An Interview with Dave Brubeck, July 23, 2007

A recent press release from the Detroit Jazz Festival stated that 90-year-old Dave Brubeck, advised by his doctors that it would be a bad idea for him to travel, had cancelled his scheduled concert, A vivid force in American music since the latter ’40s, and a charismatic performer, Brubeck shines in the public eye, and it will be a shame if his performing career is over.

I had a wonderful opportunity to interview Brubeck four years ago, for a Jazziz story focusing on his involvement in education. It was a narrative article — the unedited transcript appears below, following four expository paragraphs.

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Few jazz musicians can discuss the whys and wherefores of jazz education so eloquently as pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, whose career could serve as a case study in how to blend the conservatory and the working world beyond.

A household name since Time magazine placed his picture on its cover in 1954, Brubeck continues to meet commission deadlines, producing  extended works—operas, oratorios, ballets, suites—that bespeak continued artistic growth, while sustaining a respectable concert schedule as a solo artist and with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. He also devotes much time to the Brubeck Institute, an organization established in 2000 by University of Pacific, his alma mater. Chaired these days by Clint Eastwood, the Brubeck Institute houses its namesake’s archives, sponsors eight student-musicians as Brubeck Fellows during every academic year, runs an annual Summer Jazz Colony (artists-in-residence in recent years include Chris Potter, Nicholas Payton and Christian McBride), and hosts an annual Brubeck Jazz Festival wherein its charges break musical bread with luminaries of the jazz world.

On a rainy July afternoon at his rural Connecticut home, Brubeck spent two-and-a-half hours discussing the course of his own education—on both the receiving and the giving end—from his formative years on through to the here-and-now. Pleased to be wearing shoes for the first time since he incurred a serious ankle injury in March, he sat with exemplary posture on a sofa across from the Baldwin grand piano in his ground floor studio, separated from a Japanese garden adroitly landscaped to convey a certain studied wildness.

The topography evokes the terrain of central California, where Brubeck lived with his family during his first two decades.  His father, Pete, a cowboy and champion roper, of Native American ancestry, managed cattle ranches; his mother, Olga Johanna Elizabeth Rengstroffsky Ivey Brubeck, known familiarly as Bessie, of Russian descent, and a native of Concord, California, was a well-regarded piano teacher. His oldest brother, Henry Brubeck (1909-1986), who played piano and violin, and was the drummer in Gil Evans’ first big band, became Superintendent of Music at Santa Barbara High School; middle brother Howard (1916-1993) was a jazz-friendly classical composer with avant-garde leanings who became Dean of Humanities at Palomar College.

I thought it would be interesting to speak with you about you learned things, taught things, assimilated things. Perhaps speaking about the way you assimilated information might make it less tedious to speak about things you’ve spoken off thousands of times before, and it might lead logically into the Brubeck Institute, the college concerts, your own conservatory education, and the training you received from your mother. First, can you tell me something about your mother’s piano education?

Yeah. My mother decided to go from the small town of Concord… When we lived there, there were 1600 people. When she was born there, there were probably a lot less people. She wanted to have an education. There was no high school. So she got in her cart or wagon with a horse, and went from one ranch or orchard-ranch to the other to get people to promise to support a high school—financially contribute—if it were going to be built. So she had really to educate herself and the community, and she graduated from Concord High School in the first class. She’s the one that got the high school going.

What year?

I’m very bad with dates.

Well, your oldest brother was born in 1909, so it was probably before that.

Oh, yeah. Henry. Henry went through that high school. Howard went through it, and then taught there, in that same high school.

And he later became the Superintendent of Music in Santa Barbara?

Henry. Howard was a Dean of Humanities and Music at Palomar College near San Diego.

Had your mother had piano education before high school? Was it part of her family tradition?

I wouldn’t think so. She was always going to become educated by herself, reading… She was driven. See, her mother came to California probably through what they called White Russia, to Poland, to Germany, and then came on to California as a servant. That’s the way a lot of people came to this country. My mother just wanted to rise above all that, and she was driven all her life. She was still studying… She was in class with her oldest son, with Henry, when he was getting his Masters done. That was in Idaho, I think. But before that, she was at San Francisco State. She studied with Henry Cowell. She’d go to classes at University of California in Berkeley. Her cousin was Ethel Cotton. If you want to look her up, she and mother would have… A visit was practically like a class. Ethel reviewed books, wrote speeches for the Mayor  of San Francisco and for the Governors, and her books were on education and conversation and just development. So they were kind of in the front of getting something going for women and education.

So she was a highly independent woman.

Oh, boy.

And strong-minded, it sounds like. But she would have had to be if your father was anything like what it sounds as though he was.

[LAUGHS] Then she went to Kings Conservatory in San Jose, and I recently read where the Dean of the Conservatory, when she graduated, encouraged her to go on and become a great pianist, like she was to become. Then she married my father, which no one can figure out.

He sounds like quite a charismatic guy.

Oh, yeah. Oh, boy. Well, he would just run off anybody else interested in her. They’d better forget it! [LAUGHS]

She just gave in. He wore her down.

Yeah. Then after she had three children, she went to Europe to study, and she studied with the top teacher-pedagogist…

Which country?

In England. His name was Tobias Matthay. If you look him up… I never have done it, but everybody that knows about piano, the older people all thought he was the greatest.

She left the three of you, then, to go to Europe to study—also quite ahead of her time.

Oh, yeah. She took Henry, who was the oldest, and Howard and I had to be boarded out. I was maybe five. It was quite a blow to the both of us. But my Dad was working with a big cattleman, they were kind of like partners in meat for a butcher house and a slaughterhouse, and big ranches. He would see us, come and pick us up on weekends. We’d go to this big cattle ranch, where we could be with him.

Did music continue to be part of your life during those years, or did that take a vacation until your mother got back?

You’re right. I guess pretty much of a vacation. I guess she was gone a year. Dame Myra Hess noticed that during the lesson one day in London, she looked out the window, and her mind drifted from the piano lesson. Dame Myra said to her, “Oh, you’re watching those children play outside; do you have children?” She said, “I have three sons.” They talked for a while, and Dame Myra said, “This is a pretty lonely life, to be a concert pianist. If I were you, I’d go home to my children.” That’s why she came home.

What a dramatic story. It really is!

Well, it’s the story of her life. Then she became a very well-known piano teacher. Although we were still in Concord, people came from the surrounding towns, even from Oakland and… She became well known as a teacher. My first lessons with her were… There’s a picture of her teaching at a blackboard the circle of fifths. I had to be very young. And to be introduced to that, which was what most European music and a lot of jazz is built on… So that was one of the things that she taught me, and it’s one of the few things she was able to teach me, because I took right to it. But she couldn’t teach me to read. I would write or play little things, and she would write them down for me. When I was very young, I almost can’t remember when I wasn’t around a piano. The house was full of pianos. She had 2 grands in the studio, and then two other places in the house where you could practice.

Did she herself have a virtuoso technique?

Well, knowing the literature she played, when I look back on it, she had a lot of technique. She was a great sight-reader and a great accompanist, and her desire was to have three sons that were musicians. Well, Henry became a very good musician, and played violin and drums. When I was introduced to Gil Evans as Dave Brubeck, and he had just recorded “The Duke” with Miles, and… I was at the working session, and when I was introduced he said, “Brubeck! Did you have a brother?” I said, “Yeah. Henry.” He said, “You know, he played in my first big band.” He was a great drummer.

