Brubeck: Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

With Dave Brubeck’s passing, interesting bits of arcana about his life and music are rising to the surface. BBC Radio 4 replayed a portion of an interview from 2000 on the network’s Front Row program with John Wilson. Brubeck tells Wilson about the role of vitamin B-6 in saving his hands and the unusual use of a bungee cord in his exercise routine. He illustrates polytonality by playing a bit of Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” in C and E-flat, simultaneously. To hear the six-minute conversation, go here and move the timer slide at the bottom of the screen to :24:05.

Then, see and hear an extended 1970 performance of “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” a blues staple in Brubeck’s repertoire, with Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone; Jack Six, bass; Alan Dawson, drums. It runs so long that YouTube had to present it in two installments.

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  1. Terence Smith says

    Whoa. Out-of-body experiences. Bru and Mulligan’s enjoyment of each other is so nice to behold. THANK YOU!!I can’t wait to see/hear it again. First, a question:

    Am I the only Rifftideser who read Irving Townsend’s liner notes to the DBQ’s wonderful Newport 1958 Ellington tribute album, and wondered ever since what became of the OTHER take of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be?” The take used is so great, and the notes say that.

    “Brubeck played Things Ain’t What they Used to Be twice that night.. The first time was during the pre-concert broadcast, the second was during the concert. Both versions are wonderful, and long discussions were held before the final choice was made for this album. We chose the concert version over the broadcast version, which incidentally contained more exciting choruses by Dave, because the concert version has a delightful tribute to Johnny Hodges by Paul Desmond.”

    Yes, I love the issued version. I fear the broadcast version has disappeared forever into the circular file where so many treasures have gone. But if someone has it, will they please step forward and share?

  2. Frank Roellinger says

    Dave’s use of polytonality produced harmonies that to my ears have not been matched by any other pianist. What a mind he must have had to be able to play in one key in one hand and another key in the other hand!

    I suppose we all now are thinking of our most favorite Brubeck performances. I think mine is “On the Alamo”, which must contain a lot of polytonality, recorded at Storyville in December of 1953. Critics referred to his playing at times as “bombastic”, as though that meant that it was unmusical. This performance might be called “bombastic”, but to my ears it has as much musical logic and thematic development as any composed piece of music. It can be heard here:

    • Terence Smith says

      Frank, when I first heard this “Storyville” LP I remember thinking, and of course this is just a hunch, that it was the ever-lyrical Paul Desmond who called or chose “On the Alamo” for them. In 1954, much of the nightclub audience would know and love the Benny Goodman Sextet version, know it as the apex of haunting lyricism. I know I thought of the song as owned by the BG Sextet; I had heard it from a friend’s parent’s 78s!! It’s almost as if Desmond called the tune as a hip tribute to the ultimate in past lyrical-type playing, then Paul delivered so well, and then lover-of-contrasts Dave Brubeck responded to Paul with what develops into almost avant-garde spontaneous “third-stream” composition. Whatever they did there, I think Gunther Schuller, Cecil Taylor, and Benny Goodman all approve.

      PS: I just read on-line that “On the Alamo” was composed/recorded by bandleader Isham Jones in about 1921, and that Benny Goodman had briefly been in the Isham Jones Orchestra! So it was a double-nostalgia oldie by 1954! And everyone should hear the BG Sextet do it. Charlie Christian and I think Cootie Williams and Georgie Auld (?) are on it. The way Benny plays it, it’ll make you want to learn the words of the song–which I don’t know, but imagine to be beautiful.

      PPS: I just used the internet to hear at last for my first time, the Benny Goodman ORCHESTRA version, with the vocal by “Art Lund”. The words are even better than I could have hoped. And I don’t even need liner notes to hear that it sounds like Teddy Wilson at his absolute best for extended solos. There is a tape of Dave Brubeck playing “I Found a New baby” about 1942, in which Dave seems to evoke this kind of Teddy Wilson playing. Thank you Frank Roellinger for inspiring this very rewarding triple-nostalgia research project.

