A Previously Unpublished Interview with Dave Brubeck

The late pianist on his sacred recordings and more

Dave Brubeck left us nearly a year ago, but the man’s music lives on through his many records. The pianist is most famous for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, featuring Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. This group recorded many albums and will be remembered by even the most casual music fan for their seminal hit, “Take Five.” Brubeck and Desmond performed and recorded together from the late 1940s until Brubeck disbanded the Quartet in December 1967. The reason for the split was to give Brubeck an opportunity to concentrate on his writings, most of which were taking the form of religious compositions.

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Dave Brubeck performing with Wynton Marsalis at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010
By Melissa Mergner
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Dave Brubeck's "Brother, The Great Spirit Made Us All" LP
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Dave Brubeck's "Truth is Fallen" LP

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Retirement from the concert stage was short-lived. Before the following year was over, Brubeck had enlisted saxophonist Gerry Mulligan to join him for some concert and studio dates. Although never as popular as the original Quartet, this collaborative effort produced both fine concert recordings (Compadres) and studio efforts (Blues Roots). Both of these Columbia albums are from 1968, a busy year that also saw Brubeck recording his “Oratorio for Today” entitled The Light in The Wilderness. This religious piece would be followed in 1969 by another orchestral work, The Gates of Justice.

As sacred and politically conscious orchestral compositions, these two albums fell outside the musical interests of most Brubeck fans. Although these releases went largely unnoticed, Brubeck continued his dual career as sacred music composer and jazz bandleader. He would steadfastly remain on this diverse musical trek for the rest of his life.

This interview focuses on the religious aspects of the music, but it should be stressed that Brubeck’s social awareness was also very keen throughout his career. In the liner notes to the 1972 album Truth is Fallen, Brubeck writes, “This music is dedicated to the slain students of Kent University and Mississippi State, and all other innocent victims caught in the cross-fire between repression and rebellion.” During our conversation, I ask Brubeck about these liner notes and about this album’s cover, an unsettling depiction of fallen and blood-stained figures by artist Elizabeth Eddy.

My opportunity to speak with Mr. Brubeck came in May of 2009. The interview had been arranged so far in advance that I worried it might be cancelled because of Brubeck’s busy schedule. Even at the age of 89, the pianist was still composing, performing, and recording. But true to his word, when I called at the appointed time Dave Brubeck soon joined me on the line.

As the telephone conversation began, I was nervous; the subject seemed impatient. The pianist had nothing to prove and certainly did not need to be talking with me. His tone was terse as I introduced myself, and his responses to my first questions were almost monosyllabic. But his answers became increasingly thorough. Soon he was even thoughtful, frequently pausing before answering some of my questions. The ellipses in the following interview do not indicate editing or omission; rather, they indicate Brubeck’s moments of reflection.

As the conversation began, I wasn’t sure Mr. Brubeck was still on the line. I tried asking my first question three different ways before he finally responded. As I say in the above introduction, it got easier:

Tom Wilmeth: Have most of the religious compositions that you perform with a jazz group started as long-form pieces? Or have you written some of these works as free-standing shorter pieces for the quartet? I know that “Forty Days” and “Sermon on the Mount,” for example, are taken from a longer work. Are most of your shorter religious jazz pieces excerpts from much longer works?

Dave Brubeck: No. But some of them.

TW: Is there a different type of mind-set that you need place yourself into when composing a religious piece – for example “Three to Get Ready” as opposed to “Forty Days”?

Dave Brubeck: Well, it’s usually the text. “Forty Days” is a wonderful text to set [Mark 1:12-13] and it’s a wonderful tune to improvise on. So, it’s the kind of thing you can do both with. “Sermon on the Mount” we’ve also used as a tune to improvise with the quartet. Gerry Mulligan loved that. It was a baritone solo; he loved to play it on his baritone sax.

TW: “Sermon on the Mount” appears on the Live in Berlin album, which you recorded with Mulligan. I notice that at the very beginning of that selection the audience applauds, indicating their familiarity with the piece. Did you find at that time [1970] that your religious material was generally being more widely accepted with European audiences? Or was it accepted on both sides of the Atlantic?

