In His Own Sweet Way: Remembering Dave Brubeck

I’ll never forget the image. A tall, lean, gray-haired man dressed in overalls, eyes aglow at 76 with a youthful wonder, hands tapping out contrasting rhythms on his stomach and thighs.

That was Dave Brubeck, at his home in Wilton, Connecticut 15 years ago, illustrating for me the sounds of horses he heard as a boy while growing up on ranches, first in Concord and then in Ione, California. At his side, giggling as he beat out those rhythms, was Iola, who Brubeck met while attending the College in the Pacific, in Stockton, and married in 1942. (“We had one date,” Brubeck told me, “and before the night was through we’d decided to marry.”)

The news of Brubeck’s death on Wednesday morning, at 91, is cause for all sorts of reflection. So permit me mine, along with some revisited material here. I was at Brubeck’s home in 1997 doing an interview for Entertainment Weekly, though much of what Brubeck said that afternoon didn’t fit into the resulting piece. (I’ve included some of that conversation below.)

Set amid the rolling hills and rustic architecture of Wilton, the bamboo fence surrounding the Brubeck estate came as visual surprise, as did the angular lines of home, inspired by both Japanese influences and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. A wall of fieldstones that had been collected from the property dominated the main living room. And as I sat with him in the fading afternoon light, Brubeck’s earliest roots were never far from sight; an oil painting over the mantle depicted the blue hills of that boyhood ranch in Concord. An eagle feather given to him by a Native American chief hung next to it. “I’m supposed to wave that,” he said, “when I go to heaven.”

Brubeck leading his quartet in 1967: saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Gene Wright and drummer Joe Morello

When he began his rise to stardom, Brubeck’s music was also unlike its surrounding landscape. It took audiences by surprise with odd meters, polytonality and chiming block chords. Brubeck was among jazz’s biggest and most congenial stars, but he achieved that through unconventional means. At Iola’s urging, he toured university campuses, anticipating a network of such presentation that is now taken for granted. By 1954, he had landed on the cover of Time magazine, only the second jazz musician to do so (Louis Armstrong was the first). His 1959 Columbia LP, “Time Out,” was jazz’s first million-seller; it’s enduring hit, “Take Five,” composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, with whom Brubeck enjoyed a rare level of communion, was set in 5/4 meter. The flipside of that single, “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” composed by Brubeck after he did a State Department tour of the Middle East and India, was set in 9/8 time. Brubeck’s image is quintessentially American: He grew up a cowboy-in-training, riding horses; served in Gen. George S. Patton‘s army in World War II; was tapped by President Eisenhower to represent Democratic values to Soviet-bloc nations; did things his own way.

He spoke to me movingly of his early awakenings regarding racial conflict in the United States: how his father once asked a black friend to open his shirt in Brubeck’s presence, revealing a chest that had once been branded; how the Wolf Pack, the band Brubeck led to entertain front-line GIs, “might have been the first integrated unit in World War II”; how, during his quartet’s legendary 1950s college-campus tours, he canceled performances in the South rather than perform without bassist Eugene Wright, who was black. (“I found out that the teachers and the presidents of the universities wanted us,” Brubeck told me, “but they were afraid of losing their government support.”)

He reflected on the influence of French composer Darius Milhaud, with whom he studied at Mills College in Oakland, on a G.I. Bill scholarship. Brubeck recalled driving Milhaud, who didn’t drive, to at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-el for the 1949 premiere of the composer’s “Service Sacre,” based on a Hebrew prayer service. Milhaud, who was among the 20th century’s most progressive classical composers, pushed a young Brubeck to “be true to your instincts” and “to sound like who you really are.”

When I brought up the large-scale religious works he began composing in the 1960s and his 1980 liturgical work “To Hope!” (which spurred Brubeck to join the Catholic Church), his eyes lit up. “There’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t some way get involved in the Bible or a religious text,” he said, “usually through music.”

