JJ 02/61: Brubeck Re-visited

Sixty years ago Steve Voce reported a BBC interview between Dave Brubeck and Steve Race. First published in Jazz Journal February 1961


It is not very often that an interviewer and the person he is interviewing find themselves at harmony. Consequently one normally has to wade through yards of padding about our policemen being wonderful or Ted Heath being the best bandleader in the world. In the discussion that follows Steve Race proves, for my book at least, that he is the most accomplished jazz journalist we have, and I am grateful to him and Dave Brubeck for their permission to reproduce what follows – not a two part contention, but a lesson in harmony. – Steve Voce

‘I have never chosen a group because of the instrumentation – I choose it because of the people. I wouldn’t care what Paul Desmond played; it so happens he plays alto saxophone’

Race: “Now first of all, let’s talk about the quartet, yourself, Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Gene Wright. How’s he settling down in the group?”

Brubeck: “Surprisingly well. This is a thing that every leader dreads, especially a leader like myself who’s always tried to keep the same people, and considering that Norman Bates started with us in one form or another eleven years ago, it’s quite a loss not to have him there. Of course his brother was with me too for a few years while Norman was in the Air Force, so I’ve lost, as you might say, my left-hand man.”

R: “And for a bass-player, you take some following, too.”

B: “Yeah, it takes a fellow who will follow, and as for Eugene Wright, he’s a very strong bass-man in that he has a tremendous amount of drive and he swings a lot, and it’s a matter of time, learning all the arrangements and the tremendous book that we have – after all, I have 20 LPs out, so we have so many things. We can go for a week without repeating the same tune, and of course we have just worked up enough things for the concert year, and then it will gradually add on new tunes each day. But it is a handicap to have a new man – but he’s such a great man that at times already we’ve swung more than with the other two bassists.”

R: “Well now, going back to the subject of the quartet as a whole, it’s quite a striking fact that, apart from slight changes in the personnel, there’s been no basic change in a number of years. Is it just that you’ve found a successful formula and stuck to it?”

B: “No. I, from the beginning, have never chosen a group because of the instrumentation – I choose it because of the people. I wouldn’t care what Paul Desmond played; it so happens he plays alto saxophone.

“There are many ways of choosing a successful group, but I feel the only logical one is to choose it because of the thinking musical mind of the person, not because of the instrument that he plays. The octet was chosen because what was available happened to be Dick Collins on trumpet, Paul Desmond on alto, and Dave Ankrieg on tenor saxophone – it would make no difference what they played.”

R: “I see. Talking of Paul Desmond, he’s so much an integral part of the quartet that one might feel that when he leaves it will be the end of the group. Do you share that view?”

B: “I certainly think that the quartet could not possibly sound the same again, and I don’t think I would want it to. The logical thing to do would be to run out and hire Lee Konitz or some other alto saxophonist to try to continue the sound of the group. That would be the smart and commercial thing to do. I’m inclined to think that I would probably cut down to a trio or add Dick Collins, say, on trumpet, or Bill Smith on clarinet – I would add a person, not an instrument.”

R: “And that’s answered my next six questions!”

B: (apologetically) “Oh.”

R: “What would you say was Paul’s best recorded performance?”

B: “Both of us are in agreement on this question. There wasn’t a bass-man and the drummer was so sick he wasn’t heard – but it’s our best recording. And that was ‘Over the Rainbow’ – you remember that? It’s a very very old record.”

R: “I’ve always understood that your favourite recorded performance of your own was ‘These Foolish Things’ from the Oberlin concert album. Could you tell us why you find this performance so satisfactory?”

B: “Well Steve, I haven’t heard it for years now, and all that I can remember is an emotional feeling when I hear this thing that there’s some strength here and some drive and it’s certainly individual and it has the ingredients that I want to express in music. Its fault is that it doesn’t swing as hard as other things, but you can’t have everything in one record. This expresses to me strength probably more than in any other thing I’ve done.”

R: “I know you’re an admirer of the Duke – in fact one of your best-known piano solos is called ‘The Duke’. Apart from the dedication has it got anything to do with the Duke at all in the musical sense?”

B: “Very much in that the figures are very similar to Blanton and Ellington and the way they used to play on things like ‘Jack The Bear’. Some people pick that up immediately—the ‘bla-bla blap-blah doo'” (out of tune) “is very Dukish. My favourite Ellington period was ‘Warm Valley’, ‘Jumpin’ Punkins’, ‘Jack The Bear’ and ‘Conga Brava’.”

