Adams.
“When I was in college, one of my favorite professors used to say, ‘We are the sum of our past.’ I am not the same person who sat down to compose 50 years ago. Back then, I would not have had the background in composition or an understanding of photography or Ansel Adam’s life and his devotion to nature to have written such a piece.”
With the Dave Brubeck Quartet, whose current members include Bobby Militello, Randy Jones, and Michael Moore, Brubeck continues improvising, giving old tunes a fresh start. He keeps tabs on young jazz pianists such as Taylor Eigsti and Liam Noble, who are charting new territory, and supports emerging musicians through the Brubeck Institute at his California alma mater, University of the Pacific.
Regrettably, the music industry is less receptive to jazz than it was in the 1950s, admits Brubeck. Nevertheless, the medium is firmly embedded in the fabric of our culture in ways we might not even realize. “If you go to a big-league football game, there’s often a band playing some jazz during half-time, or during a Broadway play there’s often jazz influences. If you just go to a movie and there’s a chase scene, usually there’s some wonderful jazz music leading you on that chase.”
As Brubeck sees it, there will always be a jazz audience as well as an audience that doesn’t appreciate jazz until they really listen and the light suddenly goes on. “On the college level, it’s gone from rejecting jazz to respecting it,” he says. “You can get a degree in jazz music now in many great music schools.” As for the California ranch? “Well,” says Brubeck, as he runs his fingers over the piano keys, “that’s long gone.”