March 21, 2014

Iola Brubeck, 1923-2014

Iola Brubeck, in 2011

In the process of gathering 300+ interviews for the Fillius Jazz Archive, I have found myself in a number of memorable settings, none more so than the two visits to the home of Dave and Iola Brubeck. My interview with Mr. Brubeck took place on November 21, 2001, and we made a return visit on July 17, 2011 to do a session with his wife, Iola. This time my wife Romy accompanied me as cameraperson and for logistical support. Going to the home of a jazz icon can be intimidating, but both Dave and Iola put us at ease.
Iola Brubeck passed away on March 12, 2014. She was a wife and mother, and an integral part of Dave’s career, acting at various times as manager, critic and as creative collaborator. Iola wrote lyrics for a number of important compositions, and acted as a sounding board and second set of ears for Dave.
One of their important collaborations was the play with music entitled “The Real Ambassadors,” recorded in 1961 with a stellar cast, and performed only once at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. I’m happy to learn that “The Real Ambassadors” will receive its first New York performance on April 11 and 12, 2014, in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It’s bittersweet that the Brubecks will not be at the performance. Iola’s contribution to this work was lasting and memorable. My favorite composition from the production is “Summer Song” — an enchanting piece that features Louis Armstrong on the vocals. We wrote about this appropriately in the summer of 2012, and you can read that entry here. There is a gorgeous cover version of “Summer Song” (combined with “Summertime”) by Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, featuring Brubeck’s longtime saxophonist, Paul Desmond. Oddly, neither Dave nor Iola had heard this version of their own song, and I was pleased that I could play it for them and later send them a copy. Personally, if any of my compositions had been performed by well-known jazz artists, I would have been all over it.
I was pleased to learn that the late singer Joe Williams (who was instrumental in the creation of the Fillius Jazz Archive) played a role in the birth of “The Real Ambassadors.” Jazz people all seem to know one another, and we get the impression that everybody loves everybody else. Iola told this anecdote regarding Joe and Dave:
IB:    It’s interesting too, and I should have brought it up when we were talking about where did you get the idea for “The Real Ambassadors,” because Joe Williams was a part of that. That summer I was in New York and I went to Central Park and Joe Williams was with the Basie band, and he was just so great. And the night before I had gone to a Broadway musical. And I said to myself Joe Williams said more and reached more emotionally with the Basie band that night than that big production I’d seen the night before. And that was one of the reasons why I started thinking in terms of a Broadway show.
MR:   Well thank you Joe. He was a big help to us getting this started.
IB:    That’s what I understand. Well I loved Joe Williams. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was another example of a black man who, right at the height of the sort of division that was going on in jazz was not effected by that. And I can remember in Europe one time, Joe and some other musicians were sitting outside a hotel in the summertime, on a sort of patio, and our car pulled up and Dave and I got out of the van and Joe got up from where he was sitting with the other musicians and came over and they embraced, he gave Dave a hug and so forth. And it was just kind of a way of him saying “cool it guys.”
MR:   Another great story.
IB:    A lot of humanity.
In my house we have a certain back and forth about creative work, and I often wondered what a conversation was like between Dave and Iola when he presented her with his latest effort. I do know that she did not simply say “oh yes, that’s fine, keep going” if she didn’t like the direction in which he was headed. Iola addressed this in our interview:
MR:   I’ve gotten the sense over the years that [Dave] has used you as an opinion and a sounding board about some of his work. When I was here ten years ago he was working on a piece. Unfortunately it was the beginning of the Afghanistan war, and he was working on a piece that I believe he said the text encouraged women not have children because the times were so awful. And you told him nobody’s going to want to sing that, it’s too sad. And it made me think that you’re fairly forthright with your opinions about his work.
IB:    Well yes. If it’s in an area where I think I know something I’ve always felt that I was sort of like the audience. And if I think there’s something that an audience would really love I will tell him that, or if I think it’s something they won’t — musically I won’t step in that area at all. You know I’m not qualified in any way. But going back to the first recordings of the trio, I remember there is a recording on one side, in those days it was 78’s so you had two sides. “Body and Soul” with Cal Tjader on bongos. And Dave didn’t think that maybe that should go on that side. And I said “that’s the best thing you’ve done” because I was thinking from an audience standpoint. And sure enough it was something that really went over extremely well. So I guess a sounding board is maybe what you would call it.
MR:    Well it’s very valuable to have an outside ear I think, because sometimes musicians can’t divorce themselves from what they did personally on the performance.
IB:    It isn’t always an objective opinion perhaps, but at least it’s outside the actual creating of the piece itself. And then of course we’ve worked together on a lot of different projects, and that way we are — I was going to say critical of each other, but we’re not critical of each other, we’re just honest with each other.
I asked a question of Iola that I have never asked of anyone else. As I was talking to this gracious and charming woman, I was trying to picture her displaying a temper, and I couldn’t imagine what would make her mad.

MR:    I don’t know if you can answer this question, but you and Dave seem like such peaceful people. I wonder, is there anything that makes you angry?
IB:    Yeah. Injustice. That is something. It’s not a just world. You have to accept that fact, but I hate to see anyone treated badly, not even the right to be themselves, and the stereotyping of people, that’s an injustice, by the color of the skin or the way they look or the way they walk or the way they’re dressed or whatever. That I really can’t tolerate. That’s where I’m intolerant.
MR:    Are you an optimist though? Is Dave an optimist?
IB:    Oh yeah. Why not? The alternative is to be unhappy and not enjoy the day as it is. I think you know, at this point in our lives we have to accept each day as a gift and I think that being pessimistic and all that angst that one goes through one times in younger people, it’s okay. I mean that’s part of growing up and coming through it. I think we’ve all had those periods. But generally speaking Dave and I both, even at the worst times, have felt well we’ll get through this.
I’ve been fortunate in this work to converse with and stand close to a select group of people who exude a consistently positive and uplifting spirit. Simply being in their presence made me feel better. Dave and Iola Brubeck both radiated this quality, and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to capture them on camera during their later years.

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