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Celebrating Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck's 90th Birthday

In 1954, polls in the leading jazz magazines Metronome and Downbeat selected Dave Brubeck's band as the year's best instrumental group. That same year, Brubeck was the second jazz musician ever featured on the cover of Time Magazine (the first being Louie Armstrong).

On Monday, Brubeck will celebrate his 90th birthday. He celebrated another milestone last year, when his seminal album Time Out, featuring the hits "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk," celebrated its 50th anniversary. Brubeck marked the occasion with an outdoor concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. A month later, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that he would be a 2009 Kennedy Center Honoree.

Though he no longer performs internationally, Brubeck still regularly tours across the U.S. He recently wrapped up three shows at the Blue Note in New York City. And on Monday, Turner Classic Movies will premiere In His Own Sweet Way, a documentary chronicling Brubeck's life and music produced by Clint Eastwood.

In 1999, Brubeck talked to Terry Gross about his decades in the music industry. He explained that he grew up on a 45,000-acre ranch in California, the son of a music teacher and a cattle rancher.

Though Brubeck and his two older brothers studied piano with their mother, the future jazz pianist initially didn't take lessons for very long. He quit when he was 11 to focus on his first love: rodeo roping. But his mother, who thought he was talented at the piano, wouldn't allow him to rope anything larger than a yearling.

"She didn't want my fingers to become hurt," Brubeck said. "My uncle, who was also a rodeo roper, got his finger caught between the saddle horn and the rope, and it took his finger off. And he used to kid the other cowboys and say, 'I would've been a great pianist like my nephew Dave, had I not lost this finger.' "

Brubeck returned to studying the piano after his first year of college, after his zoology teacher offered him some advice. The teacher noticed that Brubeck's attention span seemed more focused on the music school across the street.

"He said, 'Brubeck, your mind is not here with these frogs in the formaldehyde,' " Brubeck said. " 'Your mind is across the lawn, at the conservatory. Will you please go over there next year?' "

Brubeck agreed and started taking classes at the conservatory. But he had a secret: Despite his lessons as a child, he couldn't read music. Once the dean of the conservatory found out, he threatened to not graduate Brubeck.

"But when some of the younger teachers heard this, they went to the dean and said, 'You're making a big mistake, because he writes the best counterpoint that I've ever heard,' " Brubeck said. "So they convinced the dean to let me graduate. And the dean said, 'You can graduate if you promise never to teach and embarrass the conservatory.' And that's the way I've gotten through life, is having to substitute other things for not being able to read well. But I can write, which is something very few people understand."

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

On December 6, Dave Brubeck will celebrate his 90th birthday. Fifty-six years ago, polls in the two leading jazz magazines, Metronome and Downbeat, selected Dave Brubeck's group as the best instrumental group of the year.

That same year, Brubeck himself was the second jazz musician ever to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. The first was Louis Armstrong. And last year, Brubeck was saluted as an honoree by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Though Dave Brubeck no longer performs internationally, he still tours regularly across the United States. This week, he was at the Blue Note in New York City, and on Monday, Turner Classic Movies will premiere Clint Eastwood's documentary "In His Own Sweet Way," which chronicles Brubeck's life in music.

Terry Gross spoke with Dave Brubeck in 1999, when several of his classic recordings were re-released on CD. To set the mood, let's listen to his composition "Three to Get Ready," From the classic "Time Out" album, an album that illustrated the group's approach to counterpoint and eccentric rhythms. Paul Desmond is featured on alto saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums.

(Soundbite of song, "Three to Get Ready")

TERRY GROSS, host:

Dave Brubeck, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DAVE BRUBECK (Musician): Thank you.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Concord, California. Your mother was a classical piano teacher. Did she give you lessons?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah, I had two older brothers, Henry and Howard, that also took lessons from my mother, and half the community, the people interested in piano, studied with her.

GROSS: Was it hard to study with your mother?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah. It wasn't so bad for my brothers, but I kind of rebelled.

GROSS: How and why?

Mr. BRUBECK: How and why? I wanted to be like my father, who was a cattle man and a rodeo roper. And that was he was my hero, and I wanted to be more like him. So my mother allowed me to stop taking lessons when I was 11.

And we moved to a 45,000-acre cattle ranch, where I spent my last year in grammar school and my high school years, and all summer I worked with my father. Then I went off to college to study veterinary medicine.

GROSS: In the hope that you'd be a help on the ranch?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yes so that I had to go to college, according to my mother, like my brothers. I didn't ever want to leave my dad or my dad's ranch.

