This interview was conducted at Dave Brubeck’s home in Wilton, Connecticut, on September 25, 1993, with a portable cassette recorder. An edited version was broadcast on WKCR-FM shortly before Brubeck’s appearance at the Blue Note club in New York.
Evan Spring: So my first question is, why has it been 25 years since your last extended club gig?
Dave Brubeck: Has it been that long?
ES: Well, the Blue Note publicity staff is issuing these press releases saying it’s your first extended club gig in 25 years. Which is my lifespan, by the way.
DB: [laughter] I haven’t thought about it, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a club playing. I don’t know if it’s been 25 years, but it’s been a long time. Yeah, I grew up playing in clubs. That was about all I played in, in early years. And then we gradually got into playing concerts and festivals and ballets and symphony orchestras, so it’s been a while.
ES: And you did do a one-nighter at the Blue Note, about five years ago.
DB: Yeah, that’s probably right, yeah. We played there one night.
ES: And that was a good show, and you wanted to come back to New York?
DB: Oh, it was pleasant. As clubs go it was very good.
ES: So can you tell us a little bit about the group you’re performing with? I know Bill Smith of course you go back to the 1940s with. What is your history with the other members of the group?
DB: Yeah, we’re going to be playing three nights with Bobby Militello on flute and alto saxophone, and then the next two nights with Bill Smith on clarinet, which will be Friday and Saturday. And then Sunday night’ll be both Bill and Bobby and my son Chris on trombone. So it’ll be a little different every night there.
ES: So Bobby Militello, that’s his name, correct?
DB: Yeah. He’s recorded the Quiet as the Moon album with us, with another son on cello. It’s kind of a nice combination that happened by accident, because Bill Smith became very ill. When he got off the airplane he could hardly walk, so they took him right to Stanford, California Hospital, University of Stanford. And he had meningitis, so we got Bobby to come in. And they’ve often traded back and forth over the years, if Bill’s teaching load is too heavy at the University of Seattle, Washington, where he teaches, or it’s final week, or something where he has to be there, or if just sometimes he wants to go on a vacation to Italy – he keeps an apartment in Rome, ’cause he taught for years at the American University in Rome, and his son now is head of the American University in Rome. And so they had that same apartment, and sometimes Bill wants to disappear for a while. So it works out very well between the two of them.
ES: Do you have any recordings coming out soon for MusicMasters?
DB: The last one is the trio album, with my sons Chris on trombone and bass and Danny on drums. Have you heard that album?
ES: I haven’t heard that particular one.
DB: It’s quite recent.
ES: That’s Quiet as the Moon?
DB: No, it’s called Trio Brubeck. And it’s been getting great reviews, so –
ES: That’s MusicMasters, right?
DB: Yeah. Right.
ES: Can you give us a sense, though, with the quartet and the different formations during the course of the week – these are musicians, Jack Six, and Randy Jones as well, that you’ve performed with for many years.
DB: Oh, yeah, they’ll be there every night. Jack Six and Randy Jones. Jack goes back to 1968, in and out of the group, and Randy Jones, I guess about 15 years he’s been with me steadily. Once in a while I’ll play a concert with four of my sons, or three of my sons, or two of my sons, but the group is really the group that you’re gonna hear at the Blue Note, with Randy Jones on drums, Jack Six on bass, and either Bill Smith on clarinet or Bobby Militello on alto or flute. And then on the last night, we’re bringing Chris, my son, on trombone, in.
ES: Do you have any specific material planned for these concerts?
DB: Yeah. I want to do some new things and the public will want to hear some old things, so you kind of balance it between the two.
ES: I wonder, since “Take Five” is something you often play, gig after gig after gig, do you ever sometimes feel there’s too much pressure from the public to be playing the same material?
DB: Well, if you felt that way you’d be an idiot, and you wouldn’t be in the tradition of jazz, because if you have a tune that the public wants, you’re very lucky and you’d be stupid not to play it. And as Louis Armstrong told Trummy Young, his great trombonist, when Trummy first joined his group, he said, “Pops, don’t you get tired of playing these same tunes every night?” And Louis said to Trummy, “The difference between a good musician and a great musician is somebody who can play the same tune every night and make something happen.” And all you have to do is know the history of jazz and you know that the public want to hear certain tunes from certain groups, whether it’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” from Duke or “Woodchopper’s Ball.” And these guys like Louis and Duke and Woody Herman – I could think of almost any group, they knew enough not to not play what the public was really there to hear, because what sense does it make? So what you must do is to make that same tune different and interesting, whether you play it every night, like we’ve – almost every night we’ve played “Take Five” or “Blue Rondo” or “Three to Get Ready.” And a lot of the bands had theme songs that they played every night, sometimes an opening theme and a closing theme. One of the biggest thrills of your life could be to be in a huge movie house that had a band between each show and had that curtain open with Artie Shaw’s theme song, I think it was called “Nightmare” or something. And you’re looking at a blank curtain and hearing that band start behind the curtain. That would send chills up your spine. So, there’s a reason for all these things.
