Episode 4: Brubeck sons on their legendary father

This bonus episode features my interview with two of Dave Brubeck’s sons, Dan and Chris Brubeck.  Excellent musicians in their own right, the two shared intimate memories of growing up with their father and his legendary contributions to modern jazz.

The Brubeck Brothers

Chris Brubeck:  We’re sitting about 10 miles away from the house where we grew up.  My dad used to work in San Francisco and come home and he’d go to bed. And then my mom would say like, you gotta be quiet. Your poor dad didn’t go to bed till three or four in the morning. So part of the technique of keeping us quiet was that we had these little cheap record players almost in every room, including the room that was adjacent to my dad’s room.  We had these Disney records. Tunes like Someday My Prince Will Come, Alice in Wonderland. So my dad’s asleep and yet probably subconsciously he’s hearing [hums melody of Someday My Prince Will Come].  After a while he comes up with this idea, he says, you know, those actually are really good tunes, even though they’re from cartoons.  Then he started playing Someday My Prince Will Come.  Miles Davis walks into a club in San Francisco and hears my dad play.  Then his next record, Miles’ record is called Someday My Prince Will Come.  So you’re staring at two of the brats that accidentally had something to do with those songs becoming jazz standards. Just trying to be quiet. 

Chris Brubeck:  I’m Chris Brubeck, and I play in the Brubeck Brothers quartet. I play electric fretless bass, and sometimes bass trombone. 

Dan Brubeck:  And I’m Dan Brubeck. And I’m a drummer with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet.  Up here in Oakland it was just an open room with piano in it and whatnot.

Chris Brubeck:  A kitchen and a big dining room table. And this redwood pocket door that opened up to this studio was big enough for a grand piano and for drums to set up and, you know, just a beautiful space with big bay windows.  And from those windows, you could literally see the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay bridge, and the Richmond bridge.  As little kids it was really fun to go to camp outside and look at the twinkling lights and you know, it was very magical as a little kid also, if I wasn’t thinking about music, I was thinking about like Willie Mays is down there somewhere playing baseball, you know, he was my hero.

I know for me, one of my favorite things to do in the world, I’d like to hear the group we rehearse I’d crawl under the piano, And there, I couldn’t be in anyone’s way, knowing what step on me. And I got to hear all the low overtones of the piano and it got to you the bass and the bass drum really well. That, to me, it was like heaven, just lying down and listening. 

Dan Brubeck:  Where I slept, there was probably 10 feet from a door where my dad would practice and he’d often practice at night or be writing composing at night.  So I don’t think there were too many nights where I didn’t fall asleep when he was home to him practicing and composing.  It there’s always, I was always hearing music.  But I was lucky too, because he had at his rehearsals Morello, who is an incredible drummer, but of course we didn’t know they were incredible drummers.  We just heard all these guys and there, you know, it’s Uncle Paul, Uncle Joe, you know, So for us, it was just like these guys that were friends of my dad’s that played. 

Chris Brubeck:  Paul was like a visiting member of the octet. 

Dan Brubeck:  He didn’t study with Darius Milhaud, but he got called in to play in my dad’s octet, which was the first group that he started.  Mostly people that were studying with Darius Milhaud. 

Chris Brubeck:  Milhaud was open-minded and loved American jazz so much that he said here’s a counterpoint exercise and old school would be, it would be, you know, Bach Prelude #2,, analyze it. He would say the chord changes for that popular jazz tune How High The Moon are very Bach-like when you think about it, create an arrangement using counterpoint to that tune. That was like, what a hip professor. And so those kinds of class exercises based on who played what in that class was the foundation of the group the octet. 

Dan Brubeck:  Paul Desmond. He said he heard my dad playing. He said, well, there was this crazy Indian guy playing piano. And he was in like three keys at the same time.  I didn’t know where to start. You know how to play with him. Then he started hearing where he was coming from. And then, you know, he got interested in a whole Darius Milhaud approach. And then he saw, okay, he’s, you know, he’s got this concept that he’s working on.

Chris Brubeck:  Polytonality at a jam session in the late forties was not something you were going to stumble across every day.