My dad was the manager at the 45,000-acre ranch, but he owned his own 1,200-acre ranch, and I owned four cattle that he gave to me when I graduated from grammar school, from the eighth grade. And those cows multiplied, and he kept track of them for years for me. And that was my herd.

GROSS: You know, I'm used to seeing you behind the piano. It's hard for me to imagine you as a cowboy.

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, I could send you pictures.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: And there even are some, what we call movies in those days, some of the very first kind of home movies, where I'm with my dad, lassoing and branding and big round-up. So it is documented.

GROSS: Did you sing cowboy songs?

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, all of them, yeah. When they were real cowboy songs like "Strawberry Roan" and "Little Joe the Wrangler," tunes that people don't sing anymore. I loved those songs. The words can still make me cry, and I used to make my kids cry by singing: Joe You Take My Saddle; Bill, you take my bed; Jim you take my pistol after I am dead. And think of me, please, kindly, when you look upon them all, for I'll not see my mother when the work's all done next fall. Now, that's a cowboy tune.

GROSS: Did you like singing?

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah. I used to sing that and play my ukulele.

GROSS: Ukulele? No, wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: Some of my friends played guitar, cowboy songs, yeah.

GROSS: Let me get back to what we were talking about, which was life on the cattle ranch. And there were two cattle ranches in your life, the one that your father owned, and the larger one that he managed. Did you have really strong arms and hands from the work? And do you think that that helped you as a piano player?

Mr. BRUBECK: It didn't hurt. My mother would not allow my dad to have me rope anything larger than a yearling because she didn't want my fingers to become hurt. And my uncle, who was also a rodeo roper, got his finger caught between the saddle horn and the rope, and it took his finger right off. And he used to kid the other cowboys and said: I would've been a great pianist like my nephew, Dave, had I not lost this finger.

GROSS: Was your mother convinced that you were going to become a pianist, or she was just worried about your fingers on general principles?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, she thought that I had a certain amount of talent that I was not developing. And so after my first year as a veterinary pre-med, I switched to the music department, which was across the lawn. And that was at the advice of my zoology teacher, Dr. Arnold(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: He said: Brubeck, your mind is not here with these frogs in the formaldehyde. Your mind is across the lawn at the conservatory. Will you please go over there next year?

GROSS: How did he know?

Mr. BRUBECK: He I guess he'd just seen me become kind of blank and be listening to everybody practicing and the music, and drifting away from what he was trying to teach me.

GROSS: Now, I think in spite of the fact that you studied piano with your mother as a boy, you weren't very good at reading music. How well could you read when you started majoring in music in college?

Mr. BRUBECK: I couldn't read, and that caused a lot of trouble in the conservatory. So I hid it until I was a senior by not taking piano. I'd take - the other instruments were cello and clarinet. So I was just playing scales and getting by and doing the subjects I had to pass in.

But in my senior year, they said you have to take piano. And the piano teacher in five minutes ran downstairs to the dean and said: Brubeck can't read at all. So the dean said, you know, you're a disgrace to the conservatory, and we can't graduate you.

And when some of the younger teachers heard this, they went to the dean, and they said you're making a big mistake because he writes the best counterpoint that I've ever had, said Dr. Brown(ph). And Dr. Bodley(ph) went in and said, you know, you're wrong. You know, this guy is talented.

So they convinced the dean to let me graduate if I and the dean said you can graduate if you promise never to teach and embarrass the conservatory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: So that's the way I graduated, and that's the way I've gotten through life is having to substitute other things for not being able to read well. But I can write, which is something very few people understand.

GROSS: Well, you know, I thought we might pause here and listen to another recently re-released recording, and this features you with the great singer Jimmy Rushing. Now, you haven't done a lot of work with singers over the years, at least not that I'm aware of. Tell me how you managed to do this session with Jimmy Rushing, who had sung with Basie. And he's considered a great blues singer, but he's also a great singer of swing tunes and standards.

Mr. BRUBECK: I was on tour with Jimmy in England, and we had to take the train together to the next city. So we were riding in the train for about three hours. And he said: Dave, I want to do an album with you.

And I said: I don't think I'm the right group for you, Jimmy. And he said: I know you're the right group. I've been listening to you for years. And I'm going to set this up at Columbia Records as soon as we get back.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear you and Jimmy Rushing doing "There'll be Some Changes Made."

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh.

GROSS: You like that?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, so do I. And this is from the recently re-issued 1960 recording "Brubeck & Rushing," The Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Jimmy Rushing.

(Soundbite of song, "There'll Be Some Changes Made")

Mr. JIMMY RUSHING (Singer): (Singing) There's a change in the weather, change in the sea. From now on there'll be a change in me. Walk will be different, my talk and my name. Nothing about me's going be the same.

