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.

September 7, 2012

Jazz Blasts from the Past

If you were an enthusiastic fan of swing music in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s — and there were legions of them — you would have known these terms and even used them in conversation: tub thumper, ork (and orks), wax and shellac, jive, zoot, chirp, canary and warbler, 88 man, sweet, straw boss, flicker, gut scraper, and Hitemen. Swing music had its stars, its sidemen, and its own dialect.

A recent donation to the Hamilton College Jazz Archive included a fascinating collection of Down Beat magazines from the early 1940’s. Down Beat was established in 1934 in Chicago, and the original title was “Down Beat — Music News from Coast to Coast.” In the early days, Down Beat read like a big band tabloid; a weekly magazine that followed the music industry, concentrating almost solely on the swing genre of jazz, which was the popular music of the day. Let’s take a look at some of the articles from 1942, their captivating titles, and what the articles show us about the era.
April 15, 1942 — “Four Chirps to Chester Combo”
Down Beat tells us that band leader Bob Chester added four new vocalists to his organization, tentatively calling them the “Rhythmites.” Every swing band had a vocal component. Sometimes it was a girl and a guy singer, sometimes a group. The girl singer might also be called a “fem chirp” or a “canary,” who took care of the “warbling.”
From the same issue we see the headline “College Ork Eyecatcher”
This was an illuminating article about a hot young band from Northwestern University in Chicago, discovered by bandleader Les Brown. Ork is short for orchestra, also short for tailored orchestrations or arrangements, a huge part of the success or failure of a swing band.
From the same issue comes “Hitemen Leave for Army — Dizzy Gillespie Joins Ork
The news for the Les Hite band was that two members were drafted. Filling one of the trumpet chairs was the young but soon-to-be-famous Dizzy Gillespie. Of course World War II occupied the news and many of the articles in Down Beat talked of the musicians’ role in the war, who was drafted, who was going to lead a band in the service, and what famous musicians were killed or wounded in the conflict.
From February of 1942 we learn that “Sepia Talent in Demand in California” and “Unknown Sepia Crew Rocks Texas Plains.” Webster’s dictionary defines sepia as “a dark reddish-brown color or the particular tint in a photograph.” Down Beat used the word to denote an African-American musician, and it was most likely to be used with a person of lighter skin tone. Obviously this has become a word long out of favor. Despite some moves towards integration in the swing world, bands were almost exclusively all white or all black. I was interested to see the headline of the January 1, 1943 Down Beat issue “Ellington Wins Swing Poll” but the 1942 All-American Swing Band contained only five black musicians out of seventeen categories.
Earthshaking news for professional musicians was summed up in the alliterative title “Jim Jimmies the Jive” from July 1, 1942. Translation: James Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians, made good on his threat to halt all recording activity in the United States. His aggressive stance against the recording industry for not allowing payments to musicians for radio and jukebox play eventually was a winner for union members. But for over two years recording of new music was severely curtailed in the United States, except for the bootlegs, the solo vocalists, and the V-disks made for the servicemen. Indeed sales of records (disks/platters) was a huge part of the music business and the union move was not the only thing threatening that part of the business. Another headline from February of 1942 reads “Rough Disks Make Critics Moan.” Shellac was an important ingredient in the creation of vinyl disks but in short supply because of the war effort. A combination of bad records and bad needles apparently was ruining the fidelity of the early 1940’s swing records.
A timely fashion item showed up in the November 1, 1942 Down Beat issue: “Curses, Lincoln Bars Zoot Suits.” The generously tailored zoot suit was synonymous with swing musicians and swing fans, and some club owners were not fond of it. The suits were also called reet pleates and drape shapes, and the article contained the following excerpt: “the [Lincoln Hotel] management has issued orders that characters, hep or otherwise, in the baggy overlong pants and coats which somehow have become associated with swing, will cut not a single rug while the nation’s top drawing card is on view.” In the atmosphere of World War II when many resources were being rationed, the Lincoln Hotel owners apparently thought the generous material put into zoot suits constituted wastefulness.