Spirituality and its relation to social justice entered Brubeck’s music most clearly with the creation of “The Gates of Justice.” On assignment for, I caught up with Brubeck and his collaborators on that piece in 2004. The Brubeck Institute at the College of the Pacific was mounting a presentation, and the Naxos label had released a recording of the piece as part of the Milken Archive’s collection of American Jewish music — the original 1970 Decca recording had long been out of print. (You can find that, and much more related to Brubeck, including a great oral history by he and Iola, here.)

The cantata’s roots trace to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the mid-1960s. It was the height of the civil rights struggle, a time when tensions were growing between the black and Jewish communities, which had previously been aligned in efforts to affect social change. The people gathered around Brubeck to mount “Gates” were key to his career back then, and they remain dear to him today: his wife, Iola, the librettist for this and other Brubeck pieces; Rabbi Charles Mintz, then head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; and Michael O’Daniel, then assistant manager of the Cincinnati Symphony and, in 2004, director of the Brubeck Institute in Stockton.

In 1967, the Cincinnati Symphony premiered “Light in the Wilderness,” Brubeck’s first large-scale religious piece; the oratorio was commissioned by the city’s ecumenical council, of which Mintz was a member. Mintz picked up the story. “The morning after the premiere, I was having breakfast with the Brubecks,” he tells me over the phone from his San Mateo, Calif., home. “I turned to him and said, ‘Dave, did you ever think of doing a Jewish work? Because many of the words you put into the mouth of Jesus in ‘Light in the Wilderness’ would come at least as well from the mouth of the Hebrew prophets. He said, ‘I’d be very interested. I know something about modal music. But I don’t know the first thing about Judaism.’ And I said, ‘Well, why don’t I worry about the Judaism, and you worry about the music.'”

“When I began exploring the music,” Brubeck said, “I was thrilled to hear the similarities among Hebrew chant and spirituals and blues.”

O’Daniel told me this: “From the beginning, Dave and Iola’s vision was that the institute would represent their ideals, from both a musical standpoint and a sociological one. I remember, at a press conference not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dave got up and said, ‘We put so much hatred and conflict out into the world, and we act surprised when it comes back at us. I want to be clear that as we start off this venture, I’m not interested in just developing great young jazz musicians. I want to develop people who are going to be moral, spiritual and social leaders.”

Brubeck wondered how the piece would be received, decades later, in San Francisco. “We’ll see,” he said. “But when King said, ‘We must live together as brothers,’ people didn’t hear it. Now they damn well hear it. That’s what I’m talking about.”

Here are some excerpts from that 1997 interview with Brubeck:

Did you see yourself as a renegade when you were a young musician?

I don’t think there was any conscious effort to be different. You’re taking about 50 years ago. Really, I think geographic isolation had a lot to do with it. New York was the hothouse of course, and that was a scene in itself — everybody playing with everybody else. And I wasn’t trying to rebel against that or anything else. But I was far from there, and my influences were a little different. It just happens that way, I guess. I think growing up in Concord had something to do with it.

If I look in a typical reference book, you most likely fall under the heading “West Coast Cool.” Do you relate to that label at all?

We weren’t thinking about anything like that at all back then. We were in Stockton and in San Francisco. How in the world did we ever get that title?

What got you setting tunes in 5/4 or playing in 11?

As far as the polyrhythms are concerned a lot of that came from riding. When you’re on a ranch like that, you’re alone a lot and you’re sent for miles and miles on horseback. You either go crazy, or you start thinking. When I was riding around those hills, the sense of space and the sounds a horse’s hooves made affected me. Someone once asked me how it worked and the easiest way to explain is just for me to beat out those rhythms.

My interest in polyrhythms also comes from African music that I heard way back then. I remember an old acetate recording from the Belgian Congo — the Dennis Roosevelt Expedition, I think. After I heard that, I would tell my friends, “You ought to listen to this because, next to this, we sound like European marches.” They had no idea what I was talking about. They would get mad at me when I’d say, “Let’s get two or three rhythms going like they do in Africa.” It could still be in two or four, but it would move differently.