Dave Brubeck: That is very hard to know. The availability of a piece on record or CD makes it known in other countries and sometimes a piece will become something that’s played a lot, and I won’t even know that that’s happening until I go to that country and play a concert and people recognize it. Then I’ll come to the nice conclusion that somebody has played this a lot on radio or television. We just had the Mass performed outside of Paris and therefore if you played that in that part of the world some of the people would have been aware of it.

TW: Do you always keep an audience in mind? Especially for your religious pieces -- Are some of those written as almost meditations or as your personal praise to God?

Dave Brubeck: Well, that’s a hard question to answer because, for instance, when I was asked to write something for the Pope, they gave me a sentence. And it was a situation where the Pope was coming into Candlestick Park and needed nine minutes of music and they gave me this sentence, “Upon this rock I will build my church / And the jaws of hell do not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18]. So, you write according to what that statement means to you. And what it means to the church. And what it certainly would mean to a Pope.

TW: Let me shift gears a little bit, if I may. I know that you are a disciple of Duke Ellington, if I may use that word. Do you consider his first major composition –“Black, Brown, and Beige” to be a religious work of sorts? I ask because I find thematic connections between “Black, Brown, and Beige” and several of the major pieces that you have written.

Dave Brubeck: Is that with “Come Sunday”?

TW: Yes.

Dave Brubeck: I thought always from the time I heard that – I thought that was wonderful.

TW: When Ellington first performed “Black, Brown, and Beige” at Carnegie Hall in 1943, he introduces it as “a history of the Negro people.” The reason I ask you about this Ellington piece is because it seems to echo some of the social concerns that you write about in your albums The Gates of Justice [1969] and Light in the Wilderness [1968], and also in the early 1970s album Truth Has Fallen. It seems that Ellington is combining some religious and political materials, as you do in many of your major pieces. I know that your religious work really pre-dates Duke Ellington’s – even his First Sacred Concert. Were you pleased that he turned to that form in the mid-1960s?

Dave Brubeck: Good question. How did you know that? Nobody seems to know that.

TW: [laughs] Well sir, I’ve tried to do my research. That is correct, isn’t it? Your religious compositions were first?

Dave Brubeck: Yeah!! I talked to Duke about it after I heard his first sacred service – I was there, and I told him I’d been writing things using improvisation and religious texts. And so I know that he wouldn’t have influenced me a lot because I hadn’t heard any of his sacred stuff until I heard the first one.

TW: If I have the chronology correct – You wrote most of the material that would come out on Decca Records releases The Gates of Justice and The Light in the Wilderness. You wrote that work several years before it was recorded. As I say, it pre-dates what Duke Ellington was doing, but still . . . . I found the parallel paths that you and the Duke were taking very interesting, as far as themes and mindsets.

Dave Brubeck: The first thing I wrote, in a religious sense, was after my brother’s son died, at 16. I felt so emotional about what my brother was going through. And I wanted to comfort him, so I wrote my first religious piece, which was “let not your heart be troubled” [John 14:1]. He believed in God. So . . . that’s kind of how that evolved.

TW: I’m sure that was comforting to him.

Dave Brubeck: And you know I used that “let not your heart be troubled” passage in The Light in the Wilderness. But it started a few years, I would say, before the The Light composition. And I’ll tell you why it happened: This Ernie Farmer, and Marjorie, he was the president of Shawnee Press – Ernest Farmer and his wife Marjorie was maybe vice president – very high-up at Shawnee, and a wonderful musician – just one I trusted so much. So when Ernie saw “Let not your heart be troubled,” he said, “You have a lot of . . .” Well, I don’t know of he said ‘talent,’ . . . but “feeling for sacred music. Why don’t you write a whole oratorio?” So The Light in the Wilderness came out of a whole big thing. But to me it’s sacred.

One thing that I really want to stress about those works, my wife Iola has done all my texts, or most of them, if they’re not taken from the Bible. She really guided me with the text on The Light in the Wilderness to make it be what it is. And the same is true with The Gates of Justice and everything else. So I’ve really got to tell you that she’s so important in my sacred music.

TW: This might be a minor point, but why were those two albums released by Decca Records? Did you try to interest Columbia in those works at the time?

