On Dave Brubeck

There is no guarantee that a great artist will be an admirable person. Many sublimely gifted musicians, painters, sculptors, writers and actors fail as human beings. Dave Brubeck was on the positive end of the scale. Among the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of obituaries and remembrances of Brubeck that have emerged since his death yesterday morning, a thread becomes clear: those who knew him emphasize that his extraordinary musicianship went hand in hand with kindness, generosity, humor and concern for the human condition.

I became aware of all of those facets of Brubeck’s makeup on our first encounter. His quartet played a concert at the University of Washington in Seattle in the winter of 1955. As recounted elsewhere, that is when I also met Paul Desmond. Their stars were on the rise. The year before, Brubeck was the subject of a TIME magazine cover story. In those days in the US that was the apogee of popular recognition. He was quickly becoming famous. After the concert, there was a party for the quartet at the home of an admirer.

For much of the evening Brubeck, the late pianist Patti Bown (pictured) and I sat and talked about the section of the TIME profile that dealt with Dave’s attitude toward racial matters. Patti was a vital member of Seattle’s mixed and mostly tolerant jazz community. As we mulled over the absurdity and reality of race-based prejudice, the conversation varied between intensity, laughter and stretches of contemplative silence. This was years before the civil rights movement gained momentum. Dave recited a verse he wrote that became one of the most widely quoted parts of the TIME article.

They say I look like God,
Could God be black my God!
If both are made in the image of thee,
Could thou perchance a zebra be?

Seven years later, Louis Armstrong sang that verse in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s musical The Real Ambassadors, an extended paean to tolerance, cultural diplomacy and the power of music to unify people and nations. Brubeck, Armstrong, Carmen McRae and the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross recorded it in an album but performed it publicly only at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. It is long past time for a full-scale revival.

After Eugene Wright became the group’s bassist in 1956, the DBQ played black-owned clubs and hotel lounges in the South, bookings of a racially mixed group, all but unheard of below the Mason-Dixon line. Brubeck’s stand against discrimination became even stronger as the decade wore on. Here’s a passage from my biography accompanying the Brubeck CD collection Time Signatures.

Wright was not the first black musician in the Brubeck quartet. Wyatt “Bull” Reuther was the bassist in 1951. Drummer Frank Butler also worked briefly with Brubeck in the early days. But Gene’s advent coincided with the upswing in popularity that increased the demand for the band and put it in high visibility. As a result, there were problems that disturbed Brubeck’s sense of fairness and his passionate belief in racial justice and equality.

He cancelled an extensive and lucrative tour of the South when promoters insisted that he replace Wright with a white bassist. He refused an appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour, a Sunday evening television program of immense prestige and huge audience, when the producers insisted on shooting the quartet so that Wright could be heard but not seen. The networks were convinced that the public was incapable of accepting the sight of black and white performers together. Brubeck found the hypocrisy unsupportable.

Four of Dave’s sons—Darius, Chris, Danny and Matthew—became professional jazz artists. He took time and made donations to also help scores of aspiring musicians, not least through his support of The Brubeck Institute based at his alma mater, the University of the Pacific in California. Stories of Brubeck’s generosity abound, not because he told them but because the recipients of his thoughtfulness did. I am one of them. During the two-and-a-half years that I researched and wrote my Paul Desmond biography, Dave and Iola allowed me to spend hours with them at their house on its 20 acres in Connecticut, which Desmond long ago named the Wilton Hilton. Without their input and guidance, the book would have been impossible. When it was time for the book to come out, The Brubecks agreed to co-host the book party at Elaine’s restaurant, Paul’s cherished New York refuge. Without their involvement, publisher Malcolm Harris and I would not have had the turnout of prominent people who attended. What a night that was.

After the TIME magazine cover story and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s elevation from obscurity and near-poverty, the sniping began. They had committed the sins, unpardonable in some quarters, of popular success and solvency. It’s an old story, familiar to Cannonball Adderley, for instance, and to The Modern Jazz Quartet and, more recently, to Diana Krall; if you are in demand and making money, you sold out. Many musicians once sought or invented reasons to dismiss Brubeck’s music: it didn’t swing, it wasn’t hip; he wrote some nice tunes but he wasn’t much of a pianist; he doesn’t deserve a great player like Desmond. On the other hand, “Desmond,” a prominent tenor saxophonist once told me, “sounds like a female alcoholic.” You don’t often hear jibes about Desmond anymore, or cracks about Brubeck’s piano playing. People seem to have started listening to the music and ignoring the societal effluvia. In Brubeck’s last couple of decades the resentments based in sociology, jealousy, clannishness and envy began to fall away. Young musicians of all stripes study his music, play his tunes, revere him as someone to emulate. Dave lived long enough to see the change. It must have been gratifying to him.