R: “Mention of the Duke reminds me of your solo album ‘Brubeck plays Brubeck’. In that album I thought there was a decided streak of romanticism, not to say sentimentality, and it almost seemed as though, when you were left to yourself, you became a complete romantic, whereas when you’re with the quartet your playing is, well, anything but romantic. How would you explain that?”

B: “I think it’s true – I agree with you. Really I think I cover a wider range emotionally than anybody else – I hate to come on that strong but maybe by spreading myself that wide I kinda spread thinly. I guess that emotionalism and thought in jazz are two ingredients that have been ignored in contemporary music, and that to express the whole man there has to be a wide range of emotion. In the course of an average evening in a night club I’m sure we give a very wide cross-section.”

R: “The impressive thing about the solo album, I thought, was its complete freedom. Do you sometimes feel yourself hampered by the presence of the bass-player? I mean without him you could change key at will or do things that an instrument with pitch could prevent you doing. Does the bass get in the way?

B: “Yeah, it does. And then there’s a point where, if everything’s going right, it helps you tremendously, so it has its good side and its bad side.”

R: “Remembering those marvellous two part choruses between yourself and Paul Desmond, I’ve often wondered if you’d like to add a third voice – experiment with three doing that simultaneous improvisation.”

B: “Well, we used to do that with the octet. We had a basis on which to improvise and a point of departure, and having a jazz background we could quite successfully improvise that way.”

R: “Yes, but not in the same way surely as you do with Paul. You listen so acutely to each other, you’re imitating each other’s phrase and so on – you can’t possibly do that when you’re trying to listen to four other parts as well?”

B: “It gets more and more complicated and the risk is far greater, but when you make it it’s more satisfying. I must say that Paul and I and Bill Smith and Dick Collins did do some very nice things in counterpoint.”

R: “Why on earth don’t you do some more octet sides?”

B: “It’s the problem of the fellows being spread out all over the world. We’re always here and there and we can’t get together. You know how it is.”

R: “I know you’ve got a great admiration for Art Tatum.  I think it would be true to say that he was one of your idols?”

B: “That would be very true.”

R: “This interests me because, while you believe in a limited technique, as you’ve often said, he seems to me to have no limitations at all, or hardly any. I suppose his performance is less freely improvised than that of almost any other jazzman you can think of and you stand for the most free of free jazz improvisation. In other words he’s almost the antithesis of everything you like most in jazz.”

‘In order to swing like Tatum and to have the technique and all the devices of Tatum you’ve got to work them out, but you rob yourself of one great thing and that is the feeling of spontaneous improvisation, the feeling of hitting at the moment something that you know that you’re not quite capable of doing’

B: “Yeah. And yet I like him the most, it is very strange. In order to swing like Tatum and to have the technique and all the devices of Tatum you’ve got to work them out, but you rob yourself of one great thing and that is the feeling of spontaneous improvisation, the feeling of hitting at the moment something that you know that you’re not quite capable of doing. This to me is real jazz creation – when the feeling of doing something that’s impossible, like the person that’s pinned under a car and the weak little man that can’t lift fifty pounds lifts up the car; this is the moment he’s going to remember all his life and he’ll know that there’s something much stronger than him himself inside him. That’s what’s so great about jazz, and when you do something that you can’t possibly ever do again, this is the reason you play jazz all your life. That’s the reason I do – for these few times, and this is a thing that Tatum never let his audience in on.”

R: “Of course there are very few people in jazz who expose themselves quite so rawly as you do.”

B: “Yeah, it takes a brave man to flop on his face in public and I’m guilty of doing this quite frequently.”

R: “When you’re playing these five, six or seven extended choruses of yours which build from the tenor register to every register simultaneously – those enormous hands of yours! – do you actually hear yourself playing, or are your thoughts busy working some distance ahead?”

B: “The few times in your life where you can’t go wrong and everything does turn out right and everything makes sense – there’s a mysticism about the whole thing. ‘Detached’ is the word.”

R: “Working as closely as you do with Paul Desmond and for so long, I’ve often wondered if you know what he’s going to play before he plays it?”

B: “About at the time, and a little ahead sometimes.”