It was originally Paul that heard Joe Morello playing with Marian McPartland and said, I’ve heard this drummer. He’s great. So Paul recommended Joe. Dave talked to Marian McPartland she said, okay, you know, this could work out. Dave talked to Joe and Joe said, I’ll only leave if you guarantee me that you’re going to give me a drum solo every night.  Cause he never got drum solos with Marian. And when Paul heard Joe played, he only played with brushes and you know, he’s got a great touch and he’d be great. But Paul really had no idea what Joe unleashed would be like. And so they did some concerts together and he got the promise solo. Paul went, wait a minute!  I’m supposed to be the guy that’s really featured. People went nuts. I wasn’t signing up to suddenly have a Buddy Rich in the  group. So in fact, their very first recording session, it was like high noon or something. Paul said, I’m not going to this recording session. If you have Joe Morello on the drums, that’s how much I don’t want this guy in the group.  And Dave said, well, I’m sorry to end the relationship this way Paul, but I think that this is the perfect guy for our group and you can’t see it yet. So we’re going to do the session without you. And I think they did one session without him. And then Paul blinked first, and then he came to the next one.  Then it’s music history. 

Joe Morello and Marian McPartland

Dan Brubeck:  Gene came along later.

Chris Brubeck:  There was one family, the Bates brothers. There were three bass playing brothers that lived in San Francisco. So all of the musicians knew if you needed a bass player, just call the Bates house, you know, in the old days of telephone, one phone number, no cell phones.  Yeah.  You’d say, is Norm available or is Bob or Phil.   Norman Bates and Paul were in love with the same woman, a glorious, beautiful woman. And she liked them both. And she said, You know, fellas I’ll make a choice based on which one of you will quit Dave’s band.  And Norman was willing to, and they ended up getting married. And Paul kept on going in his bachelor ways and staying in Dave’s group.  When Gene came into the group, part of that was that Norman had left to be with his new wife and they needed a new bass player. They knew he was great rock solid, you know, at that point, It was really important, like the personality.  Does he have the personality that is going to fit with Joe and Paul.

Dan Brubeck:  There were some personalities there, for sure.

Chris Brubeck:  And by the way, I don’t mean to imply that that Joe and Paul like hated each other or anything because after a while, Paul just couldn’t avoid some kind of grudging respect for the guy that, dammit took all these drums solos, was winning all the poles in Downbeat magazine for being the best drummer. If it wasn’t Buddy Rich, it was Joe.  Gene was such a role player.

He let everyone do their thing and he just held the fort. Could Gene be steady and handle going on the road? He was African-American.  There were tours in the South and some places they would go to play, they would say, wait a minute, we didn’t know that you had a black bass player. We don’t allow Negroes on stage with white guys at the University of Georgia.  In a way it’s kind of parallel to sort of like movies about Jackie Robinson, being the cat to deal all this stuff and be cool under pressure.  And Gene could do that. He had just had a heart of gold loving guy. 

Dan Brubeck:  When my dad would lose it with people like that, you know, saying, well either he plays or we go, or whenever, which he did, he never played if they wouldn’t allow Gene to play, but Gene would calm my dad down because he was used to it. He had gone through it as whole life.  And I think in general, he was a real calming element in the band. And because he was kind of this ego-less bass player type guy, You know, he got along perfectly well with everyone on an individual basis and kind of bridged everyone together all the time.  

Chris Brubeck:  It was turning down something that would have had an enormous economic impact on our family.  At that point, having five kids, that’s a lot of mouths to feed and all that reality. I remember one of those stories that came out of there is that Dave’s manager saying something like, you know, Dave, you had white bass players for years. Why don’t you just get that other bass player back? So you don’t lose these 30 gigs.  And my dad said to the famous manager who also managed Louis Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson. A tough guy named Joe Glaser. He said, well, Joe, how would you feel if they said you can do this tour, but you got to get rid of your Jewish manager. And that sort of says it all.

My father’s biggest heroes that he ever knew personally in music and were Duke Ellington and Darius Milhaud. Oh, it was actually Darius Milhaud that instilled in my father this philosophy is that when you visit other countries really keep your ears open. And that is the key of stretching your mind and the possibility of you creating something new and bringing it into your art for him.

