September 21, 2012

Dave and Iola Brubeck

Today Dave and Iola Brubeck are celebrating their 70th anniversary. They have supported each other during the ups and downs of a life in jazz, and I was lucky enough to interview them both — ten years apart — in their Connecticut home.
Dave Brubeck
After the Hamilton interview project was well underway, I began to get requests to do presentations about the Archive to small groups. Some of these were at the college, others in community venues. People often approached me after these presentations and asked if I met with this person or that person, favorite jazz personalities who were elderly but still vital. I don’t know if I would have thought to pursue an interview with Dave Brubeck, but after one presentation at Hamilton an alumni couple approached me and asked if I had done an interview with Brubeck. When I answered that I had not, they said I should pursue it. They said that Dave lived near them in Connecticut and they spoke glowingly of him and his community philanthropy, and indicated he was very approachable. Shortly thereafter I contacted the Brubeck Institute which was just getting underway at that time, and I was directed to George Moore, the fellow who handled most of Brubeck’s business contacts.
I was 14 or 15 when I first heard “Take Five” on the radio. It was one of very few jazz songs that made the AM radio playlist in the sixties and it altered my listening habits significantly. The Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond on saxophone was the first group I sought out and began to analyze.
When it was determined that I would be able to interview Dave for the Archive, my only contact was with Brubeck’s business manager, George. He was helpful, but he made the idea of conducting an interview with Brubeck quite imposing. First of all it was decided that we would do the interview at Brubeck’s home, and George made it clear in a polite way that Dave would not want to talk about the past, the “Take Five” type questions. This is analogous to getting a chance to interview Paul McCartney but being warned to not ask about The Beatles. The time of Brubeck’s life with the quartet for which he is most renown is with Desmond, but it was a relatively brief period of his life and hence the warning from George not to go back there with my questions.
I suppose if I had the opportunity to ask questions about Brubeck’s period in the sixties, I would have asked him if he was surprised that “Take Five” made the AM playlists, or if casual listeners were aware of the odd time signatures, liner notes notwithstanding. I might have asked him why he added the 4/4 swing section interludes in “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” with its 9/8 time signature. Maybe I would have asked him to comment on Al Jarreau’s lyrics to the piece or ask him how that came about. Early on when I began doing these jazz interviews I learned not to make the mistake of asking questions which contained an agenda or an opinion if I could avoid it. A question such as that might have been “Did you add the swing section in ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ because you thought the audience needed a safe haven by this part in the song?” Asking questions in this way causes unwanted outcomes in the interviews. It’s not my job to try to dazzle either Brubeck or any potential audience of the video with my expertise or insights. The point was to direct the subject and then to create subsequent questions based on the interviewees’ responses. That’s the only way you can possibly get at the true feelings, motives and ideas of the interviewees. It’s not the time to hear any of my opinions, difficult as it is to restrain myself at times.
I would have prepared many questions on this era if I’d had the chance, and it probably would have been a good interview. As it turned out, Brubeck reminisced on this period in his life, but he went there of his own accord, without my prodding. I was grateful for that meandering of thought.
George sent a series of four cassettes of interviews Brubeck had recently done, and listening to these cassettes probably represented the most homework I had ever done on one person, keeping notes and trying to figure out how to engage him in subject matter that was more recent, material I wasn’t all that familiar with, such as his symphonic compositions.
Thinking back, it clearly was the one interview that had me the most nervous beforehand. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly. Normally the equipment necessary to conduct these interviews involved two cameras with lighting, separate DAT machines for audio, and backdrop curtains. Typically in hotel rooms we’d move furniture around to accommodate the set up. In the case of going to someone’s home you want to disrupt as little as possible and get in and out as quickly as you can, yet still get a good-looking video. I also knew that he had another appointment scheduled for later that afternoon. The cameraman and I were planning to drive that day from one place in Connecticut to another, and we arrived in Brubeck’s community well over an hour before our scheduled appointment, necessitating that we kill time and heightening my nervousness.
When we finally pulled up and met George, it looked like an appropriate set-up. We would be situated on a closed in porch overlooking a little ravine, and Brubeck would be seated at his piano. We did not meet Brubeck until we were all set up and then George went and brought him to the interview. I felt anxious for the interview to get rolling, and for the challenge of picking-up that comfort level with people, which is always the preliminary part of the interview. I wanted him to feel that I was asking questions that he would enjoy discussing.
Watching the interview now, I think I spent too much time on subjects I hadn’t anticipated. I wasn’t prepared for the depth of his spirituality. I don’t know whether I would have been able to prepare for it even had I known, but I recall not feeling comfortable getting into discussions about religion. The things that inspire Dave Brubeck to write seem weighty compared to what inspires me to compose. To me, musical compositions are mostly about getting a start and then solving the problem, how to get from one place to another in an interesting manner. In one sense, though, that part of the musical puzzle is the way he thinks, as when he talked about getting a commission along with some other composers to do new settings of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the choral movement at the end of the Ninth. He didn’t want to do it, because he thought the piece was sacrosanct, but when his musical mind took over he immediately went to the challenge. How then could he do this? Oh! It’s perfect in five:

