Dave Brubeck, the great American jazz pianist and composer, died today in Norwalk, Connecticut–a day shy of his 92nd birthday. Many will recall Brubeck writing the standards “The Duke” and “Your Own Sweet Way” and his recordings of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and his best-known tune, the 5/4 time “Take Five” that appears on the first million-selling jazz album. What I'll always remember is my interview with him that almost didn't happen.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet was coming to what was then known as the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa for a Feb. 17, 1995, engagement. I edited The Daily Pilot arts and entertainment pages in those days, so I got to cherry pick who I would interview. Dave Brubeck's coming to town? Mine-mine-mine.
The always-helpful arts center press liaison shoehorned in a time and number for me to call Brubeck, a native Californian (Concord) living in cold Connecticut. As I discovered after punching in the numbers, it turned out to be Brubeck's home line. Wonder if it's still in my Rolodex?
Brubeck's lovely wife Iola answered and told me she would go fetch her husband. As I cradled the phone receiver under one ear and positioned my pre-written questions to a spot where I could read them next to the computer screen, I heard the usual household noises and shuffling about one knows from calls to their grandparents.
“Dave . . . Dave?” I could hear the Mrs. saying before her voice grew muffled.
More shuffling about . . . followed by silence . . . and then background noise . . . with more silence . . . and then a faint conversation between husband and wife about what's for lunch. Then my stomach growled.
This put me in a strange spot. I had an assigned time to call Mr. Brubeck and knew from experience with a younger jazz turk–Branford Marsalis–that if I missed that time by even a minute, I'd be blown off like a broken English horn reed in favor of the next-in-line ink-stained wretch from Boise.
So I waited . . . and listened . . . and waited . . . and shouted “HELLO!” . . . and waited some more.
I could hang up, but what if I called back and got a busy signal because no one hung up the damn phone?
So I . . . you know.
Finally, after what seemed like a solid 15 minutes (but could have taken five–get it?), the Man of the Hour picked up the phone and said something to his wife about why no one hung up the phone. I panicked thinking he was about to do just that.
“HELLO? MR. BRUBECK!?!” I screamed one more time.
“Hello?” he answered back quietly.
Whew . . .
We went on to have a lovely chat, so lovely that I did not feel obliged to share with Daily Pilot readers the strange way the lovely chat began.
I asked him what he was listening to currently, and he said he was so busy that sitting down to listen to anything–the way one must listen to fully grasp it–was a “major chore.” If he had his druthers, it would be Bach or Stravinsky or Bartok or Chopin or Liszt or Debussy or Ravel or Charles Ives; “you could almost list everything,” Brubeck informed.
Did he consider those masters influences?
“Everything you hear is an influence,” he answered. “Everybody who has gone before me has been influenced by what's been before them, so everybody's been influenced by what they've heard.”
His thoughts that day were as logical, stripped-down and free-flowing as his music, which brought up the question of whether he ever gets sick of playing “Take Five,” which arguably defines American jazz.
“Well, you don't play it the same,” he said. “You play it differently every night. You play the theme the same way, which is one-tenth or one-twentieth of the song, depending on the night of the performance. The rest of the time you are playing improvisation, so you never get tired of that.”
He added he never knew where that improvisation would take him, but we know: into ears all over the world.
Brubeck is survived by Iola, four sons (all musicians like their dad), a daughter, grandsons and a great granddaughter.