Dave Brubeck at 90: ‘I’m very fortunate’

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— Most people who have never lived in Connecticut imagine that the whole state is exactly like Wilton. It’s not, but driving toward the town where Dave Brubeck lives, you understand why this dream never dies, especially in late autumn when every tree seems almost mythic in its chromatic display and every pitch and roll of the rural, straight-from-the-calendar-page landscape yields views that can either fill your heart or break it gently.

You can easily love this area of the world in the same unfettered way the whole world seems to love Dave Brubeck. Jazz may not occupy the center of the musical universe at the front end of the 21st century, but even people who know little, if anything, about jazz know who Brubeck is. And what they know, they like very much. Through more than 60 years of recordings and performances at colleges, concert halls, festivals and nightclubs all over the world, Brubeck put forth a body of work — as pianist, composer and bandleader — that is as accessible as it is ingenious, as stress-free as it is rhythmically emphatic, as open-hearted as it is wide-ranging.

Brubeck turns 90 years old Monday and the occasion will be marked with the premiere on Turner Classic Movies of Bruce Ricker’s documentary “Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way,” executive-produced by Clint Eastwood. Columbia Records, which enjoyed a fruitful, hugely profitable relationship with Brubeck from 1954 to 1970, just marked the occasion with the release of a two-disc set, “Legacy of a Legend,” whose selections, as with past Columbia archival projects involving the Brubeck catalog, were supervised by Brubeck.


All this celebratory activity has been tempered somewhat by the pacemaker surgery Brubeck had in October. His recovery was so unexpectedly protracted that he had to postpone previously scheduled performances. (You figure that it had to have been a pretty serious problem for someone so devoted to making his gigs that he once did 120 straight days of travel for concert dates.)

“It was tough,” Brubeck says of the procedure, which was supposed to have kept him hospitalized overnight but led to an 18-day stay. “They had to go into muscle instead of skin … and that caused all the problems.”

The dark-haired, owlish countenance that was once among the most recognizable faces in music has become pale, almost snowy white. (One imagines he could be a wizard, a nonagenarian Harry Potter in some alternative universe.) He speaks and moves more delicately and deliberately than he did even a decade ago. But there remains in Brubeck an aura of amiability so radiant that it seems to compete with the sunlight flooding his living room, in ways that are almost as immaculate and breathtaking as the country surrounding his house. Instinctively, one looks for the piano. It’s one step below the parlor area in a space where anyone else with an instrument, even a trap set, can jam.

From this area of the house, an assistant brings out a promotional poster of a now-defunct series of CDs, Columbia Jazz Masters, on which caricatures of these masters crowd together on a tiny stage. In the process of identifying the icons depicted on the poster — notably Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday — it strikes the observer with a poignant force that the only one in this picture among the living is the studious, buttoned-down young fellow with horn-rimmed spectacles seated at the piano nearest to Holiday.

So, of course, one asks him first about Lady Day. “I toured with her years ago. She was a wonderful singer, but her health was so bad. She didn’t take care of herself. And her manager wouldn’t give her money to stay in a hotel, so she’d sleep in the band bus.”

It may take Brubeck longer than it used to for him to reach back for a recollection. But when he does, it unravels with vivid detail, whether he’s remembering a club date from the 1950s or talking about his childhood in Stockton, where his father wanted him to go into the family business of cattle-ranching.


“I’d always go home from college to work with him on the ranch. And this one summer I said to him, ‘You know, I have a job, playing in a club. I would like to do that. You have plenty of cowboys.’ He said, ‘Dave, I can’t see you leaving this life and playing in a smoky nightclub. You could be out in the fresh air. I think you’re making a big mistake.’ But I went and it was a big disappointment. He never lived to see me make it as a musician. So I don’t know if he would have approved in the end.”

Such anecdotes invariably turn up in “In His Own Sweet Way,” which uses archival footage; vintage interviews with Brubeck (including two with the late Walter Cronkite); testimonials from sources as varied as Bill Clinton, George Lucas, Bill Cosby and Stanley Crouch; and, of course, many musical interludes on- and off-stage to present as comprehensive a life story of Brubeck as you’ll find anywhere. The film goes into his experiences during World War II, when his effort to racially integrate his Third Army jazz orchestra in a segregated military proved almost as perilous as being lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge.