R: “I’ve noticed your tendency to call a sudden halt to a number if you don’t like the way it’s going – ‘Le Souk’ for instance, which almost every Brubeck fan in Britain wishes had gone on longer. What was it that dissatisfied you in that?”

B: “I thought the rhythm section was getting removed from where they should be. If you notice Bob Bates’ foot, which is on the record (not mine), you’ll notice that he was getting further and further away.”

R: “They were getting excited, weren’t they?”

B: “Oh yes.”

R: “Is that bad?”

B: “No, that’s good.”

R: “In 1956 you wrote an article in Perspectives” (an American publication for so-called egg-heads) “in which you said ‘In jazz the audience is an essential participant.’ That’s a belief you’ve often repeated, and yet I haven’t heard that point of view put forward with any other art form, where the public is merely allowed to eavesdrop on a work of art. I realise that an audience is a nice thing to have around, but why is it essential?”

B: “To me the audience is like the fifth instrument in the quartet and until you can make them into a unity, they become one in mind so that you have something to play to and to use, it’s almost impossible for me to start getting an emotional idea across. For instance, I can be shattered by looking down in the front row at someone that’s apparently bored. I want to go home, and there might be a thousand people there enjoying themselves, but this one is a misfit. He’s stopped me.”

R: “Yes, but this is my point isn’t it? I’m saying why bother to have an audience?”

B: “One thing I love is to be sealed off in a room and play by myself – that’s great. But as long as you’re going to have one person, or a hundred, or a thousand, you hope there is a oneness in the audience that you can play to and they’ll go along in a certain direction or push you in a certain direction. You feel that you’re giving something to these people that’ll take them out of themselves. I love for somebody to take me away from the reality of life for a while, and this is what an audience wants, to be transported from the reality of their own lives.”

R: “This is the social function of music isn’t it, as opposed to the merely aesthetic function?

“Last year you told a critic that you were working on a string quartet. How’s it coming along?”

B: “Ha! That string quartet was started in 1947, and the first movement was finished shortly afterwards. In 1950 I finished part of the second movement, and I forget what time I picked it up again. But this is true of most of my compositions. I’m completely consumed in writing originals for the quartet, and my wife and I are writing lyrics for most of the things. ‘The Duke’ has a lyric, and ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ and ‘One Moment Worth Years’. I’ve just written one for Ella Fitzgerald called ‘My One Bad Habit is Falling In Love.’ On our last tour we were sitting together on the bus and we were discussing her life and she said she had no bad habits but her one bad habit of falling in love and I said that is a tune title and proceeded to write this tune.”

R: “But, with regard to the string quartet, if I may drag you back to it, why strings?”

B: “Well I started on the ’cello quite young – I’m not proud of it, I was terrible. I started on a three-quarter sized ’cello when I was eight or nine years old and fought with my mother and elder brothers every time I picked the thing up. We had one brother that played violin very well, that was Henry; then Howard played string bass for this quartet, my mother played piano and I was forced to play ’cello, and the sessions usually ended up with everybody rapping me with violin bows and everything else, so I began to hate the instrument, because they were all much older than I. I couldn’t carry on with the ’cello part, but I still remember some of the technique of writing for strings.”

R: “Do you feel you might one day experiment with a different tone colour? I have a feeling that tone colours don’t interest you.”

B: “They don’t. There again, it’s the man playing the instrument that I’m interested in and like I say I wouldn’t care what instrument Paul Desmond plays, it’s the way he plays and the way he thinks harmonically and melodically.”

R: “Big question now, what would you like to be doing in ten years’ time?”

B: “In ten years time I would like to be doing everything in jazz that I’m doing now except travelling. This is what’s going to keep me from going on as a jazz musician, and one good thing about this trip to Europe, I’m usually depressed the minute I leave San Francisco or California, but having my wife and two of the children has helped a lot. Of course I miss the other three children.

“If life were only in reverse, that you could raise your children and be at home with them where you belong and try to give them a good life and then go out and play. I can’t understand why jazz musicians burn themselves out so early and I would like to be a jazz musician that can play when I’m quite a bit older. After the children are raised would be a wonderful time to start all this touring. I feel that I wouldn’t be here unless the State Department had asked me to go, and they asked me quite strongly, and brought home the point that jazz can do a lot of good in the world. Whether my kind of jazz is going to do some good remains to be seen, but I know that jazz can do a tremendous amount of good all over the world.”