I first became aware of Dave Brubeck when I was a student at Mt. Diablo High School back in the 1950s. My English teacher, Alma Couchman, was a good friend of his mother's from when the Brubecks lived in Concord.
When Dave was at the beginning of his fame he lived in the Oakland hills for awhile. Miss Couchman was a frequent baby-sitter for the family's young sons, and she often talked to the class of the wonderful musician he was becoming.
Years later, I came back to Concord as a reporter on the old Concord (Daily) Transcript. Local visionary Carl Jefferson had started the Concord Jazz Festival at Concord Boulevard Park, an intimate venue which brought some of jazz's greatest to town, along with other wonderful musicians, including the Boston Pops.
The park is now named, however, for the hometown boy who grew up to be an international jazz icon.
It was inevitable that Brubeck be asked to come to the summer festival, and it was probably just as inevitable that he would accept the invitation to perform in the town where he was born.
I attended the wonderful concert in the summer of 1972 with my pal Harriett Burt, then a reporter on the Martinez News Gazette. Brubeck and his band seemed to be having as much fun as we had watching them. Afterward, we took the opportunity to go backstage and meet them.
Trying to control the thrill and to act professionally, I asked Brubeck if he was staying locally. He was, with his wife and one of their boys, at the Concord Inn. By any chance, I asked, would he be available for a little tour of the town to talk to me for a story on his childhood here.
He jumped at the chance to take his youngest son around to his old haunts.
Harriett had a nifty convertible that was perfect for the task. We picked up Dave and his son the next morning. (I think I can call him Dave. He was that kind of guy.)
He first pointed out the spot where the family home had been. It had been replaced by the relatively new First Presbyterian Church on Colfax Street.
The original church had been nearby and was a center of many family activities as his mother had been a pianist at services and a prominent volunteer for the church. She was so dedicated that he was disappointed there wasn't a plaque or other memorial recognizing her work.
He wanted to see the old Concord Elementary School on Willow Pass Road, long-closed and being used as a school district warehouse, but he loved standing on the steps of the recognizable front door with his son and recalling old teachers and classmates.
Many of the sites he remembered were gone and others had been given new uses. He pointed to a nearby used car business on Salvio Street which included an old corrugated building. That used to be the livery stable, he noted.
Harriett recalls he talked about saving up enough money to buy a bicycle. His parents took him to the then-county "shopping center" -- downtown Martinez -- one Saturday morning to buy the bike.
He said he proudly rode it down County Route 2 (now Pacheco Boulevard) and across the hills and fields to Todos Santos Plaza and home.
Brubeck told us he left Concord at the age of 9, moving with the family to the Stockton area, where his father managed a cattle ranch. That put him close to what was then College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific) where he built on his mother's musical lessons with renowned classical musician Darius Milhaud, who helped him develop his unique blend of classical and jazz.
Dave roamed the world as one of the greatest musical ambassadors the United States has ever had. But his parents maintained their ties to friends in Concord, including Alma Couchman. Dave told us they were buried at the old Pacheco Cemetery on Blum Road near Martinez, closed now for many years.
The morning recalling his childhood and noting the changes was a magical one, certainly for myself and Harriett, but more importantly, it seemed, for him.
He expressed grateful appreciation for the chance. And Harriett and I each got a great story out of it for our respective newspapers.
Brubeck appeared, on stage and close up, as a nice guy, one you could sit down and chat with if you got the chance. I had developed by then a hesitance in meeting famous people, especially people I admired for their professional abilities, because many of them are just the opposite in person.
But Harriett and I can verify that Dave's reputation was well-earned. He and his wife sent us thank you notes for the stories and Christmas cards for several years after that, an indication that he loved the chance to go back through that time in his life.