The artistic triumphs are covered, of course: his groundbreaking college concert tours in the early 1950s that shot him to fame; his experiments with time signatures and polytonality. Then there are the personal triumphs, most conspicuous of which is his long and happy marriage to his wife, Iola, whom he met while both were attending what is now the University of the Pacific, where the Brubeck Institute of Music is based. (Eastwood is its honorary board chairman.) He also was a success at being a father, with four of his sons — Darius (named for his mentor, French composer Darius Milhaud), Matthew, Christopher and Daniel — all becoming renowned musicians in their own right. (You can see them in the film playing their father’s music at the 2009 Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts concert where he was honored along with Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro and Grace Bumbry for lifetime achievement.)

The Sony two-disc set amplifies the artistic story as it pulls together pieces from the label’s 16-year cache of Brubeck recordings, most of which encompass the epoch-making “classic” quartet of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring bassist Gene Wright, drummer Joe Morello and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, which served as a lucrative laboratory for Brubeck’s aggressive assaults on rhythmic limits. The set includes such chestnuts as “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “Summer Song” (as vocalized by Armstrong on the now out-of-print 1961 recording of Brubeck’s seriocomic “jazz opera”, “The Real Ambassadors”) and the indelible, inevitable “Take Five.” (Quick! Who wrote it? Brubeck, you say? Wrong! Desmond did.) Some glowing rarities distinguish this retrospective, including a never-before-released live performance of “Three to Get Ready” by the classic quartet at its last concert before disbanding in December 1967. (Brubeck wanted to do more composing than touring, a resolution that didn’t last longer than a couple of years. Still, that legendary quartet would stage several reunions up until Desmond died of lung cancer in 1977.)

After listening to these and other Columbia tracks recently, jazz critic Gary Giddins said he liked “the best of them as much or more than ever. It’s so much the sound of that era. And there is cheerfulness, a love of playing jazz, of inventing stuff that is rare in any period.”

Through it all, Brubeck, as the title of the film implies, retained a sweetness of temperament that some of his critics found too good to be true. Yet his sense of fair play was genuine. Take, for instance, Brubeck’s reaction to being put on the cover of Time magazine in November 1954, following his triumphant series of college concerts. Most people would say, at such a moment, “Wow! I’m on the cover of Time!” Brubeck’s immediate reaction was something like: “Gee. How come I’m on the cover of Time magazine before Duke Ellington had the chance?”


It was Ellington, with whom Brubeck was touring at the time, who first showed Brubeck the Time cover. “Seven in the morning, there’s a knock at the door and there’s Duke handing me the magazine and saying, ‘Dave, you’re on the cover.’ He was happy for me, but I was just so disappointed because it should have been him. They got around to him finally a couple of years later. But …it just bothered me.”

Brubeck paid his own lasting tribute to Ellington with one of his most famous compositions, “The Duke,” a solo version of which can be heard on “Legacy of a Legend.” In a way, the tune is a tribute to both Ellington and his other musical hero, composer Milhaud.

“I was using polytonal chords on the bridge, and I wanted to call it ‘Milhaud Meets Ellington.’ I was inspired to write the melody when I took my son Christopher to preschool. And coming back, it was raining, and I had the windshield wiper on. And I started thinking as the blades were going back and forth.…” And he begins to sing the melody as his arm mimics a wiper, “Bah-dum-bahdum-bah-da-ba-daaah.… When [pianist] Marian McPartland first heard it, she said, ‘Dave, you’ve written the best bass line of any song.’”

He still writes. “There’s usually somebody wanting me to do something, and it’ll be something I never thought of doing,” he says, referring to such recently commissioned work as a piano suite inspired by the nature photography of Ansel Adams and a mini-opera based on John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” requested by producers of the Monterey Jazz Festival. “One thing,” he admits. “At my age, holding a pencil for hours a day is not so good anymore. So I had Chris do all the hard work, getting all the copies together.”

And he can still play, as he recently proved during a Thanksgiving weekend stint of his quartet at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club for his first gig since he left the hospital. His interaction with longtime partners Bobby Militello on saxophone, Michael Moore on bass and Randy Jones on drums was reportedly as seamless as ever and New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen found in Brubeck’s playing “the picture of judicious clarity, its well-placed chordal accents suggesting a riffing horn section.”

Is it possible he could keep this up? Well, he’s sure not going 120 consecutive days in different cities anymore. But one dividend of his hospital stay was the chance to have, in his words, “all kinds of things fixed.... And I just saw on my driver’s license that there’s no restrictions on my eyes. And my ears are still pretty good. I lost a little in one ear [he points to the right one]. It rings a lot because when you sit next to the drummer and those cymbals, it gets to your ears eventually. After the ringing started, I moved to the far end.” He laughs. “I should have made that move sooner.”


So it’s all good then? He nods, stating what seems, when taking in a home, a career, a legacy and a life, altogether obvious. “I’m very fortunate.”