Did you get a lot of resistance to the kinds of things you were trying to do, rhythmically and harmonically?

Well, I got resistance from Paul [Desmond] at first. Someone once asked him, “What did you think of Dave the first time you heard him?” And he said, “I thought he was stark raving mad.” We were playing the blues, and I started playing in two keys at once, and he didn’t have any concept of what I was doing. I opened up a lot of things to him, and he really took to them all. He was able to play over odd rhythmic concepts in a way no one else could.

Did you get resistance from musicians aside from the ones you played with? Did they seem interested in what you were doing?

You see, the guys who liked me were like Kid Ory, who, for his time, was on the cutting edge. Benny Carter liked me. Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton…. It’s just the guys that didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t want to know — they played, well, their way. I started messing around and it worked, but they had all trained a certain way.

Your music through the years has influences drawn from classical music, Mexican folks tradition, Catholic masses, Hebrew chants. If I acquaint myself with your personal history, all this makes sense. So was it coincidental that jazz is where you made your mark?

Jazz is the main thing and always has been. That’s the music that drew me, and it made me so happy whenever I would play it. Some of my earliest exposure to jazz was hearing the Del Courtney Band and groups that my brother was in. Before that, I had a close friend growing up, Bob Skinner, and he had recordings of Billy Kyle, who played with Armstrong — trio records from the ’30s — and some Teddy Wilson, too. I got to hear those. The first recording I bought myself was by Fats Waller. Soon after, I began listening to Art Tatum.

Your brother, Howard, was a classical composer. And your primary teacher, Darius Milhaud, was a classical composer. Are you as at home in the classical context as with jazz musicians?

I’m at home, but I don’t know if they are at home with my music. I always go back to Stravinsky, who said, “If composers were only more aware that Bach improvised every Sunday in a church, and that Mozart could be hired to come to your home and he would take the gig.” So what’s the difference? Classical music has lost one of its greatest strengths: improvisation.

I know guys that can’t improvise. They’re almost afraid to. It shouldn’t be that way. The classical people should know more about their tradition, that improvisation was expected at certain periods. Cadenzas always meant “let the soloist improvise.” Where did we lose our way?

At a certain point in your career, your music and your image seemed to fall out of critical favor. How did that affect you?

In the late 1950s, there was one article for which the writer walked up and down the bar where guys would hang out and he asked all of them, “What do you think of the Brubeck Quartet?” A lot of them said typical things you’d say about anyone who’s working — a lot of them weren’t working. There were some critics that clearly wanted to stop me. We won a lot of polls. Then it started falling off. One guy started the ball rolling in the wrong direction.

But that didn’t stop people like Miles Davis from listening to me. Iles came up to me once and told me: “You swing; your band don’t swing.” Miles playing my tunes was really like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval at the time. He was the first guy to record my ballad, “In Your Own Sweet Way.” And then he recorded “The Duke” with Gil Evans.

How do you feel about your image now?

What I like about this period in my life is that young pianists and other musicians will come up to me all the time saying, “You’re the guy who got me interested in jazz.” I think there was a period when some people were almost afraid to come out of the closet, due to racial issues or critical comments.

How do you think the scene for emerging jazz musicians compares with your day?

I think it’s a lot tougher. If you make it, you make it big and fast. But if you don’t make it, it’s really rough. Having four sons who are professional jazz musicians, I can tell. They have to be able to do everything — arrange, teach, play every style. They can write for jazz ensembles, write for symphonies, they can score, they can play legit and play real jazz. But the real love for each of them is jazz.

Is it ironic that you once innovated something heretical in jazz, but now you represent orthodoxy?

That’s what history is all about, isn’t it?

Images: Milken Archive of Jewish Music; Wikimedia Commons

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