December 6, 2010 marks the 90th birthday of pianist Dave Brubeck and there are a plethora of projects being released in conjunction with that landmark date. Sony Legacy Recordings has just released Dave Brubeck: Legacy of a Legend, a new 21-track double-CD compilation with every track handpicked by Brubeck. The commemorative collection features extensive annotation and anecdotal liner notes written by his son Darius. And, Concord Music Group is releasing The Definitive Dave Brubeck on Fantasy, Concord Jazz and Telarc, a 2-CD collection featuring some of Brubeck’s earliest session work from the ’40s as well as some of his more recent recordings from the past few decades. That collection’s track list was handpicked by Russell Gloyd, Brubeck’s manager, producer and conductor for more than 30 years.
However, perhaps the most ambitious product is a new documentary-Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way-executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, and produced and directed by filmmaker and longtime Eastwood colleague Bruce Ricker, whose credits include Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, The Last of the Blue Devils and Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me.
The Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel will air the premiere of the Brubeck documentary on his birthday, Monday, December 6. In addition, TCM is making a real jazz day of it, by also airing two classic films featuring Brubeck: All Night Long (1962), a jazz update of Shakespeare’s Othello; and the concert film Southern Crossing (1981), a fascinating chronicle of a five-day jazz festival in Sydney, Australia. And, those three Brubeck-related films be preceded by a trio of jazz films: Blues in the Night (1941), Paris Blues (1961) and Young Man with a Horn (1950). The complete schedule is listed below.
Ricker says that the In His Own Sweet Way documentary had its origins in the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival back in 2007. Tim Jackson, the festival’s artistic director, had commissioned Brubeck to do the Cannery Row suite and in the process of gathering material for that event, Ricker realized that there really hadn’t been a full-scale documentary made about Brubeck. Hedrick Smith did a short film about Brubeck but Ricker says that he wanted to do a broader film that included more of Brubeck’s music. “So I came up with the idea that we would follow Dave from the beginning-from the first rehearsal,” says Ricker, “and then eventually through to the premiere at the Monterey Jazz Festival.”
Ricker’s longtime associate (and Carmel resident) Clint Eastwood soon became involved. “Clint has always had a particular fondness for Dave because they both come from Northern California,” explains Ricker. “And Dave was one of the people that Clint used to listen to all the time. I figured we could profile Dave through Clint’s eyes as a storyteller and make Clint Johnny Appleseed or something.”
Eastwood has been working with Ricker in various capacities since 1987. Ricker says their relationship stemmed from the period when Eastwood was working on Bird his movie about Charlie Parker, starring Forest Whitaker. “Somebody on his staff had seen or heard about the Last of the Blue Devils [Ricker’s 1979 film about Kansas City jazz] because they were contemplating whether to shoot on location in Kansas City. So someone told him, ‘You know, there is this movie about Kansas City Jazz and Count Basie and all that and maybe you should go look at it.’ And Clint looked at it and he thought it was great. At the same time I was struggling with Charlotte Zwerin trying to get the Thelonious Monk movie, Straight No Chaser finished. At that time he was getting a lot of flack from Spike Lee and others. The idea was that he would get Warner Brothers to put up money for Straight No Chaser because this would reinforce the idea that Clint was supporting jazz and if you’re going to really support jazz, there’s nobody more important than Thelonious Monk in jazz. So that gave Clint great cachet.” However, Eastwood’s involvement soon evolved into more than that of just a patron. “I decided I would work with him, and we would find projects and then as they came along, and he would go along with it. Somehow it seems that we’re doing things more quickly lately.”
For this project, Ricker says that he initially tried to get the American Masters program to feature Brubeck. “They felt jazz wasn’t that important anymore,” Ricker asserts. “Look, you rarely see jazz on television any more. And on network television, it seems that the ground rule is that you couldn’t have instrumentals. And with Dave particularly-except with Al Jarreau [doing ‘Take Five’]-there’s really no vocals.” Ricker and Eastwood eventually found a partner in the Brubeck Institute and worked out deals for the airing and distribution of the documentary on their own terms.