In the long run, it’s his music that matters. It will have a long run.

The Dave Brubeck website has a message from his surviving children (Michael died in 2009). It also has extensive information about his career, photographs spanning decades, and Dave playing Christmas music, beginning with a bluesy “Jingle Bells.”

Since Rifftides hit the web in early 2005, it has posted more than 200 items about Brubeck or touching on him and his music. If you care to browse them, carve out some time and click here.

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  1. Anthony J. (Tony) Agostinelli says

    My Dave Brubeck story
    By Anthony J. Agostinelli

    In the spring of 1956, I was stationed at Parks Air Force Base (AFB) in Pleasanton, California (now Dublin, CA and a Federal Correctional Facility). At the time, it was an Air Force training school, and a processing facility for Air Force officers and airmen, going overseas. Because of its proximity to San Francisco and the Bay Area, the duty hours were from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm — we were free to roam San Francisco and environs.

    Lt. Peter Paul Keough, a classmate of mine from college, was being processed at Parks AFB, we met, and went to dinner at the Top of the Mark in SF, and then decided to go to the Blackhawk, as Dave Brubeck was playing. We were in our Air Force Officer’ uniforms. It was an “off” night, and few were in the club. Paul and I invited Brubeck to join us at the break, which he did. We chatted about music and jazz, and Dave expounded upon his own playing and mission in jazz. At the next break, he also joined us, and we continued our chat. Subsequently, Paul went overseas, and I returned to my duty at Parks AFB, until I finished the course of instruction.

    Before I went to my next assigned AFB in Oklahoma, I flew home in late June/early July to Rhode Island on furlough. I connected up with my musician friends, and played one or two gigs with them. One of them had box seats at the Newport Jazz Festival at Freebody Park in Newport on Friday, July 6, 1956. I was invited to attend. Dave Brubeck with his quartet was on the bill [Paul Desmond, alto sax; Norman Bates, bass; and Joe Dodge, drums]. Being down front, and in my Newport civilian garb, I was with eye range of Brubeck. I had told the story of chatting him up at the Blackhawk previously, and of course, my friends though I was throwing the “bull.” Dave would look in our direction every so often, and I would smile…

    At one point during his performance while someone was adjusting the microphones, he leaned over and said to me, aloud, “Are you following me?” My response was, “No, I live here, you’re following me!” We both laughed, he continued to enrapture us with his playing, and my musician friends were duly impressed.

    I saw him many more times at the Newport Jazz Festival, and was able to get some quotes from him when I wrote my short historical piece about the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. After our interview, he sent me an autographed copy of his LP, TIME CHANGES (Columbia CS 8927), writing: “Thanks for your Newport work.”

    He was truly one of a kind in 20th century music.

  2. says

    Bad people sometimes create great art, but you seldom sense a good soul in their work. (I could list examples, but won’t.) In fact, most great artists seem to be creeps. It seems to be something about the self-absorbtion required. But sometimes good souls create great music and one can hear it in their art. It’s all hopelessly subjective, and I can’t defend the idea at all, but I think Dave Brubeck might be a good example. It’s something about the poise, patience, and thoughtfulness in his music, characteristics that formulate the basis of kindness, fairness, and generosity. In the end though, it’s probably best that we do not burden art with considerations of what goodness is and just let it speak in whatever way it will. Art doesn’t aspire to morality; it’s morality that aspires to art.

  3. says

    Anybody familiar with a rather hard-to-find CBS record of Bru’s quartet from
    the late 50s, early 60s maybe, called Southern Scene? It seems hard to find. It’s a great record, and title tune (a Brubeck ballad of immense beauty with a Desmond solo that will make you weep, literally).

    A must -have for Bru fans….