You have a story that you recalled of hearing, as a little kid, him argue with your mother about using the studio at your house for his jazz band to rehearse, which would have been the middle ‘20s or so.

Yeah, I was about 6 when that started. Just like my floor here, it’s been kind of ruined by drummers pegs and pegs of the bass, when they have to work them out of the hardwood.

Is this where you rehearse your quartet?

I have, yeah. She was so upset by the guys… When you play a trumpet or a trombone, there’s often a little saliva comes out on the floor. Then she made them put down newspapers, and was really angry with my brother about the marks that his drums made on the floor. She had a right to be. The suffering she went through to build that studio. It was attached to the house where she grew up. If you were from California, you will know the name Del Courtney. If you watched the Oakland Raiders, he had the band for years. Del came out from Oakland to Concord, and took over the band my brother had with local guys in it, and became the front man. Then Del and Henry went on to College of the Pacific. They were roommates, and they continued with a big orchestra for quite a few years. Then my brother dropped out so he could get his degree at College of Pacific and become a schoolteacher.

So your introduction to jazz seems to have come through your brother, then.

Yeah!  Howard did not play jazz, but he could play Gershwin, and he’d memorized Rhapsody in Blue when he was 12 years old. He won some competitions in San Francisco. Great pianist. Finally, he and Pete Rugolo got their Masters with Darius Milhaud. They were both going to San Francisco State, in San Francisco, and they came over to Mills College so they could get their Masters under Darius Milhaud.

That must have been when Milhaud moved here in ‘41 or ‘42.

Yeah, you’re pretty close.

I guess ‘39 is when Milhaud emigrated.

Well, you know that to save his life he had to get out of France in a hurry because of the terrible things that happened. His parents pretended to be workers on their orchard in southern France, near Aix, and many of the people were being turned in for being Jewish by other farmers, just a mean streak, because it meant you were going to go to your death. No one turned in the Milhauds, but Milhaud never saw them again.

I guess he returned to Paris… Well, this is off the track. Otherwise, we could talk all afternoon, and I know you don’t want to do that. But as far as developing as a pianist, it was an organic thing from living in the environment that your mother created, and I guess seeing your older brothers.

You got it. Environment. I loved to sit and improvise. I was not good at my lessons with my mother, and she finally figured out that I wasn’t reading. For some reason, she could never teach me to read. It just didn’t read.

You figured it out once you got to conservatory, though, I gather.

No, not too good.

Mostly ear?

Yup. That’s got me through—and that I could write. That’s what’s strange. I couldn’t read, but I could write.

Let me go there. Another ongoing theme is incorporating the sounds from your environment directly into your compositions. I was thinking about other people from California who are composers. I was thinking about Harry Partch and I was thinking about John Cage, and I was thinking about the three of you, with very different sensibilities, as coming roughly from the same place—that is, understanding the fundamental structures of music and finding a completely fresh way of applying them to your circumstances. It sounds as though that notion became innate to you as a young kid on the ranch; you’ve talked about hearing the sound of the motor, the clip-clop, and so on…


Were you thinking of music as a language at a young age?

Yeah. It was always in my mind. It’s funny you mentioned Partch. I think I went to one of his first concerts, where he was on a huge…it was like a structure with instruments that you had to climb way up on. That was across the bay from San Francisco that I went to hear it. The other composer you mentioned, Cage, he used to come in once in a while where I was playing, and I got to know his wife, Xenia, real well. They got a divorce. I said, “Xenia, why did you divorce John Cage?” She said, “I got tired of hitting the piano with a dead mackerel.”

My brother did all the work for his concert when he was coming to Mills, to prepare the piano. I saw my brother working on it, with clothespins and various things that he was instructed to have in the piano.

You started to play for money when you were in your early teens, and I’d imagine then you started learning about being a bandleader—which is also part of music. Bending people to your will, as it were.

You see, when we left Concord, California, I was well, and were moving to this huge cattle ranch, 45,000 acres, owned by H.C. Howard who owned Seabiscuit. Of course, he owned other ranches, and Seabiscuit wasn’t on this ranch. But when I moved there, I would still be improvising after school and playing the piano. The guy that came to pick up our laundry at the ranch and take it to Lodi, where Mondavi started, about 18 miles away… He’d take the laundry, and he heard me playing, and he said, “I could use you in my band.” I was 14 then, and he hired me, and we played on the Mokelumne River, outdoor dance floor that was all warped from the rain, and electric lightbulbs hanging from wires with the decorations. His name was John Ostabah. From Ostabah, I went to another band in Ione, California, that played all the foothill dances. Believe me, that was an experience. Very few people have had the experiences I had when I was very young. Because the towns of Jackson and Sutter Creek were wide-open. That means everything in California that was against the law, was not against the law in those mining towns.

Things hadn’t changed since the 1840s, right?

Exactly. And boy, it was rough and ready. That was another town, called Rough and Ready! I played for the Jumping Frog Jubilee; the Mark Twain story, the jumping frog of Calaveras County. We played that. Mokelumne Hill. Oh, boy. Those dances went to 12 o’clock, and then they had a midnight supper, and then they’d come back and dance til they were through. If you wanted to be through, they told you to keep playing—and you’d better play.

Sounds like the equivalent of the bucket of blood joints that a lot of black musicians played in. Same deal.

Gene Wright grew up playing outside of Chicago, and he told me about those places, where guys were up in the balcony with machine guns.

But anyway, my experience with those guys… They were pretty good musicians up in the foothills, so that was a good band to be in.

Were those swing bands? Were they jump bands? Country-western swing?

Swing. Stock arrangements.

When you played piano, would you say that you by that time already had a conception? Let’s just hypothesize that you had a decent piano and one could hear you take a little intermission solo. Would it sound anything like the solo fragment from 1942 at University of the Pacific?

They didn’t give the pianist much of a chance. I remember I used to, as one guy called it, screw up the shuffle with rhythm. Like Clyde McCoy, OOMPTY-DOOMPTY-DOOMPTY-DOO… I’d go [SINGS TRIPLET PATTERN], just to make it more interesting.

I knew you were going to use that word. Then you’d get home and your father would tell you to take off the tuxedo and…

“Put on your jeans and help me.” And I would do that.

So you got to be a pretty tough guy and also a musician.

Yeah. [LAUGHS] Because… Other musicians did not want to just go home. It would be 4 in the morning, and the tenor saxophonist and the drummer would stay awake until first mass, and then go to the Catholic church. They’d be so drunk that… [LAUGHS] One night the saxophonist fell between the steering wheel and the dashboard, and got his head stuck, and they ran off the road!

It sounds like being on the ranch kept you from palling prey to a lot of bad influences.

Oh, yeah! All the temptation in the world was in the town of Jackson. And anything goes. And it went that way until… Sacramento was the state capitol. Some senators came up there to have a good time, and the gamblers and everybody thought they were there to investigate the town—and it kind of closed down the town. It changed after that.

At this point, were you listening to records?


You’ve talked about this millions of times. Ellington, Kenton, Lunceford, you liked—big bands. Teddy Wilson and Billy Kyle were among the pianists, and of course, Tatum and Fats Waller. Those are the first names that come to mind from before you went to college.