In addition to the more recent filming of performances and interviews, the documentary draws on a wide variety of archival footage, including some special segments featuring Brubeck from BBC. “The BBC has great footage of Dave,” explains Ricker. “Apparently, Dave is very popular in England. And he’s done this incredible stuff in England. When you see the film, it’s got footage of all these shows they recorded over the years, like the 25th anniversary of the Brubeck Quartet in ’76 with Dave and Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Eugene Wright, along with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
The film also features a few surprise guests, Alex Baldwin as a narrator and George Lucas as Ricker explains that Baldwin’s sonorous voice and unique stature were both factors in his inclusion. “We don’t really use the narration too much,” says Ricker. “One of the key elements in telling the Brubeck story is the Time magazine cover [of Brubeck]. Time magazine is the apex of the 20th century and Alec has that type of voice. You’re telling this American story of 20th century so you want someone like Alec, who is cool in that Paul Desmond type of way. Also, for better or worse, you need that type of Hallmark good seal of approval because people will take a second look, knowing that if Alec Baldwin took time [to narrate the movie] then maybe they should pay some attention to it.” Ricker says that he is also working with Baldwin on a project about the legendary actor John Barrymore.
Among the people interviewed about Brubeck are Sting, Jamie Cullum, Bill Cosby, David Benoit and George Lucas. Ricker admits that most people might be surprised by the inclusion of blockbuster filmmaker Lucas in this documentary about a jazz pianist. “He’s another example where you’re getting somebody you really wouldn’t expect to be talking about Dave,” Ricker explains. “George is interviewed because he grew up in Northern California and he listened to Brubeck when he was younger. It’s all about getting that type of emotional connection with Dave’s music.”
The film also explores the unique relationship between Brubeck and Duke Ellington. “Dave always felt that Duke should have been on the cover [of Time] first,” explains Ricker. “So we covered that and then we were able to use Duke as the Fred Astaire character in Dave’s life. We have a little bit of Duke Ellington playing a couple of times, just so you get the essence of Duke Ellington. And we found the footage of the White House event [during Nixon’s presidency] with Dave hosting Duke Ellington.”
In addition, the film covers Brubeck’s role as an international ambassador for jazz and that enables the filmmakers to include material on his relationship with Louis Armstrong. For the ending of the film, Ricker and Eastwood use footage from Piano Blues, with Brubeck and Jay McShann playing the blues together for a minute and a half. “What worked so well there was that they had never met before. At the end, it’s very simple, they just play the blues and that really works. Dave is after all a great piano player.”
Another interesting cameo features classical cellist Yo Yo Ma, who worked with Brubeck on album by Brubeck’s son, Matt, a few years ago. Ricker thinks that the inclusion of Ma and classical music helps to bring things full circle for Brubeck. “When Dave was young his mother was into classical music,” explains Ricker. “We had it bookended so you see the two of them [Brubeck and his mother] at the beginning of his life and you see Dave at the end of his life paying homage to his mother’s music.”
Guest stars and celebrity cameos aside, you can’t do a movie about Brubeck with discussing his famous quartet featuring Paul Desmond, which produced “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and other jazz hits. Ricker says that one of Brubeck’s oldest friends provided a different perspective on that group’s legacy. “There’s a line in the movie, that’s no state secret, in which George Wein says, ‘The jazz critics always thought Paul was the key to the group, but, no, Paul was the icing on the cake. The cake was Dave Brubeck.'”
A lifelong fan of Brubeck himself, Ricker says he still learned a few things about his subject during the course of the film’s production. “What I learned about Dave through this movie is he’s really intelligent and he’s not a fool,” says Ricker. “So you can say like Pirandello, there’s going to be different levels on these things. Also, he’s always really humble because he still has no idea about what he’s contributed yet. The other thing when you start dealing with this religious stuff and the jazz heaven sequence-there’s an interview he did in 1989 with the BBC-when he starts talking about going to heaven and who’s going to be there from jazz. So there’s an odd sense of sincerity that really works.”
