This fascinating Dave Brubeck interview was first published May 5, 2007. We are republishing it in its original form to complement today's obituary.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck is 86 and busier, it seems, than ever. He still tours with his quartet. And performs with the London Symphony Orchestra. And composes liturgical music, including a recently finished "credo" commissioned by the Berkeley-based Pacific Mozart Ensemble for Mozart's unfinished Mass in C minor.
And the honors keep pouring in. The National Endowment for the Arts has dubbed Brubeck a "Jazz Master." This month, the San Francisco Ballet is dancing to his "Elementals" suite, which Brubeck is performing with a big band on April 15 as part of the SFJazz spring season.
And April 11-15 in Stockton, the Brubeck Festival is happening for the sixth year. Most of it takes place at the University of the Pacific, Brubeck's alma mater. It's where he has parked his archives and founded the Brubeck Institute, which has one of the most prestigious programs for advanced jazz instruction in the world.
Last week, on the phone from his home in Connecticut, Brubeck talked about growing up on ranches near Concord, where he was born; about his mother, a pianist (who graduated from the King Conservatory in San Jose), and his father, a rancher and roper; and about the documentary his friend Clint Eastwood is making about Brubeck's life.
The film is built around Brubeck's world premiere performance last September at the Monterey Jazz Festival of his "Cannery Row Suite, "a 30-minute semi-operatic theater work inspired by the John Steinbeck novel about old Monterey. When the performance ended, to a standing ovation, Brubeck and his wife of 66 years, Iola, who wrote the work's libretto, stood beaming on stage.
Q Dave, it was so touching, just watching you and Iola and seeing how happy the two of you were up there.
A Oh! It was -- I hate to say this, but it was a miracle that it came off that well. You know, if you write something for Broadway, you take it on the road, drop some tunes, put in some new tunes and rehearse. What do we do? Show up at Monterey and pray! And our prayers were answered.
Q So that's why you and Iola were smiling.
A Yeah! I've listened to it, and it's darn near about as good as you can expect.
Q Do you remember your first date with Iola?
A Sure, a dance at a fraternity house. We danced once around the floor and both of us agreed, "Let's get out of here." And we went to my old car, a '37 Chevy, and we went and parked by the levee -- and decided to get married after three hours.
She and I just agreed on what we wanted out of our lives. I had gone with other girls and never had a conversation that was so deep.
Q At the festival, you're performing a whole bunch of the songs you've written together. Which ones?
A Let's see. Iola wrote the words to "Strange Meadowlark, " and then I think I composed the music after seeing her poem. "Take Five, " I wrote the words but Iola corrected a few of them.
Q You're like Lennon and McCartney; hard to say who does what. And you have such talented kids. Your son Chris' new symphonic piece is part of the festival in Stockton.
A Oh, boy. They're all doing great things. Darius is in South Africa this week. And Matthew, the cellist, is at York University in Toronto, getting his doctorate. And Danny and Chris have a group called the Brubeck Brothers. So they're scattered pretty well.
We usually get together when we play with the London Symphony Orchestra. They got us together when I turned 70, and then 75, 80, 85.
Q Have you seen any of the early rushes from Clint Eastwood's film about you?
A I haven't seen any of it. But I'm going to be with Clint, and maybe he'll show me some of it if I'm a good boy. I'm so anxious to see it, because he had five cameras going out there on stage.
Q He'll interview you for the documentary, too, I'm sure. You're going to tell Clint some good stories?
A Ha! He'll probably tell me some.
Q You going to sing him any cowboy songs?
A How do you know about that?
Q I heard you sing one on "Fresh Air, " the radio show.
A Well you know, the guys making this film with Clint have found pictures -- I guess I was 12 years old, in the '30s, on a ranch up in Ione. Someone had a movie camera, and they're going to use some of that: my dad on horseback.
And a shot of me. I know it's me roping. My mother insisted that it only be calves and yearlings: Save those fingers! You know, my dad was a champion roper, No. 1 at the rodeo in Salinas.
Q What projects are you excited about right now?
A For one thing, the San Francisco Ballet is doing "Elemental Brubeck."
Q You wrote the music to it, "Elementals, " in the early '60s, didn't you?
A Right. But it's been rediscovered and performed in Paris, London and New York. Lar Lubovitch found the recording and decided it would make a great ballet.
Q How do you feel when you listen to the young players at the Brubeck Institute?
A I'm in awe. Every one of the kids playing in this group is just out of sight. And the kids, as they graduate, most of them have gotten real good scholarships to almost any place they want to go. The pianist last year got a full scholarship to Columbia in calculus and music.
Q Jazz has become so institutionalized. Is that good? Is anything lost?
A Well, we learned one-on-one in the old days. But if you know people like (pianist) Taylor Eigsti -- they are so advanced. I've known Taylor since he was 12. Do you know about (the pianist) Eldar? I've known him since he was 12.
You just can't compare them to the typical jazz musician. Once in a while we had an Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson. But they usually came up on their own, if you know what I mean. Now you've got the same kind of talent coming up through the universities -- North Texas State, Berklee, Indiana -- and they're so educated, and yet they have such respect for the tradition.
Like any one of the Marsalis family. They have everything going for them. So how can you compare Wynton or Branford -- who do you compare them with?
Q The Smithsonian Institution has given you the formal title of "Living Legend." How do you feel about that?
A I'm always surprised, because I don't think of myself like that. You know, there are so many other people who would be more deserving.
Q Like who?
A Well, just about anybody!
Q Maybe you can briefly describe some of your old friends and heroes. Louis Armstrong?
A Maybe one word: genius.
Q Billie Holiday?
A I toured with her; the West Coast. And she was so phenomenal as a singer, and she had such a serious cold, and it wasn't being taken care of by her manager or anybody. I felt so bad about how she was so great and not appreciated by the people that were sending her out on the road. We all respected her so much. But she had a rough life.
Q Do you listen to hip-hop?
A I don't think so, though my grandkids are always listening. But I learned from Duke Ellington; we were being interviewed, and they asked us what we thought of rock 'n' roll, and I was really kind of not a big fan of rock 'n' roll early on. But Duke's answer, I'll never forget, was, "It must be good, or the American public wouldn't go for it so much."
And I thought, "Boy, there's a smart man!"