Jazz legend Dave Brubeck is still going strong at 86

by Michael G. Mooney

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

13 April 2007

DAVE BRUBECK [Photo: © 2003 Milken Family Foundation

MODESTO, Calif.—There’s more to Dave Brubeck than the classic jazz composition “Take Five.”

In fact, that haunting song, composed in 5/4 time, was written by the pianist and composer’s longtime musical collaborator, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Desmond, who became famous for his ethereal sound and improvisational skills, died of lung cancer in 1977.

“Paul had a pure sound,” Brubeck said. “You rarely hear that anymore. Guys don’t go for that much now. (But) Paul cared so much for the pure sound. And he came up with such inventive melodies and harmonies.”

Brubeck, who spoke recently in a rare, in-depth interview, also discussed his recovery from a recent ankle injury; his upcoming appearance at the Brubeck Festival (being hosted by his alma mater, the University of the Pacific in Stockton); and the need to keep working.

“What else?” he said, laughing. “You know, I played in Modesto a lot of times. I played at the (California) Ballroom with Tut Lombardo’s big band.”

Modesto trumpet legend Deck Hogin also played with the Lombardo ensemble during that same time.

Another trumpeter, 85-year-old Newell Johnson of Sacramento, gigged with Brubeck in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“Dave was ambitious,” Johnson said. “I mean, he spent a lot of time with the music. He had perfect pitch and could sit down and play a song after hearing it just one time.

“He was very talented. It helped sitting next to him in harmony class.”

By the mid- to late 1950s, about the time the Dave Brubeck Quartet was taking the jazz world by storm, Johnson was laying down his trumpet and picking up a teaching credential. He later became an administrator.

“Dave was fun to be with,” Johnson said, “a good guy with a great sense of humor.”

Brubeck said he enjoyed his time playing piano with the big bands, as well as his association with Johnson.

“He’s a great trumpet player,” Brubeck said. “When I was growing up, it seemed like every town in Northern California had a big band or two or three playing. “I played my way through college at clubs in Modesto and Stockton, Lodi and Sacramento.”

But don’t get the wrong idea. Brubeck doesn’t wallow in the past. He’s too busy living in the moment. At 86, he continues to create and perform music at a pace rivaling musicians barely half his age.

Recently, Brubeck was hobbled by an ankle injury. The injury led to a blood clot and an infection that eventually required surgery. As a result, he has been off his feet for a while.

Brubeck said he’s tried to stay musically limber by working out as much as possible on an electronic keyboard. For a time, he didn’t have enough strength to push the pedals on a piano.

“Every day, I’m getting better,” he said. “My doctors have given me the green light to go to Pacific” to participate in the music festival that bears his name.

Rapid healing apparently is a Brubeck trait.

So is his driven nature.

“I’ve got so many things coming up, I’ll never catch up,” Brubeck said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to fulfill the things that are in front of me.”

The artistic restlessness infusing the musician showed at an early age. Johnson said Brubeck soon became bored playing chords for Tut Lombardo and other big bands.

So the Concord native gravitated toward small combos, where he could explore and more fully develop his own musical ideas.

Perhaps his strongest combo lineup was the quartet that featured Desmond along with Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums.

By the end of Brubeck’s tenure at the University of the Pacific, which began in 1938 and concluded in 1942, he said he was playing music six nights a week.

There was plenty of combo work at clubs throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

“We were all working all the time,” he said. “I never was out of a job.”

It’s still that way for Brubeck.

Last year, he was commissioned to write music for the Monterey Jazz Festival.

“We commission a new piece every year,” said Tim Jackson, the festival’s executive and artistic director, “and I wanted to do something with Dave.”

Jackson said he had been talking with pianist and composer Jon Jang, who suggested having a California musician interpret the work of another California artist.

That got Jackson thinking about the John Steinbeck novel “Cannery Row.” After all, the book is set in the heart of Monterey.

Jackson contacted Brubeck’s people.

“Dave had just returned from an arduous tour of Europe,” Jackson said. “They weren’t sure he would be up for it.”

Brubeck said he thought Jackson was looking for a full-blown opera, something he felt may have been beyond his skills as a composer.

Jackson, however, said he never envisioned a work of that scale.

The two continued to talk, on a smaller and more manageable level. Finally, Brubeck said, an idea took hold.

Instead of creating an opera, Brubeck would pursue a musical character study, focusing on some of the book’s central characters.

The piece opens and closes with the music of a harmonica.

Brubeck said he features the harmonica because it was the only musical instrument Steinbeck ever played or attempted to play.

Thomas Steinbeck, the son of the late novelist, also is part of the production.

Brubeck said Thomas Steinbeck reads “Cannery Row’s” opening page, then closes the performance reading a Persian poem his father used to end the novel.

“It’s so moving to hear Thomas Steinbeck’s voice,” Brubeck said.

He said he will be perform the piece again on April 13 during the festival at UOP.

Though it may surprise people familiar only with Brubeck’s jazz work, he has created over the decades a number of musical compositions fusing the elements of jazz with classical music forms, including Mozart.

Brubeck also has melded jazz with oratorios, musical compositions for voices and/or orchestra based on a religious text or theme.

Richard Grant, founder and artistic director of the Berkeley-based Pacific Mozart Ensemble, discovered Brubeck’s unique musical perspective while browsing a bin at used-record store in New York.

Grant said he stumbled across a copy of Brubeck’s jazz oratorio “Gates of Justice.”

So impressed was Grant with the recording that he finagled Brubeck’s home telephone number, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s the crossover nature of (Brubeck’s compositions), using a traditional 18th-century base and adding jazz; it’s fascinating and something I’d never heard before,” Grant said. “He manages to make it seamless. The jazz and classical elements go back and forth. It seems so natural.”

Brubeck’s use of the jazz harmonic structure, Grant said, combining those chords with classical choruses, “adds elements simply not heard before in classical music.”

While others have employed the technique, Grant said, few have the “edge” that marks a Brubeck composition.

The ultimate effect can be breathtaking, Grant continued; it takes hard work to pull it all together_even for seasoned professionals.

Grant said certain elements of Brubeck’s arrangements, such as his use of “poly-tonal chords”—where female singers may be in one key and the men in another_can be especially difficult to master.

The Monterey Jazz Festival’s Jackson is impressed that a musician of Brubeck’s stature, who long ago proved himself, continues to accept such musical challenges.

“It’s amazing to me,” Jackson said, “he’s still willing to take creative risks, to put himself on the line like that.”

That’s just one of the reasons Brubeck will receive an inaugural “Legends Award” from the Monterey festival.

Brubeck performed at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1957 and is scheduled to perform at this year’s 50th-anniversary celebration.

He also just finished recording a new album of piano solos.

Other artists, including a choreographer, have set about reinterpreting some of Brubeck’s compositions.

“It’s nice they’re rediscovering some of the things I wrote 40 and 45 years ago.”

For Brubeck, however, the past is prologue:

“There’s so much ahead.”


WHAT: Brubeck Festival 2007
WHERE: University of the Pacific, Stockton, Calif.
WHEN: April 11-15
TICKETS: $10 to $35, UOP box office, 946-2867
INFORMATION: www.brubeckfestival.com

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