In fact, if I could choose one setting in which to spend an afternoon listening to Dave's albums, it would be Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, CT [pictured]. I'd be perched on one of those spare Barcelona chairs, listening to Dave's music and watching the light shift on the landscape. Dave's piano has that effect, probably because he comes from an age when the future was brimming with bright colors, transparency and a clean line. Of course, the future turned out to be a little different. But Dave's playing still stirs in us the sound of anticipation and possibility.
In Part 2 of my four-part interview with Dave, the legendary pianist talks about a wrong turn with two near-fatal consequences in the Ardennes Forest during World War II, and returning to California in 1946 to study with Darius Milhaud:
JazzWax: Turning back to World War II, did you ever wind up at the front in northern France?
Dave Brubeck: As musicians, we’d go there all the time to play for soldiers. One day, shortly before Colonel Brown left for his new position feeding German civilians, he came up to me and said, “Take the band on a Cook’s Tour.” I had no idea at the time what he was talking about or who Cook was [laughs]. The Colonel said, “Just take a truck and get out of here. I have to send every able-bodied man to the front today.” So I took his advice. [Pictured: Dave Brubeck in Germany in1945]
JW: Where did you go?
DB: Colonel Brown didn’t tell me where to go, just to get out of the area and see if we could play for soldiers. I got all the musicians together, and we got on the truck and drove off.
JW: Which direction did you head in?
DB: The wrong one. We went right to the front, unaware that the Battle of the Bulge was about to begin. As we drove along, I saw a bunch of Americans in a clearing. We figured we’d play for them, so we pulled off the road.
JW: Were you using stock arrangements?
DB: I wish. We didn’t have anything. We had to hock cigarettes and soap for instruments. There were 18 guys in this band. We had Duke Marconi and Attilio Capra on trumpets. Duke had played lead trumpet for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. That’s one of the hardest trumpet books in the world. You had to play solidly for hours. Attilio was a great player, too. He's still with us.
JW: Did you play for the soldiers in the field?
DB: As we were unloading our instruments from the truck, a plane flew over. One of the guys in the field said, “I think that’s a German plane.” Everyone said, “But we haven’t seen an airplane from the German Air Force for about a month.” The guy said, “No, no, he’s coming back. You'd better get out of here.” By this time it was turning dark. Our driver didn’t know the area at all and didn’t have a map. So we just took off in the truck. We thought the plane would start strafing us.
JW: Where did you wind up?
DB: As we drove down a road, we wound up in traffic with other trucks. It was nightfall. As we drove along, a soldier waved us on with a hooded flashlight, which produces just enough light but can't be seen far. As we passed the soldier, I realized from a glimpse of the helmet that he was German. We had accidentally had joined a German convoy. But in the darkness, no one knew. I told the guy driving our truck, “Go over the hill with the trucks where the guy directing traffic can’t see us, turn around and head back past him as fast as possible.” So we did that.
JW: What happened?
DB: We drove wide open in the opposite direction of those tructs for a few miles.
JW: Back to safety?
DB: Almost. Along the way we were blocked by American soldiers at a checkpoint. When we stopped, they came up to the truck. One of the soldiers had a hand grenade in each hand with the pins pulled. He did this to show that if he were shot, he would take everyone nearby with him.
JW: What did he do?
DB: The soldier leaned on the side of the truck where I was and started asking me questions. No matter what I told him, he wouldn’t believe me, which I thought was strange. Then he said, “Just a few hours ago, many of my friends were killed right here by Germans in an American truck and in American uniforms speaking perfect English.”
JW: What did you think?
DB: That's when my guys in the back noticed that there were bundles of dynamite tied in the trees above us. These could be detonated with a single shot. I then realized that the guys at the checkpoint seriously believed we were Germans. The problem was I couldn’t remember the password you had to provide to prove you were really an American. Finally I remembered it and they let us through. [Pictured: Dave Brubeck after crossing the Rhine River into Germany in 1945]
JW: What was the password?
DB: I can’t remember [laughs]. But remembering it that day sure as hell saved my life and the lives of my guys. [Pictured: Dave and his wife Iola in the early 1940s]
JW: In 1946, when you were discharged, you returned to California and attended Mills College, an all-girls school. Why?
DB: Because Darius Milhaud taught there. Milhaud was an enormously gifted classical composer and teacher who loved jazz and incorporated it into his work. My older brother Howard was his assistant and had taken all of his classes. Howard composed Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Symphony Orchestra. Do you know it? You simply must listen to it. Howard was an extraordinary musician.
JW: Did you have to audition for Milhaud?
DB: No. I had visited with Milhaud before I went into the service. Milhaud at the time said, “When you come back, come study with me.”
JW: Was Milhaud [pictured] aware that you couldn’t read music?
DB: Yes. He said not to worry about it, that I’d just have to be a composer. He said, “You can’t give up jazz. It’s something you do so well. Just incorporate jazz into your compositions for school.”
JW: So you could write music?
DB: Yes, I could write, thanks to my counterpoint studies. I just couldn’t read while playing. I couldn’t spell very well, either. When I took a final exam during my first year, I feared that my teacher would make fun of me for misspelling words. So I didn’t hand in the exam’s blue essay book. When my teacher realized I had done that, she went straight to the head of the graduate school and told him the story and gave me an F. That’s when I found out you can’t have an F in graduate school. When you received an F, you were automatically removed from the school.
JW: What did you do?
DB: I told Milhaud that I couldn’t study with him anymore. He said, “Dave, I’ll teach you privately. Just don’t tell anyone, and the lessons won’t cost you anything.” That’s how I stayed with Milhaud. I was at Mills only from 1946 to 1947, after which I became a working jazz musician. But I kept studying privately with Milhaud through 1949 whenever I had the time.
JW: What did Milhaud teach you?
DB: Since I couldn’t read music, he taught me by osmosis and encouragement. He also taught me by showing me a chart of all the polytonality possibilities.
JW: Did you eventually learn how to read music?
DB: You can’t teach me. Everyone has tried, starting with my mother. I have some kind of block. I’m not alone. There are a lot of guys who have a name like mine who can’t read music [laughs].
Tomorrow, Dave talks about why he began playing on college campuses, the decision to hire drummer Joe Morello, why alto saxophonist Paul Desmond sounds so good, and the story behind The Duke—one of Dave's best loved compositions.
JazzWax tracks: Howard Brubeck's Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Symphony Orchestra can be found on Bernstein Century: Bernstein on Jazz (Sony) here. Howard Brubeck, Dave's older brother, died in 1993.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Dave Brubeck Quartet in London in 1964 playing the second movement from Howard Brubeck's Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Symphony Orchestra...