ES: It’s often said that a musician has to come and “make it” in New York City, it’s sort of a cliché, but obviously you haven’t spent a lot of time there over the course of your career. How do you feel about New York and the whole community of musicians there, have you tried to avoid New York in any sense?
DB: Oh, that’s not true at all. I went into Birdland in the early fifties. And we did very well in Basin Street – three different Basin Street clubs, the first one was not far from Birdland, and then they moved into Greenwich Village, and then Basin Street East. So you know, there’s just one club I played in three different locations. And it was always a good feeling to go over very well. I got wonderful reviews from, at the time, the strongest critic in the country was John Hammond. And he was reviewing us before we came to New York, and he was reviewing us while we were still in San Fransico, but he came to Birdland and gave us a great review, like we were the new hot thing, you know, something that was different from the West Coast that was going in our own direction. And the idea that you have to sound like what’s going on in New York is not true at all. You can know the history of jazz and know the styles actually came from cities, Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style, West Coast style. And the idea that it all came from New York isn’t true historically, that the Basie band – well Basie really came from New Jersey, Red Bank, I think it was. But his band was identified I think with Kansas City. So was [Charlie] Parker, you know. If you go back far enough you’ll know that the guys came to New York because that’s where you could get recorded and usually get better known. And after all, talk about Art Tatum coming out of Toledo and Cleveland and coming to New York and setting everybody on edge, you know. That’s so often what happened in jazz, is a great player from the hinterlands came in and upset everybody in New York and then New York kind of claimed him. But you don’t have to be from New York.
ES: This isolated natural setting that you’re here in, in rural Connecticut – how would that affect your creativity as opposed to living in an urban environment?
DB: Well, you see there’s a pond right down there, and in the pond there’s a little island, and on the island there’s a nine-by-nine studio, which is nothing but a little rough cubicle. And there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than down there when I’m composing. My last piece [Earth is Our Mother] I wrote there, and it was [a musical setting for] the Chief Seattle speech on ecology and I could hear the fish jumping and the birds were in the trees right above that little studio. There were geese that had a nest right on the island. Ah, it’s a wonderful place to write. But you have to be able to write anyplace, but if I had my choice, rather than write in some hotel room, I’d rather be in this environment.
ES: Sometimes if you’re composing or even playing in isolation, do you sometimes feel like you need other people there to bounce ideas off of? What is the balance between your creative breakthroughs, what is the balance between getting them in isolation and getting them playing with other people?
DB: Oh, it’s a whole different part of your mind starts working. It would be really almost impossible to describe what goes on because you can’t pinpoint it yourself. It has a lot to do – it isn’t everything, but concentration has a lot to do with it. And sometimes when concentration is hard to come by, you’re in a noisy club where the lights are right in your eyes or the air conditioning is blowing cold air on your back, and then the stage lights are burning you up on the face side, and everything’s working against you, and the sound system isn’t good, and it isn’t a good piano, sometimes you overcome all these outside influences and you might have the best night in your life when it should have been the worst. I can tell you that some of my favorite music was recorded on a horrible piano in a horrible joint and with a horrible sound system and hardly anybody in the club. So go figure, as they say.
ES: I wanted to ask you about other musicians, and perhaps we could focus, say, on the last 25 years. What up-and-coming pianists or other pianists have you come to later in life and absorbed into your own musical thinking?
DB: I don’t listen to ’em enough to absorb. I haven’t got time to. If I isolated myself completely, I’d never have time to finish my own ideas, so I don’t want to compound the thing by adding a whole bunch of new people into my mind. But I hear people and I’m very impressed with Camilo, the Caribbean piano player.
ES: Michel Camilo?
DB: Yeah. And Chucho Valdes has knocked me out for quite a few years. Andy LaVerne, when I hear him. See, with my kids I get to hear other musicians ’cause they bring them into my life. My son Danny’s fusion group called The Dolphins, have you ever heard them?