You got ‘em. The first recording I bought cost 48¢. It was an acetate recording. I went to Sacramento with the idea of buying that record. At that time, I was working all day for a dollar, so to spend I think, with tax, 50¢, was half-a-day’s work. So it was a big event. I bought Fats Waller’s “Let’s Be Fair and Square In Love” and “There’s Honey On the Moon Tonight.” But I had heard Billy Kyle while I was still in Concord—the Billy Kyle Trio. It was so great to play with Billy when he was with Louis, and Louis asked me to sit in, and there’s the first really great jazz pianist I had heard—I’m playing with him. Then we recorded on The Real Ambassadors, just two pianos behind Louis Armstrong, Billy and I. So it was really an event.

But I guess where I wanted to go with that question was to ask whether, during those years, were you trying to emulate any of those players? Were you trying to play lines like Teddy Wilson, trying to get a left hand like Fats, or in some way get Tatum’s orchestral approach, or maybe get an Ellington arrangement on the piano? Was that important to your development?

Oh, yeah. Tatum… It’s a story I’ve often told people. But my mother didn’t like jazz, and she was in the car with me once, I was driving her some place, and I had on a jazz station, and they played Art Tatum’s “Humoresque.” When it was finished, she said, “David, now I know why you want to be a jazz musician.” Because she played “Humoresque.” Tatum also recorded “Elegy.” But that’s the first time she kind of caught on. Fortunately, the recording I made when I was probably 19, that they found in the archives at Pacific… Have you ever heard it.

Well, I think they dated it 1942, so you might have been 20 or 21.

Ah. Well, you can hear Tatum’s influence. That’s what people have said, and I think it’s definitely there.

Do you think Tatum would be the earliest influence on you?

The earliest influence was the pianist I worked with when I was 19. Cleo Brown. She was so great. She was an influence on Marion McPartland; in England, she was listening to her. When Fats died, the guys in the band asked her to take his place. Then she disappeared. Because she was in Stockton to get over a habit, and in the hospital there, and the hospital wanted her to gradually go back to work, but I was to pick her up and bring her to the job, and then see that she got home, and play intermission. But she was a great influence on me.

So it wasn’t just that you were around her. She talked to you, told you about music, passed on information in a first-hand way.

Just by playing, she did. Once in a while, she’d say, “Dave, let more come out through your hands than through your feet.” Because I would stamp my feet when I was playing, which went on for years! Everybody has a bit of stomping in their feet when they’re playing piano, but mine was harder than most!

I guess during your sophomore year at University of Pacific, you transferred from veterinary school to music, and then you did get a degree. The famous story is they allowed you to graduate if you’d swear never to teach.

Well, the first thing I heard was, “You can never graduate.” Then the harmony and the composition teacher and… The counterpoint teacher went to the Dean and said, “You’re making a big mistake; this guy has written the best counterpoint probably I’ve ever had,” and the harmony teacher said, “He’s pretty advanced harmonically.” So the Dean then said, “Well, if you promise never to teach and embarrass the conservatory, I’ll let you graduate with the class.” Now that’s where I’ve got my Institute, and I got an Honorary Doctorate.

Time has proven you right. But during those years… This sounds like a naive question, so please forgive me.

It’s all right.

Were your studies as an undergraduate in a conservatory useful to you in your career? Were you able to apply them to your own musical vision?

Yes. Well, the harmony teacher, J. Russell Bodley, had studied with… Say the word for “bakery” in French.

You’re putting me on the spot. Bakery…bakery…

Who was the greatest teacher in France? Taught Stravinsky?

Oh, Boulanger.

Thank you. How could I all of a sudden not remember? So he’d studied with her when he was young. He liked jazz, J. Russell Bodley. He was a tremendous musician, and he was Director of the a cappella choir, and the big choir… But the a cappella choir was excellent. I loved to hear that, and I’d sneak into his rehearsals. So he was a big influence on me. My last year in college I lived across the street from him, and we’d jam most of the night. He could hear us. He would make remarks about what we had been playing, because he had perfect pitch and great musicianship. You see, you couldn’t play jazz in the conservatory. But I would go visit him across the street, we’d talk a lot about music, and my roommate, Dave Van Kriedt, studied with him… He was just a huge influence on all of us.

There were so many good musicians that played jazz in the conservatory. There were two big jazz bands that couldn’t practice in the conservatory, but worked in town and local dance halls. After all, Stockton is where Gil Evans picked up a lot of those musicians; great musicians there.

So because of the conservatory, it became a kind of magnet for musicians from the area.

Yes. It was great. When I first came down from the ranch, I wanted to hang out with the musicians. They asked me where I was from, and I’d say, “Ione,” and they just kind of turned away from me. It wasn’t until the President of the Musicians’ Union needed a pianist to take his job so he could go to another job that they let me get into the union, and play… When I played, it kind of scared these guys who’d been fluffing me off…

You were giving them stuff they weren’t prepared for. You had some stuff they couldn’t understand.

[LAUGHS] But he had his own dance band, and became very successful in Hollywood as a composer for television, movies, and so on. His real name was Herman Shapiro. He was head of the Musicians Union when he was still a college student. He was a brilliant guy.

During those years before the war, in Stockton, were you composing? Were you arranging at all for any of those bands?

I was just starting to.

Were you thinking about polytonality then? Were you thinking about polyrhythms within your personal style?

Only when I was improvising. But when I was writing, I wasn’t.

But when you were improvising , you thought of those things.

I think so, yes.

Was that just innate from your experiences, or…

Well, my brother, being a student of Milhaud, must have told me about polyrhythms and polytonality. But I remember there was an article on Darius Milhaud that was on the bulletin board at the conservatory, that I read, where he’s talking about playing in two or three keys at the same time. So I don’t know how this started to happen, but it did. Harmonically, I was different than some players. [LAUGHS]

Then you went in the Army for four years.

There again I was with first-call studio musicians and also from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Bronislaw Gimpel was the violinist, and one of his top students joined the Army so he could still study with him—which I think was a bad move, but it worked out! Then Joseph DeFiore was from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a violist, and then Brown from Cincinnati, first cellist for the Cincinnati Symphony… There was a string quartet practicing in the tent. There’s a picture of me just in a t-shirt listening to them, probably in the archives.

I guess there’s a long tradition in this country of the Army being a breeding ground for innovation, since the musicians have nothing to do but practice and perform. It goes back to marching bands, and John Philip Sousa and James Reese Europe, and all the black bands in World War Two. So I guess you’re part of that continuum, too.

Well, anyway, I was assigned to a tent when I got into the band. A student from Pacific set it up so I could get into that band. His name is Ernie Farmer. We’re still close friends. Great trumpet player. The first thing they said to me when I walked into that tent, five or six guys in the tent… One of the remarks was, “Are you a cowboy or an Indian?” I said, “I’m both.” [LAUGHS]

Your father was Native American?

Maybe. [LAUGHS]

Looking at you, it certainly appears somebody was.

Well, he would admit it, but my mother would say, “Don’t tell him that nonsense,” so I’ll never know.

You probably could know, now that they’ve mapped the genome.

That would be interesting.

I guess that’s always been a source of curiosity to you, hasn’t it.

Well, the Indians considered me an Indian.

Did they?