  3. C. Anthony Burrell, II says

    My wife and I took a trip to Australia last year (2011) and in one of the hotels we stayed at in Cairns, NSW, they had a digital jazz radio station on the television, which was identified as ABC Jazz (Australian Broadcasting Company), which I found out broadcasts on the web as well Therefore, I get an E-mail post from them every Friday . Of course this week, with Mr. Brubeck’s untimely passing, along with other items, ABC Jazz has posted this link of this clip –!/jazz/dave-brubeck-and-sons – of Dave Brubeck playing “Take 5″ with his sons – probably the Two Generations of Brubeck Tour back in the Early 70’s.

    I remember seeing this particular tour back in the early 70’s at the Meriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia MD. with Dave, Darius, Chris and Danny Brubeck along with Gerry Mulligan and I believe Alan Dawson and Jack Six. My memory tells me that there were different permutations of the combined groups during the evening, but at one point, they launched into the theme from “Blues at Newport” and Gerry Mulligan stepped out from behind the curtain to take a solo and the entire evening ended with everyone onstage playing Mulligan’s “Song For a Lonely Woman”.

    So I am pretty confident that the tenor sax soloist on the 15 minute video clip from Sydney is Jerry Bergonzi, who went on to play with Brubeck later on as well as Perry Robinson on clarinet and Peter “Mudcat” Ruth on Jew’s Harp and Harmonica. I don’t know who the electric bassist is though. It is kind of interesting just to see how much fun the other members of the band who are not soloing are having while Ruth and Bergonzi solo, even Dave is grinning………watching Darius digging his father’s play is great………..and then there is Chris who is stepping all over the place while Danny is soloing on the drum set. The riff that the horns play near the end of “Take Five” seems to be a take off on what the Quartet played on the “Last Set From Newport” release.

    Here is another link from ABC Jazz which has part of an audio discussion by Dave about the “Time Out” Album

  4. says

    Well, really “polytonality”, E-flat above C-major, particularly at the blues? — The blues itself can be called “polytonal” already, and so Eb7 over, or rather parallel to C7 doesn’t sound so very “out” to my ears:

    With Eb7 over C7 we have the #9 (Eb), the b9 (Db), the minor 7 (Bb), and the 5th (G) which all would fit to the C7 chord; the same applies also for the other dominant chords at the blues in C:

    F7 > Ab7, A7 > C7, and G7 > Bb7.

    Some of Lennie Tristano’s early flights like at “Tiger Rag” (1947), or Paul Bley’s solo at “All The Things You Are” on “Sonny Meets Hawk” (1962) are also very good examples for jazz pianists, thinking & improvising polytonally.

    But ok, I’m already spoiled by Eric Dolphy’s playing; and this improvisor is really out. Just try that: B-natural on the blues in F which is a tritone away. Sounds quite funny 😉

  5. David says

    Actually, Brew, that BBC clip is a good example of what you’re talking about. Dave may be thinking “Eb Blues” with his right hand, but what the listener hears is just a somewhat angular, slightly dissonant line over the first six bars of a C Blues and then it all resolves quite conventionally at the end of the chorus. Part of this is just the fact that an ambiguous 3rd degree is a basic characteristic of the blues. It can be a major 3rd, a minor 3rd, something in between, or both at once (an obvious example being “Bags’ Groove.”) It’s not quite the same thing as some of those early 20th century classical pieces, for instance, where different instruments just stay in different keys without resolving in an intentional effort to disorient the listener. I also recall looking at a transcription of a Gil Evans chart where some of the woodwinds appeared to be in a different key (at concert pitch) than the rest of the band. Because the predominant parts were in one key, you just heard those others as color tones. Guys like Brookmeyer would sometimes push that concept a bit farther, so that you’d hear violent clashes but still have a sense of a basic key center. Or just to put all of this simply: there are many degrees of shading between purely tonal music and truly polytonal music.