DB: You should hear them. All four of those young people are monsters on their instruments, and Vinnie [Martucci] the piano player, he’s really a keyboardist playing synthesizers and piano. So I get to hear Vinnie Martucci, and they have a young guitar player that is just frightening, he’s so good, Mike DeMicco. And they got a real solid bass player, Rob Leon, and then my son Danny on drums, who can frighten me just about as much as I ever want to get scared from a drummer [laughter]. So I hear within the family. My son the cellist, Matthew, will introduce me to somebody he’s playing with in the West Coast, in San Francisco. And they often play with a group called the Bay Area Jazz Composers, which is a wild bunch of guys, kind of like the old octet where they’re all composers and players that want to hear their own music. So through my sons – Darius will bring home from South Africa a bunch of wonderful musicians that are from the Xhosa Tribe, or the different ethnic groups of Africa, and they’ll show up here and stay in the house, and I’ll hear them playing and practicing. Then I’ll get another view of an entirely different kind of music. But I don’t go out looking to hear other people. I wish I had time to, but I don’t. But they just kind of come into my life and I’m always very interested.
ES: Over the years, have younger musicians come up to you and ever surprised you by talking about how you have influenced them as musicians?
DB: Ah, it’s almost every day. In the mail, or a phone call, or people that’ll come to a concert. And especially when we used to go behind the Iron Curtain or into Russia, our group was really much stronger than any other group in Russia. That’s a tough thing for me to just come out and say, but I think it’s true, I’ve been told it enough, that we influenced that part of the world so much by playing in different time signatures that they grew up playing in. If you take the ethnic music of places behind the so-called Iron Curtain, years ago, in Greece, what we did in 9/8 time, in 7 and 5 and 11 and 13, was really their folk music is in those signatures. And they said, “Jeez, here’s a jazz musician using our kind of music.” And you see, long before there was the term “world music,” I was speaking about and writing about how jazz was going to be the world music. I think that I was really out in front, and I talked to other musicians, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about, they expected it to all sound in continuing 4/4 and not use certain devices that almost everybody uses now, I was trying to push those things. Maybe I wasn’t trying to push them, I was just doing them and getting some flak. And now you can hardly hear a group that, in some way – you asked me who people are influenced by, we were a big influence. By telling people, you know, you can do other things than play in 4/4 and, like the first time I played a waltz, I wasn’t aware of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” but I thought I was doing something new. Then later on you find out other guys may have done it. But we introduced waltzes that other guys started playing. Like Miles started playing “Someday My Prince Will Come,” even named one of his albums that, when Miles heard it from me. And “Alice in Wonderland” – I’ll see in a fake book that this was introduced by Bill Evans. They should add, “ten years after Brubeck recorded it.” But this is what I mean is, where a lot of guys listening to us and then using things that we started, whether there’d be a group come along and just take a part of us, like the contrapuntal approach we had, there’d be groups come along and almost base their sound on stuff that we did part of the night, and they’d do it all night. And so I think we were a huge influence.
ES: It seems to me, since you were bringing up responses of other musicians, that your rise to fame is somewhat of an unusual story because it doesn’t seem to me that your music was commercial, that you spent a lot of time promoting yourself or really trying to figure out how you could get a large audience. Yet at the same time, it seems that you often had to go over the heads of critics and musicians and directly to the public to get that support. Does that seem like an unusual story within jazz, that usually it works a different way?
DB: Well, you gotta remember that my trio won the New Combo of the Year in Metronome and Down Beat.
ES: That was a critics or readers poll?
DB: Readers. Then the first Down Beat critics poll we won as a quartet, and as we got more popular we became more of a target because you’re so visible. And that’s the same thing that happened to Louis Armstrong, to Duke, to Stan Kenton. And then there’s usually the turnaround, if you live long enough, where people start saying, you know, we weren’t really thinking. I know that certain critics would get together and try to put me down as a group, and I never exposed them. But recently I heard Billy Taylor, on the night on his 70th birthday, he was being interviewed, and if I think I can quote him right, he said, “There are so many critics that wanted to control jazz,” I think this is what Billy said. And the interviewer said, “Well, this isn’t like you to say that, Billy,” and he said, “Well, you know, I’m 70 years old and I’m gonna say the things I think.” And boy, if you knew all the inside things that we musicians know and just don’t say anything about. Well there are so many good things that critics have done that you excuse the ones that haven’t used their heads. Like, Steve Race in England used to dislike me so much, then all of the sudden he had a complete turnaround. And he wrote the liner notes for Time Out. Which is one of the most important jazz albums that ever had been done. Well this was a critic that really disliked me, and he was one of the biggest critics in Europe. So I’ve seen guys completely turn around and stop listening to each other. And you see I never hung out with the critics, and I never hung out with what makes you popular with kind of the in-crowd. And I think I’m glad I didn’t ’cause you waste so much time. And who’s got time to waste? So when you’re not in that so-called group of the elite kind of swingers, you know what I mean? You kind of bring about a feeling from the critics that you’re aloof. I never felt aloof, I always liked many of these guys, I just didn’t want to waste my time telling them that I liked them. You know, this hanging out and carrying on after the concert and everything – there’s more important things they should be doing and I should be doing. So in a way I deserved the brand of not being typical.