Our interviewee Sol Yaged spoke of his remembrances of the period, highlighting the Lincoln Hotel:
Sol Yaged
SY:     There was a lot of great music at one time. I’ll never forget the Lincoln Hotel on 46th, 47th Street and Eighth Avenue, I used to hear Artie Shaw’s band, or some great band. Charlie Barnet played that room, Jan Savett played that room. It was owned by a woman called Marie Cramer. She owned these two hotels, the Lincoln Hotel on Eighth Avenue and 47th Street, and then she owned the Edison Hotel on 46th Street off Broadway. But she used the sweet bands at that hotel. She used bands there like Blue Baron, Sammy Kaye and another band that became a hotel band later on, Henry Jerome and his orchestra. She used all the sweet bands at that hotel, the Edison Hotel, and the Lincoln Hotel she used all the hot bands like Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet and Jan Savett. I’ll never forget the first time, even though I adore Benny Goodman, where I first heard Artie Shaw play in person at the Lincoln Hotel, “Begin the Beguine.” It was unbelievable. That sound was just unbelievable the way the band came in. Buddy Rich on drums, Tony Pastor on saxophone, a very exciting sound. And the band was right on, Monk. He had a very tight band. I’ll never forget when he was at the Strand Theater at the same time Benny Goodman was at the Paramount Theater. I was there. There was a big sign at the Paramount Theater with a picture of Benny Goodman with his clarinet, King of Swing. Then you walk up four, five, six blocks at the Strand Theater, a big sign, Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet, with his picture. At the same time they both appeared, it was unbelievably exciting. Everybody was running back and forth. It was a very, very exciting two weeks.
Down Beat kept tabs on the hot selling records and jukebox favorites. Here’s a look at the popular recordings spinning on the jukeboxes (a/k/a coin machines). Among the Top 12 in February of 1942 are “The White Cliffs of Dover” by Jimmy Dorsey; “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by Alvino Ray; and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” by Glenn Miller. Every song listing included the first artist choice followed by a second, as these songs were covered simultaneously by multiple bands and vocalists.
I’ve spoken to Hamilton alums and enthusiastic music fans who were teenagers in this period. They were every bit as fanatical as music fans of the Beatles and Beyonce. One Archive interviewee, the late drummer Stanley Kay, spoke of his passion for the music in the swing era:
Stanley Kay
MR:    Was your family surprised at the direction your career took?
SK:     No. Because they knew that’s what I wanted to do. That’s all I wanted to do. I never wanted to do anything else. And people shouldn’t do what I’m saying, but I didn’t graduate high school because I spent all my time in the Paramount Theater when the new bands were coming. It was like empty in the school. I was one. I was the leader of empty. And it was an interesting thing because when we went to the Paramount Theater, we gave one guy 55 cents in the morning. And it was, you had Don Baker at the organ, a sing-a-long, a bouncing ball, Fox Movietone News, the movie and then the band. And it could be Tommy and Frank Sinatra and the Nicholas Brothers or Charlie Barnet. And I’d sit there and say when am I going to do that? When am I going to do that? And the first time I did it with Buddy Rich, when the pit went up, I looked down and saw where I sat. I looked right there, and I went like this, I says thank you. I says I made it.

Down Beat magazine is still one of the two or three top jazz magazines in the country. Its current cover price ($6) is far different from what we see here, in 1942.

And, for your amusement, the rest of the swing slang:
tub thumper — a drummer
flicker — a movie or film
straw boss — the second in command in a swing outfit, often the lead alto sax man
gutscraper — a violinist (playing on strings made of cat gut)
wax — as a noun, a musical recording; as a verb, the process of recording
88 man — a pianist
sweet — swing music with a light touch for the less adventurous crowd; as contrasted to hot meaning bands with high energy and outstanding virtuosity
Music has the ability to capture the spirit of its era. Without a doubt, the enjoyment of big band music helped balance the somberness of a nation at war. The history books I’ve read don’t capture the joy of this era, nor the creative jargon, in these dusty relics circa 1942.