And then:
 This is the kind of immediate musical problem solving that composers often demonstrate.
One interesting moment in the interview was his description of finishing pieces in oddball places, like writing a Christmas mass in the back of a Volkswagen bus as his wife was driving them to visit one of their sons at summer camp. I remember when finishing my graduate hours, taking a course called “The Philosophy of Testing,” which was excruciatingly dull. I recalled being in this class in the basement of a church in the Upstate New York boondocks, sitting in the back of the room using a big book to camouflage manuscript paper as I worked on an arrangement of “Your Smiling Face,” the James Taylor song. I remember that vividly because I was in the talking stage of forming a new group and I intended to use the arrangement for the new band.
There were two significant moments in the interview. The first was about him traveling in Russia, and talking about how the music brought the Soviets and Americans together. As he spoke I realized he was starting to choke-up on camera and I remember thinking to myself how far is this going to go, how long do I wait before I try to say something, do I respond to what the subject is or do I move into a different area. My response to this came from doing the homework and being aware of a previous comment he had made in another interview. People often say that music is the universal language. His previous interview comment was that rhythm is the universal language. I used that comment and also used the well-known piece he wrote back in the sixties called “The Real Ambassadors,” where he was touting music and its pioneers, including Louis Armstrong, as the real ambassadors, and thinking he was one of them, so that’s what I chose for my panic-stricken comment. I said “you said it the best, when you said rhythm ties humanity together. Am I correct? That’s an absolutely amazing story. And you are one of the real ambassadors. We’re most appreciative that you’ve done that in your lifetime. [Pause] I’m really interested to hear about your vision for the [Brubeck] Institute.”
The second significant moment in the interview was when I played a small excerpt from a Jackie [Cain] & Roy [Kral] medley of the two songs “Summertime” and “Summer Song,” from their “Time and Love” album. It had some significant springboards for discussion. “Summer Song” was his composition and his wife Iola’s lyrics. It was from their musical “The Real Ambassadors,” and it was a song that Louis Armstrong had originally sung. Also significant was that Paul Desmond was playing on the cut from the Jackie & Roy recording. It was a nice moment when he realized what it was that I had brought for him, and his spontaneous and wholly positive reaction to it, a piece he clearly had not heard in decades. Significant for me was his serene facial expression when he heard the dissonance resolve in the a cappella section at the words “swimming hole,” because the beauty of this was the precise reason I chose to bring that piece from among the myriad I could have selected.
Afterwards I was humbled and fortunate as he took me to his workspace. He had two pianos, one being an upright that was set on cinderblocks so that he could play standing up. I recalled that as a young man Brubeck had a serious swimming accident where he hurt his back, and dealing with that injury was still part of his life. He showed me the piece he had been working on that morning. The interview was done in November of 2001, and the piece was about the war in Afghanistan. He had mentioned it in the interview, and said that Iola had commented that no one would want to hear this, and he shouldn’t write it, because it was too sad. He played a little of it for me and asked what I thought of it. I can’t remember what I said. I’m sure I said it was lovely or striking. I did refrain, however, from making an idiotic crack such as “well if you work for a few more years you can become a well-known composer, Mr. Brubeck.”
Iola Brubeck
In the summer of 2011 I returned to the Brubeck home, this time to interview Iola Brubeck, as she is a lyricist. Iola and I had been trying to find a time that was convenient for both of us, and it was a relief to finally be able to obtain this interview, as she is also in her early nineties. This time I was under no constraints as to questions being off limits, and she seemed genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to be interviewed for our Archive.
Over the years, Iola’s impact on Dave’s career cannot be understated. It was Iola, for example, who suggested they focus their efforts on the then-budding college circuit in the fifties, an astute observation. Dave and Iola were both raised in California and attended college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. After college, and as he began his career, Dave was working clubs in San Francisco. Iola said it was Duke Ellington who advised Dave that if he ever wanted to make it big in jazz that it was necessary to move to the New York market. At that time they bought the house where they now reside in Connecticut, and proceeded to raise their six children.
At the time of the interview I asked Iola if she still traveled with Dave. She said that for a few years they only traveled to places they could get to by car, for example the Newport Jazz Festival. But she said that nowadays she didn’t venture far from home. She said that it wasn’t exciting anymore to get on a plane and travel.
Iola was a gracious and humble interviewee. Like many of our interviewees, she didn’t realize she’d be receiving a modest honorarium from the college in exchange for her time. Hamilton requires that a W-9 IRS form be filled out for any amount at all if funds are to be disbursed by the college. I found it delightful that Iola didn’t know her own Social Security number. She had to retire to the office in the house to fetch it.
A few weeks after we sent the Brubecks a DVD copy of Iola’s interview, she emailed me to say that she and Dave had watched it together and that they both enjoyed it. I felt proud to be able to conduct an interview that would please Dave Brubeck, as most interviewees do not acknowledge receipt of the finished DVD.

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