  4. says

    In the fall of 2000, I interviewed Dave at his house in Connecticut for the United Airlines jazz show I was doing at the time. He was getting close to his 80th birthday and I asked him whether he had thought about the future. Would he, like Ellington & Armstrong go out with his boots on or like Artie Shaw, decide to retire? He took such a short time to respond that I know he had made up his mind some time ago. He said, simply:



  5. says

    Kudos to you, Doug, for this fine, and personal article.

    Most people with personal problems can’t face beauty when it suddenly appears before them, quasi out of the blue. Those critics you’re talking about, the fellows who wrote all the stupidities about Dave, Paul, Eugene, Joe and their playing, also the racists, they would go home, they would even be listening to their music; they have the problems, certainly not the musicians they’ve been trying to write down, or to ignore.

    Those guys are merely writing, and talking about and to themselves anyway.

    Dave Brubeck’s & Paul Desmond’s sounds will bless this earth forever. I strongly believe that there will be no single day in the future where at least one Dave-Brubeck-Quartet disc wouldn’t be spinning ’round on the radio, or in a dining room, or in a lover’s suite.

    Just think about that: “Take Five”, “Far More Blue”, or “The Trolley Song” at the very same time in New York, Rio De Janeiro, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, London, Sydney, Rome, Moscow, or Tokyo… not to forget Toronto ;). Oh, I forgot Africa, China, and the Middle East—Tel Aviv, Cairo, Shanghai, Rabat, and Johannesburg…. it can happen any time.

    The morons are so powerless.

    Synchronicity is the magic word. Others call it good vibrations.

  6. rick chinn says

    Thanks for such a personal tribute to one of the Giants of Jazz. I was privileged to work with DB on a few occasions (live sound engineer), and as others have noted, he was polite, generous, helpful, and appreciative. It was just the way he was. RIP Dave, Ya Done Good!

  7. mel says

    Southern Scene, together with The Riddle, was reissued on one CD on the Solar label on July 13 2010. As far as I know, this is still in print.

  8. says

    Thanks, Doug, for sharing your heatfelt tribute to Dave. I’m sure it wasn’t easy collecting your thoughts after hearing the news of his passing. It definitely took me a while. For those visitors to Rifftides who would like to hear archival interviews with Dave, and feature new stories about him… let me suggest this site.

    As fans of Dave’s music, we all love listening to his classic recordings, be they with the octet, his various quartets, solo, or with choirs and orchestras. But if you’ve never heard Dave speak, you’re missing out on one of the things that made him such an exceptional human being.

    Finally, my heart goes out to Iola Brubeck. Not only was she Dave’s wife of 70 years, but she was also his quintessential musical partner. As you know well, Doug, they were an extraordinary team. And, as you noted in your remembrance, together they rasied a wonderful family. God bless the Brubecks.

  9. Terence Smith says

    Re the tenor player who thinks Paul Desmond sounds like “a female alcoholic”: the tenorist has a right to his opinion. But he’s wrong. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: if Paul Desmond’s solos sound drunken, I wish they would find out what Paul was drinking and serve it to all the saxophone players.

  10. Peter Bergmann says

    Come to think of it:

    When I listened to “Georgia on my mind” from the Gone With The Wind album for the first time, ca. 1963/64, something happened.
    When Paul goes into the bridge of his solo, he doesn’t play—but is there. Dave lays down the chords, a moment of quiet beauty occurs, then Paul re-enters and launches this intensely reflective and blues-tinged phrase. Time stood still for a second.

    Music can do that.

    Love can, I think.

    • Terence Smith says

      Peter, music like that creates eternities in a moment of time. And they are like places you must and will return to when the spirit calls. And so many such are in the Brubeck works. Time stopped for me when I first heard Dave play “Home at Last” on the Jazz Impressions of the USA album, at the end of the first chorus, as Dave is about to go into a gentle stride. He recorded it in his home, on returning from a tour, I understand.