ES: Do you think maybe it had something to do with that, for a whole generation of college audiences in the fifties and for a lot of America, you were the personification of modern jazz. And you were on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, and someone like Duke Ellington wasn’t. So there’s only so much publicity jazz can get, it’s a small world so it’s inevitable that there’s going to be backbiting and competition over someone who is in as high a profile position as you were.
DB: Yeah. I didn’t want to be on the cover until Duke was on. And Duke knocked on my door – we were on the road together, seven in the morning – handed me the magazine, said congratulations, you’re on the cover. Well, this really was embarrassing for me. And Duke being my idol. So Duke was next on the cover and I was sure hoping that he would be there first because he deserved to be, and I also knew it would turn a lot of people against me if I were on before. But you can’t control those things, they happen, that’s the way it is.
ES: Columbia University just recently started a jazz series, a jazz performance series. In the early 50s, did you break a lot of barriers, was it very unusual for college music faculties to have jazz under their auspices?
DB: Oh yeah. We introduced jazz to more colleges earlier than anybody else, by far. And it was partly out of necessity and partly because we’d play free if they couldn’t afford us, and partly because we knew that audience was ready. Now, there were a lot of bands playing fraternity dances and dances on campus, but we were the ones that really opened up the concert series. Then critics were saying, this jazz shouldn’t be in a concert hall. Yeah, didn’t everybody else follow us in there? [laughter] You know? On campus. And of course there were people before us that did play concert halls, but I mean to actually go on a tour where it was night after night, sometimes three months in a row, from one college to the next. But what the critics loved to forget is that we won the first black poll. Try that sometime when you’re a white group. And it was the Pittsburgh Courier, and we won the small combo, number one, and there was hardly another white group mentioned, the rest of the groups were black, second, third, fourth, as I remember. And [Count] Basie won the big band. So how can you have this following and then get pigeonholed by a group of critics that are just looking for something and not want to really see the whole picture. When I was playing at the Apollo Theater, in Harlem – and there weren’t many all-white groups playing out there – of course we had a black bass player, Gene Wright, but basically it was a white group or an integrated group, call it either. And the New York Times ran an article saying I had canceled 23 dates, college dates, in the South. I was working at the Apollo in Harlem, and because they wouldn’t take Eugene Wright on bass [in the South]. Critics loved to forget that. You know, they pick and choose, sometimes as [a] group, what they decide is going to be the pigeonhole they put you in. And it still goes on. It’s going on less and less and a lot of very good critics are saying, “Dave, I’m sorry for what I did.” I’ve had critics beg me to forgive them on a New York paper, saying “I was very unfair.” One guy, his wife says, “Dave, you’ve got to forgive him, he’s been drunk for days because of what he wrote about you. Because other musicians are telling him that he really was very, very off base.” And she said, “You have to forgive him, so he’ll quit drinking and go back to work.” Can you imagine me having to forgive a guy that wrote paragraph after paragraph of lies? A guy on the Washington Post wrote some huge lies, and when my wife confronted him, he said, “I’m not interested in facts, I’m only interested in my opinion.” Can you imagine? And he had taken it a whole way that was starting to go with certain groups of critics that wanted to criticize me. Regardless of what I had done, the truth. Just make up broad-faced lies and those darn lies can hang around a long time once they’re in print in a good paper, like the Washington Post or a good New York paper. And then they keep them in the file and each new critic refers back to ’em. And they don’t refer back to ’em as, “Oh, this was incorrect.” It’s in print, this was the policy of the paper, and they keep establishing the lies. Now there’s enough guys that come to me and say “I’m sorry.”
ES: I think I remember reading even Amiri Baraka, who was known as LeRoi Jones when he wrote his book about black music, saying how he was a big fan of yours in college and that there were substantial black college audiences for your music.