Well, my friends that I had on the cattle ranch, and the girl…my first date was Ramona, and she always thought I was Indian. She was full-blood. My best friend on the ranch was Awalupe(?); I wrote “Indian Song” with his melody. Did you ever hear that recording with Alan Dawson and Gerry Mulligan? It’s on the Berlin album. It’s wild. Have you ever read the book Ishi? The last Indian that they finally brought in to civilization that was really an Indian, and not knowing American ways, was found near where my wife’s family was. Then they brought him to a museum in Golden Gate Park, where he would teach people Indian ways. It’s a wonderful book, Ishi.

But you see, there were so many massacres. My father told me about some of those things, where his family hadn’t gotten involved because they were friendly with the Indians, but the rest of the settlers were all wiped out, and then the Indians knew there would be a reprisal, and they jumped into the lake, and they had to come out of the lake, and as they came out on the other side, they were just all of them killed. Then the Indians were invited to have a meal with the whites, and the food was poisoned, and they all died. Just terrible things. Thank God that’s over.

Do you need to move around a little bit?

No. I’m all right.

I wanted to make sure, because I know you’re recovering from this injury.

I’ve got shoes on for the first time in over four months. I usually have to have this part cut out, because the wound is bandaged right here.

Right over the ankle. What a place for a piano player to have…

Oh, man!

How did you manage to do that solo piano session?

It was tough. It was tough.

You probably imagined yourself back on the ranch and your father telling you to take off the tux and put on the jeans.

[LAUGHS] So I wanted to see if I could wear shoes. I’m not moving, so it feels okay.

After the Army, your brother tells you you’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity to study with Milhaud, and you enroll… Well, the story is that you decided to stay a private so you could stay around your band. True story?

It’s such a corny story, but it’s true.  To understand it, you have to know this—that as a G.I., we were in a place in France called the Mud Hole. It was outside of Verdun. The Red Cross girls came up on a truck that had a side lowered down that became a stage, and there was a piano in there, and we’re all sitting in the mud on our helmets, thinking, “Well, there’s going to be some entertainment,” and they asked, “Can anybody play piano?” I raised my hand and went up, and played for a couple of numbers. The Colonel in charge was there, and he heard me, and let it be known that I shouldn’t go to the front in the morning. I couldn’t believe it when two of the guys that were musicians that had come from California…we were called out of the line that was lined up to be replacements, and asked to form a band. They gave me the rating of O2O, which is bandleader—Private First-Class Bandleader. So I was to form a band. So I did that, with guys that had been shot or wounded, had Purple Hearts when they came back. We got up to 18 to 28 men, depending on who had to go back or got shipped someplace else. We went through the rest… This was in Patton’s Army. Went in pretty wild places across France and into Germany. The band was really a great place to be.

Under those circumstances, I’d say you couldn’t have done much better.

We were right behind the front, but never at the front. You could hear and see it all night, the shelling. It’s like a lightning storm that never stops, you know. And the sounds. As the front moved up, we would move up with them, and our job was to play for the front-line troops, and we could do it very successfully, because my guys would wear their Purple Heart, whereas if the average show would go up there… It takes a long time to get through to an audience that knows they’re going into battle in the morning. It’s a tough way to get them to enjoy themselves. We were able to do it better than most people, because they could see that this band had been… My guys. I don’t say I had been in battle, but plenty of them had been.

So experiences like this would be good training for stage presentation, and capturing people’s attention. I guess you learned pretty good in the mining town and on the front.

[LAUGHS] Yeah. You’d be playing, and you’d hear a plane in the dive kind of situation, or coming in low, and they’d turn off the generators, and you’d go into total blackout, and you’d just sit there praying that plane would drop its bomb beyond you, and then you’d hear the guns shooting at him. One night you could just tell that they’d hit the guy, and everybody started clapping. It’s a way to play.

You were already married by then, and you come back after four years, maybe a leave or two, and you set up house, I guess, such as it was, in the Bay Area while you attend Mills. Tell me about your early encounters with Milhaud, and after four years in the Army how you were able to process what he was giving you, and how these experiences started to come out in this early documented music of yours. You’ve said that a lot of your war experience was coming out in the music you made during the years directly after.

Because of the G.I. Bill, I could go to Mills College, and after being without hardly any money for four years, now you’re 26 years old… The first time I saw him, I think I was 21. I said “I’m going into the Army.” He said, “when you get out, come back and study with me.”

So you did meet Milhaud before you went in the Army.


I was wondering about that. Did he hear you play?

He asked me to play. Then we gradually had other friends, like Dave Van Kriedt, Bill Smith, Dick Collins, Bob Collins, Jack Weeks, studying with him. They came to Mills…I think the second semester they started drifting in, and then in 1947 we had the G.I.’s there. He asked, “Do any of you play jazz? Raise your hands?” So we raised our hands. He said, “I want you to write your fugues and counterpoint for jazz orchestration if you want to.” That’s how the octet was born. Paul Desmond came over from San Francisco State, and Cal Tjader, and we got up to an 8-piece group. It was wonderful to study with him. He was the first European composer to use jazz in creation of the world.

Was he a hands-on teacher? Would you play him your charts and he’d critique them? And what was his manner of critique? It sounds like he was very supportive, and not didactic in the stereotyped manner of the European maestro.

Yes, he was very supportive and very friendly. Our first concert, he put together that we should play for the assembly of the Mills girls. That was quite successful. The next concert, we went back to College of the Pacific, took a big bus and went up there. Then we started playing at University of California in Berkeley. But we didn’t get enough work to really make it. We played a concert in San Francisco…

You’ve spoken about your poverty during those years.

Oh, it was bad. We lived on practically nothing. Our rent was $21 a month, with everything paid—that means garbage and electricity—in a housing project, and it was about the simplest kind of thrown-together structures. Mostly G.I.’s were living there. Then I started working more, and things started picking up.

These are oft-told stories, and I don’t need to have you elaborate. But I would like you to tell me… The period 1946-1950, when you leave the Army and start to build your career, begins a year after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came to Los Angeles and bebop hits the West Coast, and all these records are coming out—Nat Cole’s trios, George Shearing’s groups, Lennie Tristano’s first records, Bud Powell’s records, and so on. I’m wondering to what extent you were paying attention to that and to what extent, if at all, it was influencing your style. I was listening last night to your collected piano trio recordings from 1949-51, and I heard all sorts of influences in there, but not beholden to any of those influences… They were very original. I wanted you to talk about your relationship to jazz modernism of that time, and to the currents going on in jazz primarily on the East Coast.

Remember the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra? We took that recording and played it for Milhaud in orchestration class. When we were finished playing it, and we were all thinking, “Boy, this is such a fantastic band…” Milhaud liked it very much, but he said, “You know, a lot of the things going on here went on twenty years before in classical music. So I want you to know that it’s not that new to me.” We were all kind of surprised. To us, it was new. But we also knew where he was coming from, because we were aware of Bartok and Stravinsky and things going on with them, and Charles Ives, who was really in some ways ahead of Europe for a while there. So it was very interesting to talk about Gershwin… He figured Gershwin and Duke Ellington were America’s best composers. That’s what he told us. That was such a wonderful thing to hear in class. He said the reason they are outstanding is because they have used American music, they have incorporated jazz, and always think of the success of composers that had used the music of their culture. Like, Bartok knows more about Hungarian folk music than anybody. Then he talked about Copland, and Gershwin using the jazz idiom. He said, “Don’t be ashamed that you’re jazz musicians. That’s what’s going to distinguish you, is your knowledge of jazz, and don’t ever give it up.” Then one day, at a private lesson, he said, “Dave, I don’t know why you would ever want to give up something you can do so well. It’s important that you never think in those terms.” Of course, I’ve always remembered that. He said, “You’re free. You can go any place in the world; if there is a piano, you will survive.” He said, “But take someone like me. I can’t stand faculty meetings, and I’ve got to keep going to them. You’ll never have to go to a faculty meeting. Think how free you are!” [LAUGHS]

Of course, you had to put up with other stuff in the course of constructing your career. But I wanted to get back to some of your contemporaries who were playing piano and recording during those years, and if you were drawing from them or not drawing from them. It would seem pretty evident that you were listening to Shearing.