      I keep thinking about Brubeck albums I want to revisit the first time I am not working at home. Because Brubeck material really isn’t good background music for me. The music engages the spirit and takes over my attention. But I was thinking that later today I’d hear the first (?) two Brubeck solo piano albums: Brubeck Plays Brubeck, and Brubeck Plays and Plays and Plays. Dave reportedly just sat down and played, birthing the albums in a magical day each, in 1956 and 1957, with a third day for “The Duke” and “Two-Part Contention.” I like to hear them back to back. The first album is all sketched original material which Dave is using to surprise himself, and does so with imperishable results. The second solo album, possibly part of a release arrangement from an old Fantasy Records contract to Dave’s then-current Columbia contract, is almost all standards. But Dave makes the standards sound like personal “originals”, and it is impossible for me to have a favorite among these two magnificent albums, which were of course joined by later beloved Brubeck solo albums.

      I know Peter Bergman has heard these and will return to them as needed. Readers, if you have not heard them both, make a little time to hear them ASAP. In the words of Iola Brubeck (in her lyric for Desmond’s biggest hit): “Won’t you/ Take a little Time Out with me,/ Just Take Five/ Stop your busy day and see (you’re) alive!” And when you do, you just might find some intervals when time stands still for a moment, a moment filled with love.

  11. James Cimarusti says

    “Southern Scene” is also available on an Avid 2CD set (Three Classic Albums-Set 3) along with “In Europe” , “Dave Digs Disney”, and Side 2 of “Jazz Impressions of the USA”. (Side 1 is on the previous 2 CD set in the series) plus “Pilgrim’s Progress” which as mentioned in another post on this site.. I own all 3 sets, (though there was some duplication, for me), but most of the original liner notes are in the booklets and they all sound good (there are some unknown squeaks which appear on the “At Storyville” album on “Back Bay Blues” which are not present on the Fresh Sound release of the same album).

    • Doug Ramsey says

      All of those albums are available in recent sets reissued legitimately by Sony/Columbia, which owns the rights.

  12. Terence Smith says

    Yes, it’s next to impossible to have just one favorite Brubeck album. But every time I hear it, I have a temporary uncontested favorite: “Reunion” (1957) with tenor-saxist Dave Van Kreidt, Brubeck, Desmond, Norman Bates, and Joe Morello. It’s a reunion of the front-line of this quintet, all from “The Eight”: the Dave Brubeck Octet. All compositions are from Van Kreidt, with one Van Kreidt arrangement of a Bach Chorale. All compositions are perfections which just might stick in your mind forever, in a good way. Everybody solos, and the compositions bring out concise, perfect solos every one, short solos that say as much as whole albums. The Brubeck solo on the Bach Chorale is a little spontaneous masterpiece worthy of its setting.

    We’ve all heard the story that Paul Desmond once said to Brubeck that they were too reliant on standards and should consider hiring someone to write originals for them. And of course Dave responded by writing two numbers before midnight, one of which was “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Dave certainly didn’t need to hire anyone! But if they HAD hired someone, Dave Van Kreidt would have been the one for the job!

    One of my treasured possessions is an autographed copy of the old Fantasy Records LP of “Reunion”, with a wonderful Arnold Roth cover. As Dave dutifully signed it for me, he had a little grin. He seemed to be studying the cover and had a fond expression. I said, “It seems like Arnold Roth might be a friend of yours!” Dave said, “He sure is!”

    PS I am not going to spoil the clever Arnold Roth cover of my treasured red plastic LP by trying to describe it. Let’s just say that it is very appropriate to the musical Odyssey that awaits therein!

  13. Ken Dryden says

    A couple of notes about Dave Brubeck’s Columbia albums: The boxed set of the complete studio recordings of the quartet with Paul Desmond omits the stereo takes from Dave Digs Disney, which are only available as downloads or a CD on demand. Likewise, the bonus material from the expanded edition of Time Out (the live tracks) isn’t present.

    Russell Gloyd, Dave’s manager, told me almost a year ago that a boxed set of live quartet performances was in the works. He mentioned that there were many unissued tracks from the Concertgebouw concert.

    Dave told me on more than one occasion that he had no interest in seeing Columbia reissue Jackpot: Live in Las Vegas (due to the miserable piano) and The Last Time We Saw Paris.

    Dave also told me of an unissued album in the can with Bill Smith (playing the clarinetist’s compositions) from the 1960s that was tentatively titled Witch’s Brew. He didn’t give a reason as to why Columbia never released it.

    No word on the Columbia albums (Compadres and Blues Roots) Dave made with Gerry Mulligan, which are overdue for reissue.