Many listeners who are new to jazz tend to think of Dave Brubeck as a pianist who flowered in 1959 with Time Out, the album that gave us Take Five. In truth, the promise of Dave's musical brilliance actually can be heard on recordings 13 years earlier. If you want to hear why Dave's commanding officer in World War II protected him from the front or why composer Darius Milhaud was willing to teach Dave for free, you need only listen to Dave's hair-raising octet sessions between 1946 and 1950. [Photo of Dave Brubeck in Albuquerque, NM, in 2003 by Paul Slaughter]
On those early recordings, Dave's virtuosity and command of jazz and modern classical forms are evident and astonishing. Then in 1954, Dave was on the cover of Time magazine. In 1957, his composition The Duke, was arranged by Gil Evans and recorded by Miles Davis on Miles Ahead. As you can see, by 1959 Dave had had nearly a full career as a celebrated composer, arranger and player, and his recordings from the period remain as exciting today as they were back then.In Part 3 of my four-part interview with Dave, the legendary pianist talks about the formation of his octet, why his early groups first played on college campuses, the terrible accident in Hawaii that nearly cost him his life, how the accident led to the formation of the famed quartet, and the rain storm that led to Dave's composition of The Duke:
JazzWax: Once you started playing professionally with a group, why did you target colleges for gigs?
Dave Brubeck: Initially Darius Milhaud had us play concerts for Mills College girls in 1946. We were very popular there. While I was still at Mills in 1946, my first group was an octet [pictured]. It was started in Milhaud’s class, after he asked us, “How many of you can play jazz?” He assigned eight of us who raised our hands to write a jazz piece, which we did. We had so much fun doing so that we eventually called our group Les Eight, after Milhaud’s famous classical group, Les Six.
JW: Did Les Eight perform off campus?
DB: We tried [laughs]. But we couldn’t get a job outside of Mills College. Les Eight was too far out. Eventually the group was renamed the Jazz Workshop Ensemble and then the Dave Brubeck Octet.
JW: What happened to the arrangements for Les Eight?
DB: The whole book was lost. Saxophonist Dave Van Kriedt [pictured] took it to Australia, and it was lost in a flood. All the good stuff that Bill Smith, Dave, Jack Weeks, Dick Collins and I wrote—it was all lost. We all had been studying with Milhaud.
JW: Did your personal passion for rhythmic risk-taking come from your training with Milhaud?
DB: Possibly, yeah.
JW: So who made the decision to go after the college circuit?
DB: Iola, my wife. When Iola saw how well we did with the Mills girls, she started writing to all the other colleges to have us perform. Iola's actually the one who got us going in that direction. She saw how successful the Mills concert was. When I formed the quartet in 1951, we went to the College of the Pacific a year later and played for the students there. Recordings were made of those performances. That’s where I am now, with my Brubeck Institute. [Photo of Dave and Iola Brubeck in 2006 by Hank O'Neal]
JW: Did college students at the College of the Pacific appreciate the quartet?
DB: Yes, it was equally successful as our earlier college performances but not as well attended as they had hoped. The person who reviewed the concert for the Stockton Record loved what he had heard so much that he predicted within five years the quartet would be a huge success. Five years later, I was on the cover of Time magazine [laughs].
JW: At first, you and Paul Desmond didn’t see eye to eye.
DB: Paul [pictured] had hired me to play in his group in San Francisco in the late 1940s. Then he abandoned the group and left me without a job. Being that I had two children then and was broke, that was a terrible thing he did. I told Iola never to let Paul into the clubs where I was playing. He was always trying to get into my trio. Eventually Iola had a change of heart.
JW: What happened?
DB: I had a foolish accident in Hawaii that nearly left me paralyzed. In 1951, at Waikiki Beach, I was showing my kids how to dive through an incoming wave. When I went through the wave, I hit a sandbar full force and nearly severed my spinal cord.
JW: How did you get out of the surf?
DB: People nearby brought me onto the beach. Medics came and placed me in an ambulance. On our way to the Army hospital at Tripler, I could hear them radio ahead, "It looks like a D.O.A." I couldn't move, and they must have assumed the worst.
JW: How did you regain movement?
DB: After weeks in traction, feeling started to come back into my limbs. But given the severity of the accident, I knew that when I started to play again, I'd need another solo instrumental voice in the group to help carry the load.
JW: What did you do?
DB: I wrote to Paul from my hospital bed. I told him, "I think it's time to form that quartet you've been pushing for." I urged him to find a rhythm section, which would give us the quartet. I had to write to him in traction, with my hands over my head. Paul kept that letter in his wallet all his life.