Oh, that’s for sure. I think that he opened up the possibility for American small groups to work in nightclubs more than anybody. Oh, boy, when he came to San Francisco, it just helped. People started bringing in groups, small groups like mine, Red Norvo…

I was wondering if you’d been checking out Red Norvo’s trio because of Cal Tjader’s on the vibes, and if you met Mingus in San Francisco during those years.

And Tal Farlow. That group… I recorded them for Fantasy, because I figured they were one of the greatest groups playing now. Today the young vibe players know how important Red Norvo was, they know how important Mingus was, and Tal Farlow!

I also noticed… Please forgive me for bringing this up, but you did a version of “Perfidia,” and you played a little quote from Charlie Parker’s “Buzzy,” and my jazz nerd antennae went up, and, “Aha! He quoted ‘Buzzy’.” I wondered how much you were listening to Charlie Parker during those years, and did it have an impact on you, not so much of an impact…

You touched a weird chord with me. I toured with Charlie. Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Shelley Manne, Whitlock the bass player…he played sometimes, and another bassist… We toured the West Coast.

Might this have been ‘52?

Early. It could have been that.

There are bootleg recordings by Parker with Baker in ‘52…’53, maybe…

Baker used to come into the club where I worked when he was in the Army. Very young. Maybe still 18 or 19. I don’t know. But he was a young guy. You mentioned somebody else.

Bud Powell and Tristano, too.

Oh, Tristano. Great. Bud? The thing that most people will not believe is that Bud listened to me all the time.

Oh, I believe it.

You do?

Well, I know that Cecil Taylor also listened to you. A lot of people listened to your trios. You were the avant-gardist’s avant-gardist in 1951.

[LAUGHS] Well, Bud, right up to his dying days, was listening… When Bud had to go to the hospital when we were working at Birdland, his manager told me that he asked Bud what he’d like him to bring to the hospital for him to listen to, and he said, “Only Brubeck.”

The trio sides.

Yeah, it would have been. If you read the French guy that wrote about Bud, in that book he said, “I’m so tired of listening to Brubeck.” This is at the end of Bud’s life; he’s living with that guy. Then Bud lived with the artist-critic from Oslo (Randi Hultin), and she said he was always listening to me.

Do you have any speculations on what he was hearing in you?

I don’t know. Because when I heard things that Bud played, it seemed he couldn’t make a mistake…

When he was on.

When he was on. I hated to say that. But there was a time when he was a kind of perfect player. It just flowed out of him. And I don’t see why he’d be listening to me.

Cecil Taylor said your chords had more notes in them than anyone who was playing at the time. Then he qualified, as many people do when they speak about you… I’m simply asking these questions to get a sense of whether you were operating independently of these streams (and it could well have been, since the West Coast was still pretty isolated), or whether you were paying close attention to what they all were doing. I have a feeling you don’t want to go any farther talking about it, but if you do, it would certainly be welcome.

Well, it’s dangerous territory, because I knew that I was liking so many guys, and there was so much new… After all, I’d been separated overseas from hearing too much of what’s going on at home, and it was a shock to musicians like myself to come home and hear bebop. That wasn’t easy. Everyone was saying, “This is what you’ve got to do.” I went in to a period where I thought there’s so much great stuff… I liked Tristano, but I was forced to listen to him. A friend of mine was saying, “You’ve got to hear this guy,” so I heard him, and I thought, “Oh, this is fantastic.”

Are you talking about “Intuition” and those free pieces?

Yeah. That would have been ‘49. I’m flooded with “God, I’ve been so isolated overseas, and here’s all this new stuff,” and I decided to go into a period where I wasn’t going to listen to anybody, and try and find my own voice after being separated from a natural way of growing up. You know, to be hauled out from your jazz environment for that many years, and then come back to all this that’s going on… I thought, “I’ve got to find my own voice.” So I quit listening.

Got it. Although I guess you heard “Buzzy.”


That’s a great answer. Thanks for sharing it with me.  I want to ask you now, and my editor wants me to ask you about the college concerts—again, since this is an education issue. From researching, I know how they came about, and your wife’s genius stroke of going through the World Almanac and writing to every college with a music department. What I’m wondering is: Were workshops ever attached to any of those performances? Were they purely performances, or was teaching layered onto it as well? And if there was teaching, who were some of your models as far as passing on information? Your mother, for example? By now, you have kids, and they became musicians. I know you weren’t their primary teacher, but I’m sure you had something to do with it. So if you could start expounding on this not-so-specific question.

I was forced because of lack of any funds to take a job teaching, although I had promised the Dean…

You broke your oath.

Yeah. But it was at the University of California at Berkeley Extension, and I was asked to take this class. I didn’t have any work at that time, and that would pay about $15. Now, you may not realize this, but being a cowboy, I was terrified of the microphone. I couldn’t introduce my group for years. I couldn’t say a word to the audience. When we came to Birdland, I hadn’t said anything, and the agent working for Joe Glaser came in to hear me, and he called me aside and he said, “You haven’t said a word all night. If you want me and the Glaser office to represent you, you have to start speaking.” Now, this is a long way into my career to not have opened my mouth yet.

In the Army you didn’t open your mouth?

No. I ran the show, and I would tell the guys what to do, but I didn’t get out and be an emcee. I had a black African-American named Gil White to be the emcee, and he was great. Then John Stanley, the comedian, would often take over. So I wasn’t talking.

That must have made teaching a challenge.

I couldn’t open my mouth. That’s the point that got me to this. Now, the first night at Birdland, when we were terrified to come to New York and to play at Birdland, it was absolutely paralyzing. Just couldn’t really face it. But you had to face it. At the first table was Benny Goodman and John Hammond on the first night. Desmond and I, we were panicked!—because Paul respected Goodman so much. He’d been in to hear me in San Francisco, and I just quit playing for a while, took a long intermission. Same thing when Tatum came in.

I heard Tatum spent a fair amount of time in San Francisco. Richard Wyands told me he played intermission piano for Tatum, and it was challenging.

The first time I sat in in San Francisco, Richard was playing, and a guy named Wilbur Baranco. They let me sit in. I think Vernon Alley was on bass. I had brought my wife to this so-called “black” club because I wanted her to see what my life was going to be like, whether she could understand all this. I worked in a black club called Cool Corner in Stockton, where not a white person would go in there. No other students would venture there. I loved it so much. Then there were other experiences I won’t go into where I’m the only white guy. So I wanted her to see this and feel this. So we sat in a booth and listened, and somehow, somebody asked me to sit in, which I did, and I played good. The people in the booth behind Iola, where I’d left her, reached over and nudged her and said, “That boy’s got black blood in him.”

What did she think of that comment?