    • says

      Yes, David, in jazz, the most writing is clearly rooted in recognizable keys (with a few exceptions like for example Robert Graettinger’s compositions for Stan Kenton), and those “third streamers” are also related rather to the late romantics, the impressionists, and early modernists (Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, or Bartók) than to the serial composers of the early to mid 20th century (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern).

      Even Ornette Coleman’s “free” tunes have a tonal center, based on the blues, or other song-based harmonics; but do you really believe that any serious composer of new, contemporary music of the 20th & 21st century would write his music “in an intentional effort to disorient the listener”?

      I really would doubt that, since I’m a composer myself, though not of new music but of jazz. For me, jazz has to have a groove, and therefore the compositions shouldn’t be too abstract. The improvisor may go where he wants to go. For my part, as the composer, no intent to mess up with the audience, though there may exist some minor irritations; let’s call them intended dissonances.

      By the way, as I mentioned some of the freer pianists, I forgot to name Cecil Taylor who claimed in an interview that he listened a lot to Dave Brubeck.

    • says

      A perfect example of pure polytonal composing is my “LA-NOT-IB SUITE FOR PIANO.” Listen to “CAROL LIAN PLAYS” for the original solo version and to my trio orchestration on “BLUE SEAN GREEN.” Both cds may be sampled at

      Another example is Darius Milhaud’s “SAUDADES DO BRAZIL.” It’s a piano solo work and illustrates polytonal hearing and thinking.

      Playing or orchestrating in two keys at once is NOT true polytonality; it’s a circus act and those who do this I label “tap dancers!”

      Your turn!

      • David says

        Jack & Brew,

        I’m not disagreeing with either of you. Just pointing out that the term polytonal, by definition, implies simultaneous use of two or more different keys. Such music is necessarily disorienting to the listener’s sense of tonality, but not necessarily meant to be hostile. Many classical and jazz musicians of the 20th century, by their own admission, were interested in shocking the listener with new sounds that would initially be confusing. In the ‘60s, a popular concept was multi-media works striving to create “sensory overload,” disorienting entire sensory apparatus of the audience in a, hopefully, pleasant way.

        Bartok’s “Microkosmos,” a work studied by many piano students, includes examples of simple folk melodies played in one key in the right hand and another in the left hand. Charles Ives’ stated intention in one of his orchestral pieces was to recreate the sound of walking into a park where different bands were playing completely separate pieces of music in different keys – a sound he recalled fondly from childhood. There are many other examples, but here’s an especially pungent one: In the 3rd bar from the end of Antheil’s 4th Sonata, the left hand plays a C Major scale while the right hand plays a Db Major scale an octave higher. In the next measure the left hand plays a d minor triad while the right hand plays an Eb Major triad in the same octave. All of this is the culmination of a thoroughly ambiguous movement. The real shock comes in the final measure when both hands conclude on a d minor triad.

        So I was just trying to say that there’s a spectrum between purely tonal and purely polytonal music, and that Brubeck’s “Things…” is decidedly closer to the tonal end, at least to my ears. I’d also agree with Brew’s characterization of Ornette’s music, at least the earlier stuff. I haven’t heard his double quartet but have read that he asked the two bands to play in different keys.

        • Doug Ramsey says

          The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet’s 1961 recording Free Jazz had on the left channel, Coleman, alto sax; 
Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; 
Scott La Faro, bass; 
Billy Higgins, drums.

          On the right channel were Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; 
Ed Blackwell, drums.

          The project’s ninth star was the engineer, Tom Dowd, who captured the music with clarity and depth that remain an audio landmark half a century later. The tenth star was Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records, who took a risk in recording and releasing such adventurous and unfashionable music. The piece is 32 minutes and nine seconds of Coleman and associates’ collective improvisation. To hear it, follow this link.

          The album, with a bonus track added to the CD reissue, is available here.

          • Bart Roderick says

            Great discussion. I have to say that Coleman’s intent with this double Quartet track has to be disorientation. What other intent would one suggest?