JW: Why does Desmond sound so seductive on his alto saxophone?
DB: I... I don’t know
JW: Is it because he plays so high up on the instrument? For some reason, those notes always have a vulnerable, pleading sound.
DB: Interesting. Paul could play an octave above most people, earlier than anybody I had heard. That was kind of his thing. He’d go to study with different sax teachers and they’d tell him, “You’re going to ruin your tone playing up there. You shouldn’t do it.”
JW: Did he play lower on the register?
DB: He’d go into a slump creatively on the job because he’d work so hard to avoid playing high up. I told him, “Play your usual way. That’s the way you sound the best.” So he did.
JW: There’s a magical harmony between you two in that regard on recordings.
DB: Paul always said we had ESP. I didn’t say that, but he believed it. And Iola believed we should be together when she first heard us play.
JW: Did you ever consider using a different saxophonist with a high alto sound?
DB: Once Paul got past our misunderstanding and I forgave him for what he had done to me, we got along great the rest of our lives.
JW: Was Marion McPartland upset when you hired Joe Morello in 1956 for the quartet?
DB: She laughs about it but she was upset at the time. But I didn’t hire him away. Marian had gone to England and Joe was without a job.
JW: Why did you choose bassist Eugene Wright?
DB: I had heard Gene with Cal Tjader’s group and with other groups that came to perform at San Francisco’s Blackhawk, where I was the house band for half the year. So I heard everybody. I was always impressed with Gene as a man and as a musician. He had a terrific sound.
JW: How did you come to write The Duke in 1954?
DB: The Duke I wrote after taking my son Chris to nursery school. On the way home, it was raining and I was watching the windshield wipers. The wipers were loud and sounded like a cushioned metronome [sings "boom-chung, boom chung, boom chung" to mimic the sound]. That's when I started to sing the melody that had come to mind as I listened to the beat. It fit perfectly with the bump-bump of the wipers.
JW: What kind of car was it?
DB: A Kaiser Vagabond. Back then, after the war, Kaiser, a boat company, made a great car from parts left over from scrap. The melody line just popped into my head.
JW: Did you like the version that Miles Davis recorded with Gil Evans in 1957?
DB: I loved it. They invited me to the playback session. I thought it was great. At the date, Miles introduced me to Gil, and Gil said, “Brubeck… do you have a brother named Henry?” I said, “Yeah.” Gil said, “He played drums in my first orchestra, and he was a great drummer.” Isn’t that something? My oldest brother played with Gil. In those days, there was so much coming out of Stockton, CA. Gil’s first band was out of Stockton.
JW: The Duke is pretty remarkable, and it set the tone for the quartet's sound.
DB: I was playing The Duke at a college concert once, and the head of the jazz department came up to me and said, “I love how you use a 12-note tone row in The Duke.” That's when all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used in a composition with equal significance. [Photo of Dave Brubeck in 2006 by Hank O'Neal]
JW: What did you say?
DB: I said, “I didn’t know I was using a tone row. Where did you read that?” I thought a writer or reviewer had incorrectly come up with it. He said, “I didn’t read it. Check out the bass line.” So I did, and sure enough he was right. I must have done that unconsciously. Marian McPartland [pictured] has said The Duke’s bass line is the best one ever written in jazz.
Tomorrow, Dave talks about the State Department tour of 1958, his role in the creation of Take Five and what prevented The Real Ambassadors (written by Dave and Iola) from being made into a Broadway production.
JazzWax tracks: Dave's pre-Time Out (1959) recordings are fascinating works for their ambition, lyricism and percussive quality.
If you enjoy the Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" recordings, you're going to flip over the Dave Brubeck Octet. The group's recordings between 1946 and 1950 are a must-own for their dynamic arrangements, spectacular musicianship and West Coast "Birth of the Cool" approach. You must hear the group's many jazz variations on How High the Moon during a live performance in 1948. The recordings can be found on the Dave Brubeck Octet at iTunes or here.
Dave's concerts at Oberlin College (1953 and 1954) and the College of the Pacific (1953) can be found at iTunes or here, here and here, respectively. Jazz at the College of the Pacific recordings (volumes 1 and 2) remain brilliant documents of a new form of small-group jazz.
Dave's albums for Columbia before Time Out also are tremendous. Among my favorites are Red, Hot and Cool (1954), Dave Digs Disney (1957), Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958) and Gone with the Wind (1959). Each packs enormous creative power and sensitivity.
JazzWax note: Paul Slaughter's photo of Dave Brubeck at the top of this post is available as a fine-art print. More information at Paul's site here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1954, on Jazz Goes to College, recorded at the University of Cincinnati...