It was wonderful! Because I had a weird reputation on campus and in class. There was a discussion of race, and my wife was defending the whole idea of integration, and this other girl said to her, “Well, would you marry or be with a black person?” She said, “I think I already am.” Some kind of remark. [LAUGHS] You’ll have to ask her exactly what.

It sounds like you didn’t necessarily think of yourself as being Caucasian.


I don’t know that everybody would know it, and it isn’t necessarily…

Well, the blacks thought I was black. I was  very popular with the black audience, especially in city like Atlanta… I worked in three different black clubs in Atlanta where I was the only “white” group they would hire. We were integrated at that point.

That’s a whole other issue that I would love to talk to you about, but I don’t know if I can justify talking to you about it for the scope of this story, which is on education. The notion of race and how that plays out has had so much to do with the way you’ve been perceived in the jazz world and by the critical community, and the notions of does he swing or doesn’t he swing, and so on…

Well, I don’t want to appear to be claiming I’m black, because I’m not. But other people think I’m black, and that’s great with me.

But returning to the college tours and the quartet: Once you’d taught and been ordered by Joe Glaser’s agent to talk, did workshops become part of it? Was there an educational component to the Dave Brubeck Quartet plays Oberlin University or University of the Pacific or other things that didn’t get recorded. Was any teaching attached to those jobs?

I mentioned the Cal Extension. Then we did Cal Extension in San Francisco. I didn’t open my mouth. Iola did all the talking, all the research, and I played the piano to demonstrate what she’s talking about. But I wouldn’t open my mouth. I was terrified of that class. I had to do it because we needed the money, but otherwise I wouldn’t have.

When did you start talking?

After Glaser…at Birdland. The next night, the whole cast of The Caine Mutiny court martial was at the first table after the play got over. They’re sitting there, and now I know I’ve got to talk. It was Larry Bennett who worked for Joe Glaser. I said, “What am I going to talk about?” He said, “Just tell them what you’ve done that day—where you came from, where you’re going. But say something!” So I got up there and I said, “Well, we came from [LAUGHING] Philadelphia, but my bass player here, he was sick… You know, you never want to get sick in Philadelphia.” Well, those guys broke up! Desmond’s looking at me, like, “What the hell did you say that would get a reaction like that?” Almost everything I said was funny. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was just trying to save my job, and kept talking about, “You know, it’s a tough drinking in Philadelphia” or “the word got around you should never drink the water in Philadelphia.” Anyway, I started talking at that point. Some concerts, for years, I still wouldn’t say anything. Then I started talking, and people liked what I was saying—and my wife disliked it, and would say, “Don’t talk so much—just play!”

Some of the compositions that became very popular start to come out, like “The Duke” or “In Your Own Sweet Way”… Did they come out before the Quartet or with the Quartet. I also want to know why the quartet became your vehicle. I understand there were economic reasons for not touring an octet, and I understand  that you needed, particularly after your accident, to have someone else do a lot of soloing because you became somewhat impaired vis-a-vis what you could do before the accident.


But given those parameters, how did the quartet become an impetus for you to write? Why did tunes like that start to come out with the quartet? I’m assuming you wrote them then, though perhaps you wrote them in 1947 or something, I don’t know…

No. See that old Ampex over there? Go take a look at it. [We walk over] That’s one that I recorded “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

Here’s another vintage one, the Baldwin…

Yes. This is a mirror. I can’t open it because of the humidity. I can see myself here, and the tape machine can go through a hole that’s in there. I recorded those things myself in Oakland, and then I’ve recorded here that way.

For instance, Ellington wrote with the voices of his musicians in mind. Were you writing with Paul Desmond’s voice in mind? Or was Desmond or anyone you’re playing with supposed to play your vision? How did it work?

Well, with Cal Tjader, he started playing vibes with my trio. I didn’t even know he could play vibes. As soon as he started playing vibes, then Armando Peraza was stranded because Slim Gaillard abandoned him after bringing him from Cuba, and he was working this club in San Francisco where we were playing. The owner said, “I keep him here because Slim has just left him, and I feed him and let him sleep here in the club,” and he swept up and did odd jobs. He said, “He’s a helluva bongo player; why don’t you let him sit in with you.” So I did it, just because the guy was abandoned. And boy, he broke the place up. So Cal started playing bongos because of that, and Paul bought a pair of bongos. So we had three guys up there on the stage playing bongos.

But Peraza knew what he was doing.

Oh, yeah. Then Cal became so intrigued with it, and then he became a big star in Caribbean music. But I’m not answering your question.

Things happen, and you move. Like, I didn’t know he could play vibes. I didn’t know he would be a great bongo player. You just use where somebody is great, and you incorporate it into things. With the trio, it was easier to answer that question. The quartet was the trio with Paul Desmond playing solos on the same arrangements. That’s the way it had to start, because we didn’t have time to organize or rehearse. We just had a job, and I thought it was well enough to play. I was so bad off that they had to go into a blackout so I could stand. I had to pull myself up on the piano bench and just stand there for a while. I shouldn’t have been playing, but I had to play. There was no way out. But with Paul, I started thinking in terms more of counterpoint, because he and I naturally played counterpoint together. So what does somebody bring into the group?

I’ve always liked all my groups. But when one of my favorite drummers, Joe Dodge, left the group, Paul told me about Joe Morello. So we went over to the Hickory House and listened to Joe, and he didn’t play anything but with the brushes all night. Paul said, “oh, that would be so wonderful; I could really love playing with him.” So I told Joe, “I’d like you to join my group.” Because Marian was going back to England for a while, and he wouldn’t have a job, so it kind of worked. So he said, “Look, you’ve always kept your drummer kind of in the background. I wouldn’t go for that. If I’m going to play with you, I want to develop as a soloist, and I want to develop in some new directions.” So I said, “That would be great, Joe; I’d like to go in some new directions I’ve been thinking about.” Our first job was in Chicago. No time to rehearse. The first night Joe was on the stage, I gave him a drum solo, and he broke it up with the audience, more than anything that we had done all night. So when we got off stage, Paul said, “Either he goes or I go.” I said, “Paul, he’s not going.”

The trio was the most important thing to you, I guess.

I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking Paul’s not serious—maybe. I had to wait til the next night to see if my bass player, who also sided in with Paul, didn’t like to have this star on drums. So I was going to play with just Joe and I. It was at the Blue Note in Chicago, too. You had to be pretty good, or you wouldn’t stay there. But they came just in time to play. So now I have two stars in the group. I wrote a tune called “Sounds of the Loop” that featured Joe on my next album.

So my answer is go with what you have. With Joe, I could see a whole different way of going, and that would be the beginning of getting into things finally like “Time Out.”

The different meters.


With Peraza, was it the first time you’d been around an African drummer? I know he was from Cuba, but I think of him as an African…


Was it your first time on a bandstand with someone like that? I’m interested in how you assimilated polyrhythms and developed a comfort zone with them. I know you’ve talked about the ranch and odd meters and so on. But you’re much more specific in your pieces, and there’s an idiomatic quality to your so-called odd-meter compositions. When you mentioned Peraza, it made me wonder if he’d played some role for you.