Dave Brubeck: Fortunately, Israel Horowitz of Decca was a very sympathetic person. He and The Cincinnati Symphony recorded together. And Eric Kunzel had come to my house wanting me to do his first Pops Concert, and he saw all this music on my piano and started looking through it and said, “Dave – if you finish this I want to do it with the Cincinnati Symphony.” And he was recording a lot with Decca, and I think that’s how it all happened.

The same thing happened almost at the same time while I was writing The Light in the Wilderness. And I went to . . . there was a concert I gave near The National Cathedral at a private school. There was a school there where we played, and after the concert the organist – a big tall man – came to me and said how much he enjoyed the improvisation. And he said, “Would you like to hear me improvise?” And I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know he was going to go over and open the cathedral! His name was Richard Dirksen. Fantastic composer, organist, choir director, everything.

And he sits down at the organ. So when I heard him improvise I was so thrilled because here I am alone with this giant of a man – about 6’ 6” – tearing up the organ, and the organ booming! In the Cathedral! And we’re alone! The place is dark except for this light near the keyboard. So he says, “You know, you should write some sacred music.” So I said, “Well that’s strange [laughs]; I’ve just started to write some.” And he questioned me about it, and said, “Well, bring it by tomorrow. I’d love to see it.” So – I showed it to him. And he said, “Dave, you’ve got a long way to go, but you’ve got some wonderful material to work with here. And he’d gone over the themes. He said, “When you finish it, I’ll do it here at the Cathedral.”

That was made into a great TV show, with Dirksen and members of The National Symphony and The Cathedral Choir and this fantastic baritone soloist. Have you hear of Bill Justice? Well, when Kunzel interviewed who he wanted for soloists – out of all the guys in New York City that were considered great – he picked Bill Justice as the greatest. And I’ll tell you – you can’t believe how powerful he was!

TW: Are you still actively composing and recording religious works?

Dave Brubeck: Yes. I’ve got a lot of new things coming out. The Pacific Mozart Chorale in Berkeley, California, is doing a CD of my sacred music. Things like “The Commandments,” and the credo that Mozart left out. They asked me to write that, along with three other American composers – to fill in the sections that Mozart left out! That’s a scary thing.

TW: [laughs] That’s quite an opportunity, but frightening as well.

Dave Brubeck: Very frightening.

TW: I’ll look forward to that. This question jumps back a little ways, but as I look at your two albums from the early 1970s, Truth has Fallen [1972], and then “Brother, The Great Spirit Made Us All” [1974]. Based on the albums’ art work, it seems that you went through a great change between the two releases. Truth Has Fallen has album artwork which seems very . . . pessimistic. And I know that era was a tough time for the country. But between the cover art for Truth Has Fallen and your liner notes, and the music itself -- it is a pretty unsettling affair. And then within two years, “Brother, The Great Spirit Made Us All” seems far more upbeat. Am I reading too much into this?

Dave Brubeck: I don’t know. It’s interesting what you say. [pause] What Chief Seattle says in that speech should have been taken seriously by all the most intelligent people in the United States, when he said the President in Washington sends word that we must sell him our land. If we sell you our land, will you teach your children what we have taught our children: To respect the trees, the streams, the sky, the animals.” Now THAT’s religion!

TW: That’s right out of The Book of Revelation: “Hurt not the Earth” [7:3]. Let me read you a quote from Truth Has Fallen. And again, this is from some years back, but you conclude the liner notes by saying:
“Freedom of choice is narrowing so quickly that I sometimes feel that the sane heads, trying to solve real problems in a real way, have all been pushed on to a small island in a stormy sea of violence.”
That’s 40 years ago, but how do those . . . Are we returning to a sea of violence? Have we ever emerged from this era?

Dave Brubeck: Hm. . . . Sea of violence. [long pause] You know I lived through World War II. In Europe. In Patton’s army. And that gives a young person – I was in my twenties – a different view of the world. Most people don’t realize that 60 million people were killed. Did you know that?

TW: I did not know that number; no.

Dave Brubeck: That includes the Russians; and all of Europe; and the Italians; the Europeans in general. And also in those notes [to Truth Has Fallen] it said something about, here are all these soldiers that basically – their religious beliefs goes with The Ten Commandments – “Though Shall Not Kill” being one of them. And it’s a completely puzzling thing. And what we’re going through now is that kind of disregard for basic religion and the basic religion of Catholicism, and [long pause] . . . You know Abraham . . . in the Muslim religion – “We must obey the laws of Moses,” is part of it. Can you imagine that? How strongly we are all related? Yet we’re out there killing each other. . . . So, I don’t think it’s any worse today.