Change my long tall for a little short fat. Change my number where I'm stopping at. Nobody wants you when you're old and gray. There'll be some changes made today. There'll be some changes made.

Change in the weather, change in the sea. From now on there'll be a change in me. Walk will be different, my talk and my name. Nothing about me's going to be the same.

Change my long tall for a little short fat. Change my number where I'm stopping at. Nobody wants you when you're old and gray. There'll be some changes made today. There'll be some changes, oh, some changes made. Oh baby, there'll be some changes made.

BIANCULLI: The Dave Brubeck Quartet with Jimmy Rushing. We'll continue Dave Brubeck's conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1999 interview with jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. He turns 90 years old on Monday.

GROSS: Moving along with this story of your life, you were in the Army, I think, toward the end of World War II. Did you see combat?

Mr. BRUBECK: I saw it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK, didn't participate, huh?

Mr. BRUBECK: I avoided participation. But, you know, I was in the Battle of the Bulge, and I was on the wrong side of the lines. I was in German territory and...

GROSS: How did you end up in German territory?

Mr. BRUBECK: We didn't know where we were, and everything was going wrong. And so the truck driver just took the wrong turn. And I was up there to play a show for the frontline troops with my band, which were all infantry guys who had been wounded. When I say all, most of the guys in my band had been wounded, and when they'd come back behind the lines, if they were musicians, the doctors would send them to me or who was ever interviewing them.

So I had a good band and a band that was very accepted at the frontline because if you wore your Purple Heart - the frontline guys are hard to reach. The USO people usually didn't go up that close, and also, they would have trouble reaching guys that, in the morning, were going to face a terrible kind of life.

But my guys could reach them because they'd been there since D-Day. Some of them had been three months at the front. And so it made it a lot easier for the soldiers to accept my band.

GROSS: After the war was over, you went back to college on the GI Bill, and I think it was then that you studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud. Had you known Milhaud's work very well?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, my brother was his assistant, Howard.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BRUBECK: And just before I went into the Army, I went to see Milhaud and ask him if, when I got out, I could come back and study with him. And he said I could. So that's exactly what I did on the GI Bill. I went directly after I got out of the Army back to Mills College and studied with him.

GROSS: And were you expecting then to write classical music?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah, and he would tell me don't give up jazz. He said you can do that so well. Why do you want to give it up and become a classical composer?

And so we'd discuss that a lot, and then he said: Look, if you're going to compose, you have to use the jazz idiom, or you won't represent this country. And he said: My favorite composers are Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

And this really surprised me because you wouldn't have heard that at probably any other conservatory in the country. But, you see, Milhaud was the first guy, first European composer, to use the jazz idiom in classical music, a piece called "The Creation of the World," a ballet.

So he would say: Don't ever give up jazz. You're free. You can go any place in the world where there's a piano, and you can play, and you can make a living. And you don't have to teach or do some of the things that other composers have to do in order to survive.

And he said: And the worst thing you want to get out of are faculty meetings. And I think that's a good reason not to become a teacher in a university or college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So it sounds like he gave you some good advice.

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah. He said: Travel the world. Keep your ears open. Bring back everything you hear. Put it in the jazz idiom. And that's what I did. I still follow his advice.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a 1956 recording, and this is your recording of "The Duke," which you've described as your tribute to both Duke Ellington and Darius Milhaud.

Mr. BRUBECK: Right.

GROSS: And Ellington also, you know, was wonderful at connecting classical form and jazz. Do you want to say anything else about this composition before we hear it?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, it is one of my favorite compositions, and the second theme is where I use Milhaud kind of influences with polytonality, which wasn't being done too much in early jazz. It was being done some, but Milhaud was a master of that.

And then the first part is just kind of my impression of Duke's wonderful band.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is "The Duke," composed and performed by my guest, Dave Brubeck.

(Soundbite of song, "The Duke")

BIANCULLI: That's Dave Brubeck, playing his composition "The Duke." He spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. Brubeck will celebrate his 90th birthday on Monday, the same day Turner Classic Movies presents a new documentary about him produced by Clint Eastwood. We'll hear more of Dave Brubeck's conversation with Terry in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our salute to jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, who turns 90 years old Monday. Terry spoke with Brubeck in 1999, when Columbia Records was reissuing several of his classic albums on CD to honor his 50th anniversary as a performing artist. That was 11 years ago.

He's still performing. He played three nights this week at the Blue Note in New York City. And on his birthday, Turner Classic Movies will present a new documentary about him produced by Clint Eastwood.

Before we rejoin Terry's conversation with Dave Brubeck, let's listen to another track. From the 1955 album "Brubeck Time," this song was composed by Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. It's called "Audrey."