If you hear the Octet, the opening track on the old recording is in 6/4 time. ONE-two-three-four-five-six, ONE-two-three-four — which I hadn’t heard in jazz before, but it really works on that short thing called “Curtain Music.” I had written an 8-bar phrase in a piano piece in 5/4 in ‘46. “Singin’ in the Rain” with the trio. [SINGS OUT THE BAR] So on a trio recording, I’m using 6 and 4. Now, I’m thinking, when I introduced “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” I started playing it as a waltz, then I started playing it in 4/4 eventually, and superimposing other meters over the waltz. And “Alice in Wonderland.” This is a direction that I thought I was going just on my own until somebody told me, “Look, Fats Waller wrote ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ a long time ago, so you’re not the first guy to do this.” But I think I was the first guy to… It’s always dangerous to think you’re first. Somebody else is showing you something else.

But what I give a lot of credit to was the Dennis Roosevelt expedition into the Belgian Congo. When I heard that, I knew jazz was not reflecting African music.

When was that?

‘46. It was so complicated, so wonderful, so polyrhythmic, it just knocked me clear out. Why wasn’t this used in jazz? Then again, watch out. Maybe you’ll find something pre-New Orleans. Maybe if you could have recorded Congo Square, what the slaves brought over from Africa might have been a lot like that. But it wasn’t in the first New Orleans music that I heard or that my friends who played New Orleans music were playing. It was always like a march. “Tiger Rag” is a Belgian march syncopated. So this made me think if it’s more polyrhythmic, you’re not getting away from jazz, you’re getting towards its source to have other rhythms in 4/4. That’s a reason I started doing “Time Out,’ “Time Further Out,” “Time in Outer Space,” writing in the odd time signatures like 3, 5, 7, 9, Paul’s 11/4, my 13/4 in the World’s Fair. So advanced jazz guys were listening to what I was doing, and letting me know that I had opened up a way they wanted to go. They did it so much better than I do.

Who are some of the people you’re talking about?

A guy that wrote to me had a big band…

Don Ellis?

Yeah. Don wrote to me, said, “You’ve opened a direction for me.”

Obviously, it opened up avenues for everyone. Certain ideas develop in parallel. For example, in New York, Roy Haynes said that he and Max and the other drummers would hear Machito at the Palladium with Ubaldo Nieto, and he opened up ways of playing polyrhythmically on the drumkit. Then Max Roach studied with Guy Warren in Haiti. But no one orchestrated those rhythms as you did, even when Max did his experiments in the ‘50s.

It’s tough to think you ever did anything that hasn’t been done before. So I want to plead innocence. But some of the things I’ve told you were reasons that shaped my thinking.

I only have a few more questions, because I don’t want to take your whole day. I do want to speak to you about the way you approached teaching your children once it became apparent that they had musical inclinations. I know you used different strategies. I know with one, you had to dress up as Professor Nooseknocker…

[LAUGHS] Nooseknocker. He’d come to the front door…

In doing that, did you pick up anything from your mother, or Milhaud, or Bodley, or Cleo Brown? Did they figure into the way you communicate information?


Or your father, for that matter, whom I’m sure had something to do with it, too.

Yeah. [LAUGHS] You know, I really can’t come up with an answer. How you communicate information. I think that most of the way that I learned, because I couldn’t read… Darius Milhaud knew I couldn’t read. After he heard something I’d written and was being performed, he was sitting with my wife in the audience, and he said, “Dave has to be a composer. He’ll find out on his own how to become a composer.”

Pitch-perfect, Milhaud’s responses to you.

Yeah. The word “osmosis” is the only way I seem to learn. Just listening and being. I learned so much from Milhaud about life. He wasn’t trying to teach me about life. I was with him a lot. And I learned so much from Ellington. We were on the road together, and in some kind of situation where we were not being treated fairly. I started describing what I thought this person was doing to us, and he said, “Dave, you’re right, but let’s not get any of his bad shit in our blood.” One time I was with him on a radio show, and the announcer-emcee asked what we thought of rock-and-roll. I started to talk about what I thought about it, and I could see that Duke didn’t like what I was saying, so I cut it very short, thank goodness. He said, “Well, Mister Ellington, what do you think?” He said, “If the American public likes it, it must be good.” I thought, “Boy, this old man is so sharp; how to get out of a nasty… He knows without saying anything.” Osmosis, being around Duke, just helped me in life. He was such a wonderful man to me.

That’s kind of the way I’ve had to learn, because I can’t learn in conventional ways. [LAUGHS] I’m thinking of Gerry Mulligan’s saying once to Iola and I, “My biggest problem is people think I’m a lot smarter than I am.” I often think that about myself. Because I haven’t learned a lot of things I should have learned.

I want to talk about the Brubeck Institute. What motivated you to do it? What did you hope to accomplish with it? I don’t know how much direct oversight you have over it, but talk about what… Is it meeting your expectations, whatever those expectations were?

It’s more than I expected. Because the students… I shouldn’t call them students. The Brubeck Fellows are so fantastic. I run into them now when I’m on the road, and they’re making it, they’re out there playing with name groups. The pianists have been phenomenal, just brilliant. You can’t call them “students.”  They just know so much. One teacher… We bring in top guys to maybe play a concert, but maybe stay the whole week. One of the teachers said, “It’s very difficult when you come in to teach these kids, and you realize they know more than you.” Well, I know they know more than me. The only way I can teach them is through osmosis, and tell them to listen to… For instance, my ballet is going on in San Francisco. They started it last season; it was so successful, they’re using it this year. Lar Lubovich used it in Paris with his group, and they came to New York. Miami, the Florida Ballet is using it right now. Three companies in Canada are going to be using it. Just for them to know that I can recommend things for them to listen to, or I can sit in with them and play with them.

And I talk to them. I remember one time getting a group together and saying, “Look, you’re on a university campus, and all you’re doing is practicing all day long. You have that opportunity. That’s great. But I want you to know that when I was on this campus, I had to take religion in order to graduate. I had to take world literature and art. I’m using those things every day. All the sacred music I’ve music. The understanding of world literature. I took away from the university a hundred books to read because the teacher had given us that to take with us. In the Army, when I had nothing to do, I’d read. You’re here on a campus, and we want to fix it that you can sit in with some of the lectures you might be interested in, and broaden your scope. Because too often, people like yourselves, who are so competent, live in a narrow scope of what’s really going to help them broaden their playing and their creative ability. So don’t just be here practicing all day long. Go to some of these other classes. Talk to the other students. I learned so much from the other students that I became friends with who weren’t interested in being composers or jazz musicians. Try and stretch out into what’s available. When you’re on the road, go to the museums and plays, and broaden your scope.”

You of course, during those years, with the ranching and playing in the mining camps, had done things most college students don’t get an opportunity… It was a different time in the Depression.

Depression, did you mention? See, that is a thing that can structure you and come in handy, because knowing what went on in the Depression helped me when we were not making enough to live on. I’ve had to put my wife and kids in a cabin with no floor, just dirt, and it was flooded, and to wash the kids I’d have to take them to a stream. But I was ready for that. I had lived sleeping on the ground with my saddle blankets, and cooking where there’s no water or sink or anything, and to wash the frying pan you go down to the stream and wash it with sand. Then the Army, man, you’ve got to live without a lot of things. It all made us able to survive.

Young musicians coming up, if they pick the wrong wife, it’s going to be very difficult. I’ve seen the wrong wife break up so many things for musicians and people close to me. You have to be very careful. I don’t think I’ve gotten into this with the students as deep as I’d like to. Because you can hardly tell anybody to be careful who you marry!

Not when they’re 20.

