Born in Concord, CA, Dave began taking piano lessons from his mother at age 4, studied cello at age 9 and played piano in local bands at age 13. He led a 12-piece band while studying at College of the Pacific in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After graduation in 1942, he joined the Army. Upon his return from Europe after World War II, Dave studied with composer Darius Milhaud [pictured] starting in January 1946, forming a group with Milhaud students Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader. Dave soon formed a working trio with Tjader and Ron Crotty, starting his famed quartet with Desmond in 1951. The quartet recorded and toured steadily throughout the 1950s, finishing the decade with a massive hit album, Time Out. The quartet remained together until 1967. Dave has recorded and performed steadily over the years, and late last year was celebrated nationally as a Kennedy Center Honoree.
In Part 1 of my four-part interview with Dave, 89, the piano legend talks about his early days at the College of the Pacific and his harrowing days during World War II at the Battle of the Bulge:
JazzWax: Is it true that you could not read music while attending music school at the College of the Pacific?
Dave Brubeck: Absolutely. I couldn’t read music while I was there.
JW: Were you afraid that your secret would become known?
DB: Yes, I felt that I was hiding all the time. When the dean of the school wouldn’t let me graduate, the two best teachers came to my rescue. The counterpoint teacher said to the dean, “You’re making a mistake. He’s written the best counterpoint I ever heard from a student.” My harmony and ear training teacher said, “Dave is way advanced harmonically.”
JW: What happened?
DB: The dean called me into his office and said, “I'll let you graduate with the class if you promise never to teach” [laughs]. I kept that promise ever since, even when I was starving [laughs].
JW: How did you manage to steer clear of detection?
DB: I skipped taking piano until my fourth year. At the College of the Pacific, you had to be proficient on a string instrument and a reed instrument to graduate. When you’re playing an instrument that’s new to you, you only have to play scales and exercises, and I could read those. I knew that if I took piano, however, they’d figure out I couldn’t read music.
JW: How did you get accepted by the school in the first place?
DB: I don’t know. For some reason, they didn’t audition me. See, I excelled in ear training, and my teacher in that subject liked me a lot. He followed my career, right up until the time of his death. His name was J. Russell Bodley.
JW: He must have felt great knowing that he had pushed to let you graduate.
DB: Oh, man, did he ever. We remained friends throughout his life. He got cancer in his 70s. The last time I saw him he came to hear the premiere of a piece I performed at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento. Being in Stockton, CA, he just drove up there and liked it very much. He was beaming. That made me very happy.
JW: You enlisted in the Army in 1942. Were you placed in an Army band?
DB: Yes. Ernie Farmer, my closest friend from the College of the Pacific was a member of the Army band at a base near Los Angeles. That's why I enlisted, believe it or not. When I arrived at boot camp, there were four complete Army bands at the two camps where we trained: Camp Haan near Riverside and Camp Irwin, which was out in the Mojave Desert 40 miles south of Barstow toward Death Valley. [Photo: Dave Brubeck, right, courtesy of University of the Pacific]
JW: How did that work?
DB: You stayed three months in the desert at Irwin and then three months at Haan. When D-Day was imminent, the Army needed to send men over to Europe. They broke up three of the bands and kept one. My band was broken up, and I was sent to the infantry.
JW: That must have been frightening for someone who had signed on to play piano.
DB: Yeah. We weren’t really trained for fighting, being band musicians. We had just played on the base and hadn’t had basic training yet. I took it quickly in Texas.
JW: When did you arrive in France?
DB: Ninety days after D-Day, which would have been early September 1944. I went over in a big troop ship called the George Washington [pictured], a converted ocean liner. We were in a convoy, and the captain of the ship got bored with it. The captain had to maneuver the ship the way the Navy told him to. So he cut out on his own, away from the protection of the convoy. He had figured out that the German subs, which were very active out there, couldn't get a bead on you if you zig-zagged for a certain number of seconds one way and then the other. We were out there hoping the captain was right.
JW: Was he?
DB: Fortunately he was [laughs]. I slept on the open deck every night going across. We had to go inside when the sun came up. The ship was a silhouette easily seen by subs. The sailors didn’t mind if we slept on the deck at night so long as we went inside and down a deck in the morning.
JW: What happened in Europe?
DB: The ship docked in Liverpool, England. We were loaded onto a train and sent to Southhampton. There, we boarded a smaller ship, which took us to Omaha Beach in France. There were no formal ports built yet for troop ships. Once on shore, we boarded a train, in cattle cars, and traveled north to Verdun, to a place called the Mud Hole. Soon after I arrived, I was sitting in the mud on my steel helmet so I wouldn’t get dirty when girls with the Red Cross drove up in a truck. The truck’s back opened up into a little stage and a piano was in there. They called out asking if anyone could play the piano because they wanted to sing. [Photo Dave Brubeck in 1942]
JW: What happened?
DB: No one raised their hand so I finally did. I played for them. The next day I was in a lineup to go into battle. Three names were called, two guys who had been in the Camp Haan band and me. We were all musicians.
JW: Were you in trouble?
DB: Actually the opposite. Colonel Brown, the head of the outfit, which was called the 17th Replacement Depot, had heard me play the day before and liked me. He said about me, "I never want that soldier to go to the front." He hid my records so nobody would know where I was, including my wife. She later received a letter saying, “Where is your husband. We lost track of him.” That scared her, but one of my letters had gotten through to one of mother’s best friends, so they knew I was alive. [Photo: General George S. Patton, commander of the Third Army in northern France in 1944]
JW: What happened next?
DB: Colonel Brown wanted me to put together a band. He said to form it from musicians who came back from the front with injuries not severe enough to send them to a hospital way behind the lines. We were the real frontline band. I told my guys, “Wear your Purple Hearts and you can play for frontline guys. They won’t reject you, like they do USO entertainers.” There were times when battles were so tough that entertainers who just came in to perform and left afterward weren’t fully welcomed. [Pictured: An M-36 Tank Destroyer in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge]
JW: So you avoided being sent to the Battle of Bulge's front lines by Colonel Brown?
DB: That’s right. Our band was absolutely protected by him. Colonel Brown eventually was reassigned and put in charge of feeding German civilians as the Allies took German territory. He could speak German. He had been in World War I and had fed the Germans after that war. He had experience doing it. But before he left he let it be known that I was never to be sent to the front. [Photo: An M-36 Tank Destroyer crossing a field in Luxembourg]
Tomorrow, Dave talks about accidentally winding up at the front, narrowly escaping death and returning home in 1946 to resume his studies with Darius Milhaud.
JazzWax tracks: In 2004, Dave Brubeck recorded Private Brubeck Remembers (Telarc) a heartfelt solo piano album that pays tribute to the songs of his war years. It's a gorgeous album, and you can almost hear Dave reminiscing out loud as he plays these touching songs. You'll find the album at iTunes or on CD here.
A special JazzWax thanks to Iola Brubeck and Hank O'Neal.