Ricker recalls a fortuitous bit of timing that produced one of the highlights in filming, at least from his perspective. “In cinema verite, you always find the moment,” says Ricker. “When we were planning the real shooting for the end of the film, it turned out to be the exact day of Iola and Dave’s 65th wedding anniversary. We were sitting at the piano at Mission ranch waiting for Clint to show up so I said, ‘You know Dave, it’s your 65th wedding anniversary, maybe you should just play something for her.’ And he played ‘All My Love’ which he wrote for her 65 years ago. It’s all luck. In Last of the Blue Devils, when Count Basie walks in, he doesn’t know that Big Joe Turner and Jay McShann were going to be there. So it was total luck that he happened to be playing Kansas City that weekend and total luck that we happened to be filming that day.”
Another fortuitous turn of events gave Ricker and Eastwood a prime-time opportunity for the airing of the film. The public television station, KCTV in Los Angeles, recently broke off from PBS and it occurred to Ricker that they would be in need of some content in this new phase. He contacted them and made arrangements for KCTV to run the film in primetime in January. “That will give it a whole other level of exposure,” says Ricker. “And there’s the BBC and then the DVD will come out during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival [in late April].”
Ricker says that although the timing might seem perfect, it hasn’t been easy working around Eastwood’s busy schedule, which included the filming and promotion of The Hereafter, but he’s stoic about the long-term implications, given the shelf-life of a project like this. “The way Clint and I look at it, it doesn’t matter as long as somebody can see it ten years from now,” Ricker explains. “Recently, Dave said to me, ‘The most wonderful thing about it is that it’s something for my great grandchildren to see and try to understand what I was trying to do.’ So that was his take on it. The main thing was to get it done and not try to worry too much about the timing of the release.”
Ricker confirms that having Clint Eastwood onboard certainly makes it easier to finance a project like this one, and also gives them a bit more artistic freedom. “Clint’s name is a big help,” says Ricker. “It gives us lots of freedom. He will let the music run for two minutes, unlike PBS who said that people won’t understand this and that we should put some talking heads in there.” However, Ricker says that Eastwood is not just a figurehead or front man for the production of documentaries like this one. “He’s 100 percent involved. Clint does look at the film. He is in the editing room every week. He’s very hands-on. The advantage of making the films with Clint is that it has to work cinematically. That’s why there’s not as much narration. You don’t have to stop time to explain everything or create the story.”
Brubeck’s story is ongoing. In this last year, he performed over 50 dates with his group. And although he’s had his share of health problems, he continues to write new material and look to the future. That is his way, which seems sweet indeed.
The following is the complete schedule of TCM’s special Monday, December 6, lineup (all times Eastern) of Jazz Film Classics in connection with the premiere, along with the channel’s description of the films.
7:30 a.m. Blues in the Night (1941)
Priscilla Lane and Richard Whorf headline this musical drama about a self-destructive bandleader. Elia Kazan plays a clarinetist. The film, which features memorable Warner Bros. montages, also stars Betty Field, Jack Carson and Lloyd Nolan.
9:30 a.m. The Gene Krupa Story (1959)
Sal Mineo plays the legendary jazz drummer who struggled with numerous ups and downs, including addiction. Susan Kohner co-stars, with jazz great Anita O’Day and comedian Buddy Lester playing themselves.
11:30 a.m. Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Kirk Douglas plays a trumpeter trapped in a triangle with good girl Doris Day and bad girl Lauren Bacall. This compelling drama is based on Dorothy Baker’s book, which itself was inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Harry James dubbed the trumpet work for Douglas.
1:30 p.m. All Night Long (1962)
William Shakespeare’s Othello gets the jazz treatment with this swinging film about an interracial romance and the man determined to destroy it. Patrick McGoohan is especially good in the Iago-inspired role. The cast includes Betsy Blair, Marti Stevens, Keith Michell and Richard Attenborough. Several jazz artists appear in the film, including Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and John Dankworth.
3:15 p.m. Southern Crossing (1981)
This concert documentary, making its first appearance on TCM, chronicles performances over five days at a memorable jazz festival in Sydney, Australia. Performances include the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Herbie Mann & The Family of Mann, The Les McCann Band, Howie Smith & The Jazz Co-op, The Galapagos Duck, Toshiko Akiyoshi and more.
5 p.m. PREMIERE: Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way (2010)