March 2013

George Wein Remembers Dave Brubeck

Dec. 6, 1920-Dec. 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck was my friend, but our friendship transcended the normal relationship between an artist and a promoter. This was because of Dave and his wife, Iola, and their feelings of love and respect that enveloped my wife, Joyce, and all of my staff at Festival Productions, Inc., and the Newport Jazz Festival who had the privilege of working with Dave. Dave and Iola personified elegance and grace.

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Melissa Mergner

Dave Brubeck performing with Wynton Marsalis at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010

You see, Dave had respect for his family, respect for his friends, respect for the people he worked for and who worked for him, respect for his musicians and, above all, respect for the public who loved his music.

When Dave came to Storyville, my jazz club in Boston, in 1952 or ’53, no one knew who he was. The few people there on opening night must have been amazed at hearing the piano played by a jazz musician the likes of whom they’d never heard before or since. In those early days Dave and Paul Desmond looked disconcertingly alike. They had the same medium height and slender build; they wore similar suits and identical horn-rimmed glasses. For the first few nights in the club, I couldn’t tell them apart. By the end of the week I usually knew with whom I was talking.

When the group started to play, their sound created a musical alchemy that everyone could feel. Dave’s style and time were a little different; he had a dynamic sensitivity and a unique touch at the keyboard. The Dave Brubeck Quartet may have debuted at Storyville to small audiences, but word quickly got around. After three or four nights into the engagement, the club was filled. This was the beginning of an association and friendship that lasted more than 60 years.

Dave had a wry sense of humor that surfaced often. At the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, I organized an all-star big band for Benny Goodman. This was a very important occasion. Benny, a star of stars, was a perfectionist, and while he was respected by the musicians who worked for him, he wasn’t particularly well liked. During a pre-festival rehearsal, the lead trumpet of Billy Butterfield, a Goodman band alumnus from the early ’40s, was impeccable. “Let’s Dance,” Benny’s theme, brought all who were fortunate enough to witness that run-through back to the heyday of the swing era. Unfortunately, between the rehearsal and the performance, Billy got so drunk that by the time he took the stage he could barely play a note. I witnessed the meltdown from the wings with a sickness in my heart.

Dave, who was also on the festival that day, saddled up to me and, gesturing toward a precariously swaying Billy Butterfield, said: “You know, sometimes it takes years for a guy to get back at you. But when he does, he really gets you good.”

Another time, we were on tour in Europe, sometime in the ’70s as I recall. I had set up a concert in a provincial Italian town. There was never a problem with Dave, but this evening I was in Nice and I got a call from Italy. It was Dave.

“What’s the problem, Dave?”

“Everything’s fine, George. The hotel is good, food is great, but there is just one thing. There is no piano.” (The promoter assumed Dave came with one.) How we got out of that one, I can’t remember, but somehow or other, Dave saved the day.

Just after Thanksgiving, I asked my friend Hank O’Neal, a jazz producer, writer and photographer, if he wanted to take a drive up to Connecticut to visit Dave and Iola. Dave was genuinely happy to see us. While he was on oxygen to help his breathing, he was completely aware of everything. We talked about many things, including Paul Desmond’s vulnerability to be conned and fleeced by beautiful women. It was fun. We had a lovely lunch with Dave and Iola, their son Darius and his wife, Cathy. There was a happy feeling in all of us as we left to go back to New York.

Less than two weeks later, Dave was gone. He will never be replaced.

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