RIP Dave Brubeck — Take (Eighty)-Five
Dave Brubeck: December 6, 1920 – December 5, 2012. The jazz icon, world-renowned pianist and composer of jazz and classical music whose experimentation with unusual time signatures introduced millions of listeners to jazz died in Norwalk, Connecticut yesterday on the eve of his 92nd birthday. In his memory we republish an interview that first appeared in the Living Legends section of Black Diamond Living magazine in February 2005.
By Wanda Hennig
Concord, California. February 2005: Jazz icon Dave Brubeck’s 85th birthday is on December 6. As he did when he turned 70, 75 and 80, he’ll celebrate the occasion playing with the London Symphony Orchestra. Last year he played for the Queen of England and was a guest of the Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle.
One of the things he loves about his life is that “you never know what you’re going to be doing next – playing for a president, a head of state, the pope.”
Another thing he loves is that he was born in Concord (a hop and a skip east of San Francisco), California.
“It was a great place to grow up,” he says.
“The plaza was the center of the town and all of us could go there. There were places to play and a curfew at 8:30 every night. You had to leave and go straight home or you were in trouble with the constable.”
Brubeck, the youngest of three musical brothers, started playing piano at age 4. His mother, also from Concord, was a piano teacher who studied at King’s Conservatory in San Jose and then in London. The family lived on Colefax Street.
“The Ivy House was my uncle’s. It was right off Main Street. The Historical Society moved it when they wanted to build more commercial buildings downtown. Our house was demolished. It’s a shame. It was a historic place. My mother built a beautiful studio with tall ceilings and a balcony so she could do recitals.”
He went to Willow Pass Grammar School. “It’s still there but I don’t think it’s a grammar school anymore. I try to keep up with what’s going on (in Concord) but at my age, so many of the old timers are gone and even my friends I went to school with are disappearing into the new world,” he says with a chuckle.
Dave Brubeck’s father’s family moved to the Mount Diablo foothills from Pyramid Lake, above Tahoe.
“My dad worked on a big cattle ranch in Clayton, the Keller cattle ranch. The Kellers’ had a big grocery store in downtown Concord. My dad had a butcher shop with Keller and they raised cattle where the Concord Pavilion is.”
When he was born, Concord had 2,600 residents. The family lived in Concord until Brubeck was 12, then moved to a 45,000 acre cattle ranch in the Sierra foothills.
Concord Jazz Festival
When Brubeck returned to play the first Concord Jazz Festival in 1969, there was an audience of 10,000. [The festival was launched by Carl Jefferson, a car dealer and jazz enthusiast. Carl Jefferson founded Concord Records in 1973, with the Concord Jazz label. In 2004 the Concord Music Group was formed by the merger of Concord Records with Fantasy Records.]
I spoke to Dave Brubeck by phone from Concord. He was at Sanibel Island, Florida. He said he and his wife, Iola, 82, go there in winter to escape the chill of Connecticut, where they’ve lived since 1960.
Contrary to what one might expect of two octagenerians, they’re not there to relax. They’d just had breakfast while listening to the Russian National Orchestra playing Tsychovsky’s on National Public Radio.
There’s so much that has to be done
“And after breakfast we go to work. We don’t stop for one minute. As soon as we hang up (on our call), I’ll be back to work. My wife’s writing a book. There’s so much that has to be done.”
When he speaks of his musical muse, he quotes from people like Martin Luther King, Chief Seattle, Buddha and Christ. He said he’d written a new piece, The Commandments, because he felt people should be listening to them.
“You asked me why I keep working. I’m working to try and save some of the situations and I know it’s a drop in the bucket but I still work. I do my bit to try and get a few people to listen to it. There isn’t time left for the world not to try to understand each other.”
One note at a time
You get the impression his focus is on building bridges, fostering understanding, making the world a better, more ecologically friendly, peaceful place, one note at a time.
“I keep doing these things because they’re interesting and I think once in a while I reach somebody. You asked me why I keep working – I’m working to try and save some of the situations and I know it’s a drop in the bucket but I still work.”
He’s also working because, as he says, “What are you going to find to do that can equal what I can do playing? For instance, this week we will be on West Wing – just the music – but you never know what the next phone call is going to be.”
Maybe someone calling to ask him about his early days in Concord!
Meanwhile he would be at the Brubeck Festival at the Brubeck Institute April 4 – 11.
© Wanda Hennig 2012