        • says

          Ives, David; his lovely quarter tone piece came to my mind after I left the above comment:

          There is this impression of permanent glissandi between the two pianos, particularly when they’d play at the same time. As you said: He, being a true musical revolutionary, intended only to revive a past when there were no telephones, no electricity, no telegraph … just the sounds of a practicing clarinetist in the neighborhood, and two marching bands passing each other on celebration day, and the whispers of the night he heard when he was a child.

          Maybe Ives was thinking that long before the Duke came up with this title: Things Ain’t What They Used To Be 😉

          • Terence Smith says

            In reply to Bart Roderick above:

            I think Paul Desmond was once quoted as saying that Ornette Coleman’s music was sometimes like living in a house in which “everything is painted red.” If Dave’s polytonal adventures are less stark or sustained or more tending to eventual resolution than some others, maybe it’s because Dave knows how to use contrast to make his dissonances such beautiful surprises for us. I love some of Ornette’s stuff. A favorite is Ornette, Dolphy, and Evans on “Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (Criss Cross)” from John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions, 1959. I like the “double quartets”, but prefer them one at a time.

  6. Terence Smith says

    I don’t know much about polytonality, but I know what I like! Life is surprise, and music seems to breathe by creating expectations to set up surprises, so that we find or gain new parts of ourselves.

    The film clip and audio above of Mulligan and Brubeck playing “Things Ain’t” seems to me to illustrate that practice eclipses theory in music, especially spontaneous music. Dave Brubeck wrote a little essay in 1956 in which he evaluated “levels of creativity in jazz.” In that essay, he says that “quotes” (i. e., quotes of previously heard/played things, “either personal or derivative’) are at a second-tier “lower level” of creativity. And Dave in 1956 went on in the essay to say that such quotes “intrude like the human ego into the flow of creative ideas.” But Dave sure does visibly enjoy the numerous quotes of staple Ellington tunes, as they appear in Gerry Mulligan’s great solo. Dave is delighted, and I bet every listener savored every one of those quotes, which sound organically right at home in the solo, and begin to lift the bandstand and set up so much reference and inspiration from Dave, in response. There’s an old joke that “an ecomomist is someone who sees what works in practice and wonders if it would work in theory.” I am glad that Dave, Gerry, and creative musicians in general, such as Brew, Jack Reilly, David, have each developed internal musical theory systems which allow them to transcend said systems. I am glad that they are playing what works in practice, using theory without sounding theoretical.

    When Dave Brubeck used bitonality, I think it was because it worked for him at that moment. And it worked so well. When Arnold Scoenberg demanded that Dave account for use of a specific note, didn’t Dave say “because it sounded good.” Arnold didn’t like that answer, but it seemed to work out okay. And yet, I think the world should study, analyze, explore, and learn from the personal musical theoretical systems of Dave Brubeck and other greats. I for one am eagerly awaiting the release of Jack Reilly’s forthcoming book on the harmony of Dave Brubeck.

    • says

      Yeah, I can understand Prof. Schoenberg’s reaction to Dave’s “it sounded good,” ’cause those composers of the Viennese school wanted to extinguish any redundant sentiments in their music. No more romanticisms; “sounds good” was gone for good.

      The sternness of Schoenberg, Stockhausen & Co. motivated John Cage to provoke the serialists with “accidentally” interspersed, clearly identifiable major or minor triads. These pure triads sounded extra abstract in the otherwise highly dissonant context of Cage’s casual music.

      Well, Dave’s jazz is mainly romantic music; his polytonal experiments are not provocative at all. They don’t need to be. It’s jazz, and it never wanted to be anything else.

      And when Dave went wild, as Ethan Iverson wrote, he simply was in that mood.

      Terence, I can only speak for myself of course: Theory is an important thing, but it has to leave as soon as you’re on the bandstand. All practicing scales, and finger techniques, all you know, have to make room for joyous spontaneity, which can be heard and seen at every video with Dave Brubeck in action.