While many 85-year-olds are two decades into retirement, Dave Brubeck finds that there is still not enough time in the day for him to get done all the work he needs to do. “I will never have time to do what I have to do around this house,” he says from his home, office, and studio in Wilton, Connecticut. “My wife is telling me, ‘Please don’t get involved with any other project.’”
The projects Iola Brubeck is talking about are not actual home-based “honey-do” projects. They are large-scale compositions that Brubeck has been inspired to write. Some take months, some take years, and most are incomplete. “I have so much music that we never have to worry about doing things that have been done before,” says Brubeck.
That reference is both to the work Brubeck and his associated musicians have done in the form of operetta and other longer-form compositions as well as his quartet. Brubeck will be playing with his longstanding quartet (Bobby Militello on sax and flute, Randy Jones on drums, and Michael Moore on bass) at the State Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, October 20. “It’s the same as I’ve had the last 25 years, except for one new player. The “new” player is Moore, who has been with the group for about five years now.
As might be expected for a musician who has been in the public eye since the late 1940s, Brubeck thinks in the long term, and time has always been part of what makes his musical creative juices flow. No fewer than nine of his 50-plus records have titles that contain the word “time,” most notably his 1959 “Time Out,” which was jazz’s first million-selling record and contained two hits, “Take Five,” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” which went from surprising jazz hits to enduring jazz standards. As a musician, Brubeck has always had an affinity for different, radical time signatures, and he continues to make that one of the trademarks of his craft.
Brubeck, despite his commercial success, has traditionally never been a darling of the jazz intelligentsia. But he went on a run of creative success during the 1950s and 1960s that made him one of jazz’s most successful musicians by any measure.
Although he founded the Dave Brubeck Quartet with longtime collaborator and saxophonist Paul Desmond between 1957 and 1968, Brubeck, along with Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright, and drummer Joe Morello, had a juggernaut of a group that became, in the words of a New Yorker critic, “the world’s best-paid, most widely travelled, most highly publicized, and most popular small group now playing improvised syncopated music.”
Between the years of 1959 and 1965, the quartet won Down Beat magazine’s reader’s poll five times; it garnered the top spot in the Billboard reader’s poll in 1965 and ’66; and for 12 consecutive years, 1957 through ’68, Brubeck and company took the top spot in the Playboy reader’s poll. After breaking up the quartet, Brubeck played in many different ensembles, most notably with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and in several groups with his sons Chris, Dan, and Darius.
David Warren Brubeck began his musical journey in Concord, California, where he was born on December 6, 1920. His father,
Pete, was a champion cattle-wrangling cowboy and his mother, Bessie, was a piano teacher. It was under her tutelage that Brubeck and his two brothers learned the basics of classical piano. By the time he was four, however, Brubeck showed an affinity for pop and jazz, exasperating his mom but pointing him in a direction he would follow the rest of his life.
After flirting with life as a rancher — the Brubecks lived on a ranch near Ione, California, since the time Dave was 11 — he went to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He had begun studies to become a veterinarian so he could work on the ranch but music took over. In 1942 Brubeck received a degree in music from the university and met his wife, nee Iola Marie Whitlock, who was a manager at a school radio station that hosted a show on which Brubeck performed.
After graduating Brubeck expected to spend his World War II years as an Army musician. But by the winter of 1944-’45 he had been scheduled to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Before going to the front, however, Brubeck was taken from his unit after playing piano for a Red Cross show and asked to form a band. His Army jazz combo, the Wolfpack, was one of the first integrated music ensembles in the U.S. military.
In recent years Brubeck has devoted a large portion of his time, and his legacy, to the Brubeck Institute, which is located at his alma mater. Although he spends most of his time in western Connecticut, his native California continues to be a focus of Brubeck’s life. He spends a considerable amount of time at the Brubeck Institute and composes many works for arts ensembles in the Bay Area.
One of Brubeck’s most recent large-scale works was an operetta that took its libretto from John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” the literary work set in Brubeck’s native north-central valley of California. Brubeck debuted the work, the “Cannery Row Suite,” at the Monterey Jazz Festival last month.
He says that festival executive director Ken Jackson asked him to write an opera based on “Cannery Row” a couple of years ago. “I didn’t think it would be good. First of all, I didn’t think a jazz audience would want to sit through an entire opera. So I turned it down. He called me back and asked me to write a shorter piece based on three or four characters. So I agreed. I thought maybe 35 to 40 minutes was a good way to get what he wanted without having to put together a whole opera.”
In the debut last month, Brubeck, his quintet, and a group of luminaries brought the work to life. The show featured vocalists Kurt Elling as Doc and Roberta Gambarini as Dora, as well as Chris Brubeck as Mack. Brubeck has said that Steinbeck’s son told him before the preview that the author was a big fan of Brubeck’s music.
In addition to “Cannery Row Suite,” Brubeck says he is working on a work called “Words and Music,” which will be presented at the Brubeck Institute. He, his son, and his wife will work on the project. Iola Brubeck, says her husband, “has always had in her mind how to put together many of the things I have been writing. We have done that together for years.”
When Brubeck was in college, just before his graduation, his professors found out that he was playing everything they taught him by ear and that he had not at the time been able to read music. He was not going to be allowed to graduate but after a mutiny by the music faculty, he was allowed to graduate as long as he promised never to teach.
Even so, he has served as a mentor to young musicians. One of Brubeck’s projects at his institute is a summer jazz colony and instruction program. Every year, between 5 and 10 promising high school musicians attend. “They are so great,” Brubeck says. “So far every one of them has gone on to Juilliard or a similar place, or the Monk Institute. We are producing some great kids — or maybe I shouldn’t call them kids. They are so mature and talented, and they just keep going on and on, further and further, that they amaze me.”
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Friday, October 20, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick.The jazz legend presents music of all types. $30 to $60. 732-246-7469. Also, March 31, 2007, Patriots Theater, Trenton. $25 to $65. 609-984-8400.