(Soundbite of song, "Audrey")

GROSS: The recording we just heard was released 45 years ago, which was the same year that you were on the cover of Time magazine. What was the impact of this recording, "Brubeck Time," on your career?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, it's a wonderful time in my life, because we had been struggling for years to get to be more known. And as you mentioned, the cover of Time magazine was really something that helped us a lot. But when you mentioned "Audrey," it was Audrey Hepburn that we had in mind, and we never realized that she ever had heard this tune. There was no communication like that. And because she was so important at the United Nations for the work she did with children, when they did a memorial service for her there, her husband asked that they play what you just played. And they said that she usually played it every night or put it on her headphones as she walked through her garden in Switzerland. So it was wonderful to hear that. I wish Paul Desmond had been around to know that she listened to it and liked it.

GROSS: Now, how is the recording "Brubeck Time" different from your previous recordings?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, at that time, I was starting to do different time signatures, but the record companies were kind of leery of getting out of the usual dance tempos that were mostly 4/4, and an occasional waltz. So eventually, after "Brubeck Time," we did "Time Out," which had "Take Five," and "Blue Rondo" and "Three to Get Ready." And again, the record companies were a little afraid of it. But against their wishes, I forced them to put "Time Out" out, and it became the biggest seller they ever had in jazz.

GROSS: Now, your first record that I think really made an impression on the record-buying public - I mean, it got bought a lot was "Jazz Goes to College."

Mr. BRUBECK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it was sessions recorded at three different colleges.

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, there's a picture of you on it, and you're wearing your glasses. And those glasses are really such a part of your image. And I think in part because that record was "Jazz Goes to College" and part because of those kind of thick, plastic glasses, you maybe had the image of being what was known in those days as an egghead?

Mr. BRUBECK: I wish I had. I'm not that smart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: But people forget that at the same time, we had a huge following at places like the Apollo Theater...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRUBECK: ...the Howard Theatre in Washington and the universities that they used to call black universities - Afro American universities. We played the so-called black clubs all through the South, where there were - no white people came in. And in some of the black clubs, we were the only white group that came in. This is what I wish people would remember.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRUBECK: And we integrated many, many universities in this country, and those are important things to remember. It wasn't just Ivy League places. We were really doing some work that people seem to forget how hard it was to do, where you had to have a police escort to the concert, the president of the college refusing to let you go on and the students demanding you go on. I could tell you a lot of stories about that.

GROSS: The problem was that you were white, or that one of the musicians in the band was black?

Mr. BRUBECK: Eugene Wright was black. Yeah.

GROSS: So that was a problem?

Mr. BRUBECK: And we couldn't do some television shows, because in those days, you couldn't have black and white together. One show I had to turn down, Duke Ellington took because he, at the moment, he had an all-black band. Sometimes Duke would have a white drummer like Louie Bellson, and that would maybe give him problems. They just didn't want mixed groups on television.

GROSS: Let me play what might be the most famous of the Brubeck Quartet recordings, and that's "Take Five," which you recorded in 1959. Would you talk about this composition? It's a Desmond composition, but I think you worked with him on it.

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah. Paul has - done a radio show in Canada before he died, where he said I'm so fortunate that Dave assigned to me to do the section in 5/4, because that was the one track I wanted Paul to do as a solo for my percussionist, the great drummer Joe Morello, because Joe would often play in 5/4 time backstage, which is a time signature that was very rarely, if ever used in jazz. So I would hear Paul start to improvise over Joe playing on a drum pad before he'd go on stage. And so I said just write some of the melodies, the ideas that you're doing, and bring it to rehearsal in a few days. So that's what happened.

He came and he had some ideas that I thought were great. The first thing he said, I can't write anything in 5/4. I've tried and tried. I said let me see what you've got. So he showed me what he had, and I said I can put this together and it'll be great. And I put the - what he had together as theme one, theme two, and that's how the thing was born. And I named it "Take Five," and he objected to that name. And I said why, Paul? And he said, nobody knows what take five means. What does it mean? I said everybody knows but you, Paul Desmond, what take five means. So I argued with him and I kept that title, which I think is a great title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: Then, of course, I later wrote the words to it. So I had a little bit to do with this tune.

GROSS: Well, before we hear it, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your early career. It's really been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mr. BRUBECK: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And this is "Take Five," the Dave Brubeck Quartet, recorded in 1959.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

BIANCULLI: That's the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing "Take Five." He spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. Brubeck turns 90 years old on Monday, and we send him warm birthday greetings. On his birthday, Turner Classic Movies will present Clint Eastwood's new documentary about Brubeck.

Coming up, more jazz. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has some suggested gifts for the holidays.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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