TW: My father flew Corsair airplanes for the Navy in the war, and he only recently has started to talk about his experiences. I purchased Private Brubeck Remembers for him not long ago. That’s a fine CD.

Dave Brubeck: Thank you.

TW: Concerning jazz with sacred themes, do you know Wynton Marsallis’ extended religious piece called In This House, On This Morning?

Dave Brubeck: Not Yet. But what I know of Wynton – he’s very deep and very sacred.

TW: A couple of non-religious questions, if that’s OK: You were and are so associated with time signature experimentation – Can I ask what you thought about The Don Ellis Orchestra, and what Ellis would do with time signatures? I’m especially thinking of Don Ellis Live at the Fillmore and his Steam Bath album, and his use of unusual time signatures.

Dave Brubeck: He wrote to me, thanking me for opening these possibilities.

TW: He was standing on your shoulders, I believe.

Dave Brubeck: That’s what he thought.

TW: I was lucky enough to see him several times in the early 1970s.

Dave Brubeck: He had two drummers?

TW: Yes. And Ellis himself also would get onto drums for a while. It was a large orchestra. I grew-up in Des Moines, Iowa, but that band came through a couple of times and I was fortunate enough to see them.

Dave Brubeck: Yeah. Well, I thought they were great, and he was a fantastic musician.

TW: This is out of left field, but I was listening to a very early record on the Crown label. One entire side of it is a tune called “At the Perfume Counter.”

Dave Brubeck: Oh yeah! [laughs] One side of an old LP.

TW: But that tune must have had been dropped from your repertoire even by the time you started recording for Fantasy. A very early selection -- am I correct about that?

Dave Brubeck: That’s right. I think that recording is from a date at the University of California in Berkeley. It’s an old standard.

TW: Speaking of record labels – Are you satisfied with the way that Columbia is treating your back catalogue?

Dave Brubeck: Currently, yes. [pause] Now you asked why The Light in the Wilderness didn’t go on Columbia: The president of Columbia saw me at Columbia headquarters and said, “Dave! Why are you going to Decca with your new work?” I said, “Because Columbia wouldn’t take it.” He said, “This is a shame. After all the money you have made for this company, and they won’t sponsor something as important as what you’re trying to do now.” He said, “I’m really embarrassed.” He was later moved from president of Columbia Records up to president of CBS.

TW: Was that Goddard Lieberson?

Dave Brubeck: Goddard. You see, that was a surprise to him. And if there was any justice in the world, Columbia should have put it out. But I’m so thankful that Decca put it out.

TW: Yes. And it’s a good recording!

Dave Brubeck: It’s great! Israel Horowitz – engineering . . . thinking . . .

TW: I have nice clean pressings of both of those Decca releases. After your years with Columbia, when you went to Atlantic Records, I thought the album All the Things You Are was very much of a high water mark. That includes the lengthy Jimmy Van Heusen medley, and there are some sax players on that record were kind of a surprise -- Isn’t Anthony Braxton on there?

Dave Brubeck: Braxton, who has always been a champion of me. Lee Konitz, and . . .

TW: And Jack Six is still with you there.

Dave Brubeck: And the percussionist Roy Hanes, who I always identify with Chick Corea. I just saw Roy – just talked to him. He said, “Thank you, Dave, for “In Your Own Sweet Way.” And for a while I opened every one of my concerts with that.

TW: Yes – wonderful record. And that leads me back to labels – Are you pleased with the way that Fantasy is reissuing your CDs with a lot of previously unreleased bonus selections? I’m thinking of Live at Oberlin, especially.

Dave Brubeck: Well, one of my favorite albums is that live concert at Oberlin.

TW: I have that on red vinyl.

Dave Brubeck: Yeah. And I think that was Paul Desmond at his best.

TW: I’m so glad to hear you say that. It has been always one of my favorites. That entire album is just . . . smokin’ from start to finish! He’s just burning through chorus after chorus.