No. No, you can’t. Anyway, with the Brubeck Fellows I see and play with… After all, the first night a new crop came in, we told them, “Get ready; you’re playing at the Monterrey Festival. They hadn’t even rehearsed together, and they went there, and they were so talented that they were well-received by the very critical jazz audience. Just last year, the Brubeck Fellows played with Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, and they were fantastic. It wasn’t easy music.

How large is the faculty?

The main person we have is Joe Gilman. He’s so wonderful. You should hear the record he made with the students on bass and drums. That bassist and drummer are already pros out there working. I just ran into the drummer, who was with a name group, and just breaking it up, they told me, he’s so good.

So I am really pleased with how things have gone way beyond my imagination.

What did you expect it would be at the beginning, when you decided to do this?

It just started growing. After Joe Gilman came into the teaching end, and then we saw what an inspiration he was to the students, and how he worked with them… That was so much. He was a no-nonsense but great teacher to inspire you. He’s still doing that. Then we get in people… Like, Christian McBride was artistic director for a while, but he had so much going on, he couldn’t go to Stockton as much as he wanted. But we try to get top people. It’s all worked out very well. The Dean of the Conservatory has just become the Managing Director; left the Deanship to become Managing Director of the Institute. You see, we’ve had the cooperation of the conservatory. It was slow at first, but when the conservatory people realized that these young jazz students, like the pianist…

Taylor Eigsti…

Taylor didn’t come. He was the first guy there. Incidentally, he’ll be playing with my sons at Newport, Chris and Danny, on the same day I’m playing on the other stage with my quartet. There’s an example. I’ve known Taylor since he was 12. And Eldar came there… Can you imagine what a conservatory piano teacher is going to think of a kid who’s coming to study jazz, and then hearing… Or the same way with the pianist from last year…damn… He’s like my son, and I can’t think of his name. I’ll tell you later.

Tell me later. This leads me into my final question. People like Taylor Eigsti or Eldar are very mature young men, focused on their discipline, with phenomenal technique and phenomenal resources available to them. 

These kids are beyond being students. They’re pros.

You have an expansion of jazz curriculum all over the country. And you have maybe even a shrinking marketplace for musicians.


So I’m wondering about your thoughts in general, apart from the Brubeck Institute, on the explosion of jazz pedagogy today and the notion of jazz-as-such being taught as a specialized discipline.

I just remember my pianist named Glenn Zaleski. That’s so fantastic. He crossed over…

This is the one whose name you forgot.

Yes. One of the teachers in the conservatory thought that Glenn was just tremendous, and almost all of the students in the conservatory, when they do their final recital, if they’re singers or players, they want Glenn. They’re not picking another conservatory student. Although I’m sure they’re there. But they know. I’ve picked Glenn to sub for me when something was too hard at the time for to cut again. I’d written it, I’d played it, but at that…

At that moment you couldn’t execute it.

Yeah. So I had Glenn. He’s 19. The night that we did the Monterrey Cannery Row, I was so exhausted from rehearsals and the performance and everything… I was supposed to close with Oscar Peterson and…three brothers… Hank Jones. (I was going through my thing.) I was supposed to play. There were three pianos; I’m supposed to go play. I couldn’t play. My hands, everything about me…I had nothing left. And my mind had nothing left. So my manager said, “Pull the third piano; we can’t have a piano out there and no player.” Clint Eastwood said, “Get the kid.” He’s going to the car, heading back to Stockton. They run down the stairs and say, “Glenn, come up here and play; you’re going to play with Oscar and Hank.” He says, “cool.” [LAUGHS] And comes up and plays. That’s what I mean when I said one of my so-called students.

Now, I went off the track, but it’s still what I think of these kids. Who is going to go out there and play with Oscar and Hank who’s 19, and say “cool”?


You were talking about your kids who are at the Manhattan School of Music to get their Masters.

BRUBECK:   Yeah. Going to get his Masters next year; he’s graduated this year. I spoke a few words at the graduation. Then there were two that will be studying there, a pianist from the Institute, who got a scholarship I think to Columbia in Calculus and Music. [LAUGHS] That’s frightening, isn’t it, to have that kind of mind?

Not surprising, the relationship between math and music being what it is.


Kenny Barron mentioned something similar about not having much to teach his piano students, but that again it’s more a matter of passing on his functional experience, like, “Don’t play so many notes” or “Let the ballad breathe,” that sort of thing.

Well, when the students ask me the question you asked, where are they going, I said: Look at my sons. They’ve survived, because they know so many directions that they might be called on to go to make a living. Darius just finished twenty years at University of Natal, in South Africa. The youngest, Matthew, is at York University. I just played the Toronto Festival. He’s on the same bill with a duo—David Braid and Matthew Brubeck. Matthew is teaching improvisation to the string players at York University. He’s playing in the symphony orchestra. He just finished with Sheryl Crow last summer, he’s played with Dixie Chicks, Jewel… He can improvise and he can read, and that’s why so many people want him. The first day he was called in to do a job, it was because the cellist they had could only play notes, and couldn’t improvise. So they had to cancel the session. Somebody said, “Who can you get?” and they said, “Get Matthew Brubeck, because he can read and he can improvise.” So they want to have that ability.

Compose. Chris is composing all kinds of successful things. He’s recording today with a woodwind quintet that will soon be out. Two trombone concertos. He’s writing a concerto for trumpet and trombone for the Prague Symphony. He’s written a Triple Violin Concerto for three different stylists–-Jazz, Irish and Classical—that was played and televised by Boston Pops.

Danny on drums. I’ll be playing with him this weekend. He can do clinics… Like, Joe Morello has done marvelous clinics all over the United States, sometimes in Europe.

They have to spread their talents. Look at what I’m doing with the ballet. I’ll be at Notre Dame doing a piece called “In Praise of Mary.” I’ve just done two fugues, one “The Commandments” and the other “The Credo,” from… Mozart left out the “The Credo,” so they asked four American composers to fill it in. You don’t know what the next phone call is going to be, and you have to be able to go, to survive now… It’s not like when I grew up, you can get a job in a joint or a big band or something. You have to have many ways of making a living, and they’ll all work for you, and you’ll have a great life. But be prepared as much as you can be in many different parts of the music.

I hated to bring up my sons again. I’m so glad you know about Eldar and Taylor. See, I’ve known these kids since they were 12 years old.

There are so many talented young musicians. It’s an astonishing thing. You just wonder if there’s enough space in the O.K. Corral for all of them.

Yeah! There are so many opportunities to teach, and the universities have become like the big bands and the joint jobs that we used to have.


Filed under Interview, Jazziz, Piano

5 responses to “An Interview with Dave Brubeck, July 23, 2007

  1. Reblogged this on Professorscosco and commented:
    This is a fantastic and inspirational interview with Dave Brubeck. What is particularity striking is how he was onto contrapuntal jazz writing with his octet/nonet before the Gil Evans/Miles “Birth of the Cool” sessions in 1948. So, despite his influences of Fletcher Henderson, Ellington etc, he was even early in his career able to think outside the box and apply counterpoint, and eventually polytonality and multi-rhythmic(ness?) to his writing. Plus he seems like a really cool guy–maybe his openness and personality helped him bridge the vast gap between the jazz and classical worlds.

  2. Pingback: Remembering Brubeck: Musicians Reflect On Pianist’s Legacy | Popdose

  3. Reblogged this on It's A Raggy Waltz and commented:
    Great interview piece of Dave Brubeck

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