Dan Brubeck:  Everywhere my dad went, he would listen to the street music or whatever people were doing in schools and tried to take it all in. And I think that was the important element of the State Department tours in terms of how it affected my dad. He then use those influences and brought it into jazz.  Blue Rhondo. That’s a tune that’s at nine eighths.  So it’s an odd time signature. And he heard a street musician playing, like drums on the corner somewhere and listened for a while and analyzed it figured out that it was in 9/8 and different patterns. So he listened long enough to understand how it all was coming together.  In that tune too he also had the blues, obviously that’s like the most American form of jazz.  He collected all those things and it was maybe some of the first fusion music or world music, you know, you can put it that way. 

Chris Brubeck:  The pinnacle, the zenith for us all culturally, politically in every kind of way was when Dave finally got the Kennedy Center Honors. For Dave, who probably had performed for just about every president, you don’t get the Kennedy Center Award posthumously. So we thought like, How old does Dave have to get to have this happen? But it was so beautiful that it happened when Obama was president. It was worth waiting for.

Chris Brubeck:  Obama, as our president stood for all the advances in our society that we hoped would happen when they were big into their civil rights efforts.  The known band was Christian McBride on bass, Miguel Zenon on sax, Bill Charlap on piano, Bill Stewart on drums, and Jon Faddis on trumpet. So that’s great. And they played Un-square Dance.  Then, Herbie Hancock who had already narrated the film.  He came out and he jammed on Take Five with those guys.  Now, the other thing that’s enormously meaningful to our family is Dave right away said because the artists being honored never play. He said, I want my sons to play. And the director said, no, much to Dave’s disappointment.  Through the whole thing he is going, I’m so bummed out that, you know, you guys aren’t playing because that’s, what’s really unique to me that somehow we did it as a family, you know, played together too.  But secretly the director’s favorite thing is alway to have these gotcha moments that he can capture on camera.  So secretly we were supposed to play and Dan for example, Dave had no idea that Dan was with his family in Washington and Matthew, our youngest brother was also… they were secreted away in different hotels. He knew that Darius who had flown in from Africa was there and that I was there and we kept saying, well, we’re going to, uh, like NEA grant meetings and stuff, which was going on in my life at that time, we were basically lying through our teeth because we were having these rehearsals backstage. So he really didn’t know until the announcer says, Oh gentlemen, the sons of Dave Brubeck….This piece of scenery goes away. And there we were playing Blue Rondo Alla Turk together. And it’s a famous moment because the director caught my dad who you can clearly see mouthing going, Son of a bitch! You know, he was like, and the director still considers it like the crowning glory of any celebrity honoree being caught at that thing. So it was great, but then we all watched it at my house when it was really broadcast.  And so we get to that part of the show and we saw that the four minute version of Un-Square Dance with all those great jazz musicians had been cut down to a 53 second version. Then they had a version of Take Five, which also included the US Army Jazz Band.

Dan Brubeck: I don’t know that anyone caught that significance of that, but the US Army Jazz Band now is an integrated group, but my dad, World War II was in Patton’s army and he was on the front. He put together the first integrated band. And so that’s what that US Army band was trained to represent. But, you know, because they do everything really fast and it wasn’t really explained, it was very inside.  You’d have to know that he was considered the first person to have an integrated army band. 

Chris Brubeck: It was cool. And we’re watching that and it was a great arrangement and they were singing like, wow, wait till we Herbie Hancock played his ass off and then we’re going, Oh my God, they cut Herbie Hancock out of Take Five.  And we’re going like, We’re toast. They’re never going to show us now. And son of a gun, they kept us, some director made that decision because we thought if you’re cutting out Herbie Hancock, we’re out of there. 

Dan Brubeck: And that was my dad’s birthday too. That was the other part of it. 

Chris Brubeck: It literally was his birthday.

Dan Brubeck: So somehow in the middle of Blue Rondo, we managed to sneak in Happy Birthday. 