Dave Brubeck: Yep. And Paul loved it.

TW: I’ll let you go here in a second, but I wanted to tell you that my son is a senior in high school, and he has performed the “Sun Up” section of your Reminiscences of the Cattle Country. I was taking him to school today and I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to say to you. He said to tell Mr. Brubeck that in the “Sun Up” section, some of those finger stretches are really wide. And he has large hands!

Dave Brubeck: [laughs] Yeah, tell him that I have a pretty big stretch there, and I shouldn’t write it like that because so many people have trouble with those 11ths. You tell him that I appreciate him playing that.

TW: I saw a brief interview where President Clinton said that you gave him the original score of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Does that sound right?

Dave Brubeck: Yeah. He had it in the entrance to the Oval Office in Washington.

TW: I’ve heard him interviewed since leaving office and he clearly enjoys and knows his jazz.

Dave Brubeck: When I first met him he complimented me for “Blue Rondo.” And then he said, “You know -- I know every note of it.” And he starts singing it – and when he got to the bridge [sings: bom bom bom . . .]. He said, “Even that part.” [laughs]

TW: [laughs] I like that. Let me ask you one last question: In Duke Ellington’s autobiography Music Is My Mistress, the interviewer asks Duke, “Aside from God, what is the most important thing in your life?” And Duke Ellington rejects the premise, and says that “without God there is nothing.” Does Duke Ellington speak for you on that one?

Dave Brubeck: Well, there’s another place in the Bible – “Without Love I am nothing.” And I’ve set that to music.

TW: Very good. Well, Mr. Brubeck, I want to thank you for your time and I want to thank you so much for your music.

Dave Brubeck: I want to thank you for having so much great knowledge of both jazz and sacred music.

***

It wasn’t until my two children started to investigate my record collection that this project really took shape. As we would discuss the importance of various musicians, I began to see numerous connections between this pianist and sacred music. I then began thinking of how to contact Mr. Brubeck in hopes of speaking with him about this arguably overlooked part of his career. As such, I must thank my son and daughter Dylan and Cindy Wilmeth for indirectly leading me back not only to Dave Brubeck’s many fine albums but also for instigating the interview. I also want to thank George Moore of the Brubeck organization for arranging this May 2009 telephone interview.

After we talked, I sent Mr. Brubeck a transcript of this interview and a recording of my son performing the “Sun Up” section of his Reminiscences of the Cattle Country (1946). Brubeck wrote back, thanking my son for his interest in his music. George Moore later contacted me, saying that Dave had enjoyed the phone call.

As with most interviews, there were things I later wished had been asked and areas that could have used some clarification or expansion. Still, I was satisfied that I had not wasted the man’s afternoon and that he provided thoughtful responses to questions that he had not heard a thousand times before.

I close by stressing that, although the pianist is gone, his music plays on. It should be heard. Below is a list of starting places.

Best,

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin – former home of the Paramount Records label

***

Partial Discography of Dave Brubeck’s Sacred & Orchestral Music, and of recordings mentioned in this interview:

Jazz at Oberlin. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Fantasy Records (1953)

The Light in the Wilderness. Dave Brubeck. Decca Records (1968)

The Gates of Justice. Dave Brubeck. Decca Records (1969)

Truth is Fallen. Dave Brubeck. Atlantic Records (1972)

“Brother, the Great Spirit Made Us All.” Two Generations of Brubeck. Atlantic Records (1974)

All the Things We Are. Dave Brubeck. Atlantic Records (1976; recorded 1973-74)

The Festival of the Inn: A Christmas Choral Pageant. Dave Brubeck. CBS Masterworks (1980)

To Hope! A Celebration. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Telarc Records (1996)

Brubeck in Chattanooga. Dave Brubeck. Choral Arts Society of Chattanooga (2002)

Classical Brubeck. Dave Brubeck; London Symphony Orchestra. Telarc Records (2003)

Brubeck Meets Bach. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Sony Classical (2007)

Essential Honorable Mention:

Time Out. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Columbia Records (1959)

At Carnegie Hall. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Columbia Records (1963)

Greatest Hits. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Columbia Records (1966)

Time Signatures: A Career Retrospective. Dave Brubeck. Columbia Records (1992)

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