Chris Brubeck:  A polytonal version, which is, yeah, it was just, it was just so cool. He was so happy.  And then great things happened that of course you never see, like, what about your favorite was like, we had to…they slathered on makeup for all of us, all this stuff was disgusting and we’d go up after the performance we’re back there and the secret service came up and they said, there’s an intermission and Obama wants to meet you guys. So you got to come down, but you got to leave like right now. So we’re like, Oh, and you know, trying to get the stuff off my face and then you have to go through security. Like you’re going through, even though we’d been through it and we never left the building just to get backstage again, you had to go through all the security things. So they were honoring Mel Brooks too at the same time. So we’re standing there in line to meet him backstage with Michelle. And I’m standing next to this lady that has these Wagnerian pigtails and hubcaps and stuff.  Cause she was in a beer garden costume for Springtime for Hitler. I’m sitting next to these very happy, proud and gay brown shirted stormtroopers that were really Broadway dancers like, Oh my God, we’re going to meet him right now. And Herbie Hancock, right? It was like such a mixture.

Dan Brubeck: We were going, Oh man.  If anyone from the Republican party sees him shaking hands with all these people, he’s done toast.

Chris Brubeck:  But this is really cool in terms of the full circleness of it is when I did get a chance to shake his hand. I said, Well, it’s good to see you again. And the reference to that was, in his book called Dreams of My Father, most people know that Barack Obama hardly knew his father.  His father in an effort to do something cool with his son to help them bond, took them to the Honolulu Symphony to see Dave Brubeck and his sons played with the Honolulu symphony. And he writes about in his book.

ARCHIVAL OBAMA:  And I know personally how powerful his performances can be.  I mentioned this to Dave backstage. In the few weeks that I spent with my father as a child, he came to visit me for about a month when I was young. One of the things he did was to take me to my first jazz concert in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1971. And it was Dave Brubeck concert. And I’ve been a jazz fan ever since.  The world that he opened up for a 10 year old boy was spectacular.  And Dave for the joy that you’ve given millions of jazz lovers like me.

Chris Brubeck:  After the gig, there was a big sort of cast party.  When we walk in, we see Sting’s wife is sitting on the couch next to him. Sting is literally kind of on one knee talking to Dave, Bruce Springsteen is behind him.  They were all having this chat. You know, you’re finding how much his music meant to those guys. Oh, it was so funny on the way out of there I said, Dad, that was really cool. And he says, is this Bruce Springstein a big deal?

Dan Brubeck:  What was that guy’s name? Stang or whatever?

Chris Brubeck:  This tune, Thank You. Or Dziekuje.  The story behind that…Dave was on that ’58 tour. And he went to a Chopin Museum that used to be Chopin’s house and Dave’s mother, our grandmother Bessie played Chopin all the time on the piano. And my dad grew up hearing that. So when he saw Chopin’s piano in his house, it really was very meaningful to him personally.  Then he went to play the concert that night and that melody was still burning in his brain so strong. He’s the kind of ear player who would have the moxie to just play it at the concert. He also met with someone who came backstage and said, Hey, we just want you to understand that you’re going to get a very tepid response tonight from the audience.  But that’s because if we really show how much we love your music, which we’ve heard on the Voice of America and I applaud very enthusiastically, the communist police and soldiers that are in the audience will stop the concert just to further punish us because they don’t want us to be happy. They’ll take it away from us.  So tell the guys in the group that we love it. And so they played this tune Thank you you for the first time. And it’s been a big part of our musical lives to know this tune. And then Dan and I played in Poland with Darius and there were people in their nineties in wheelchairs that came up to us and said, We were in the audience the day your dad played this tune for the first time. It was so meaningful for them, their tears streaming down their eyes when they talked about it. Dave had that amazing skill where he can write something that somehow can seem pretty simple or sometimes complicated, but the most important thing that it just resonates with audiences.  And for Dan and I who have been playing with him for probably 50 or 60 years, it’s just great that he’s part of our music and we’re an extension of his music and we’ve all done this together.  People say, well, how can you make music? You know, when you’re living in his shadow.  At this point, I think we’ve done so much together that we’re all part of the legacy of what he did.