DB: Oh, yeah. See, we played the black colleges, we played the black theaters like [the] Howard in Washington [DC]. Sure, we were so big amongst the black students. I’ll tell you why we were big, is I wouldn’t play a concert unless, if it were in an auditorium in the South, or sometimes it was in the North. You know, integration, some of the worst I’ve seen was above Minneapolis [laughter]. The worst problems we had. And Chicago. But certainly in the South. And I would just cancel the concert if the place weren’t integrated. And I’d sit in the dressing room until the promoters saw I wasn’t gonna go on. When you cancel I think over twenty concerts on one tour, you’ve lost almost the tour. And at that time you were depending – see, we were working out of San Francisco. So that tour was like losing half of the year, because that tour was set up with being half of the year that we weren’t working in the club in San Francisco. And it was a real financial loss. The Bell Telephone Hour wouldn’t let me play if Gene Wright were on the stand with us. And this was the biggest TV I could have ever done, the most exposure. It was a very important show.
ES: Now what year was that?
DB: [It would] be about 1957, around in there, I’m guessing. And so when they saw I would not compromise, and I was just gonna turn the show down, they said “Okay you can play, but we’ll never show your bass player on camera.” And I turned it down. Then Paul Desmond and I were on the road, and we went to watch this show that we were supposed to play, it was Duke Ellington’s band. And Duke wouldn’t even had known the fight I had just had with them. Those were days where you really had to believe that things could happen. You know, I had the first integrated army band, the first integrated unit in World War II. And don’t think that that wasn’t hard to pull off. And we had sometimes near riots, where guys would stand outside the band barracks and want to kill the guys. You know, I mean there were situations when people can’t remember how tough a situation something like this could be. So I’d like to always remember Gene Wright, what he’s had to go through, and he went through everything with a big smile. Paul Desmond would often go and stay with Eugene Wright in Pullman hotels ’cause that’s the only place Gene could stay. He didn’t want Gene to be alone. I’d had my wife and kids with me, and [it] was great that Paul would go with Gene. But we lived through some tough things that I’ll never forget, but most other people are going to forget.
ES: Now since the Army was still officially segregated in World War II, how did you manage to deal with the authorities in having an integrated band?
DB: I hate to use this expression, but it was like a sense of justice – you can call it God or whatever you want to call it – was saying “This is right, go ahead and do it.” And backing it up was a wonderful general, General Brown from – well it was in Patton’s army. And Brown backed me up and he let it be known that no one should mess with the black guys in the band. ’Course, there were people trying to mess with them. And there were times when I thought people might get killed even. But Brown saw to it that when he left our outfit, he let everybody know, “You leave this band alone, you leave them intact,” and he went up on the bandstand and he hugged the two black guys in front of all his officers [laughter]. What a wonderful old man! Did you ever read The Good War? Studs Terkel?
ES: I haven’t read that, no.
DB: Well, you look in there, because it’s mentioned, this outfit, and what’s in there isn’t exactly as I remember it, because it’s from the point of view of one of the officers under this general. But it would be worth your while to look at that.
ES: You seemed to be saying before that many critics were overly fixated on race. And I guess I don’t have a sense of – what was the climate in the 50s? Were some critics – say they would see the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was often seen as a group comparable to your quartet, and they would see that you were making more money, or you were on the cover of Time magazine. Was that sort of a subtext to all your dealings with the critics at that time?
DB: It could have been. I think that it was kind of an unwritten thing. And sometimes, like in the case of the Washington Post, it wasn’t unwritten. They were saying “How come Brubeck did this.” Things like, “How come Charlie Parker was loading boxcars in Chicago during the war, what was Brubeck doing?” Okay, what was Brubeck doing? I was a rifleman in Europe! [laughter] That’s what I was doing. But you see what I mean, how you can take a statement, not know your facts, and these kind of things are what is so frustrating, when somebody makes a statement – I think that was in Down Beat, I’m not sure – where everybody reads it. Alright, what was Brubeck doing? In their minds, I wasn’t even in the army. You see what I mean? And these kind of statements which may have some kind of jealousy that we’re successful. And who knows what motivates somebody to write something and not really trace, historically, his facts, but just write his opinion, like the guy in the Washington Post – “I’m not interested in facts, I only write my opinion.” Ah, what can you do with those kind of people?
ES: And the fact that you had studied with European composers made it easy, then, for you to be targeted by critics, since there were European classical elements in your music?
DB: Again, people not knowing the facts. Almost every jazz pianist I know, including Tatum, was very influenced. Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bill Evans, Marian McPartland. One of the greatest jazz pianists playing today is a monster classical pianist. Why I can’t think of his name, he just recorded the Shostakovich Fugues and Preludes. You know, they don’t get any more trained than he is. Who is he? He lives in New Jersey, he’s a fantastic pianist. He recorded in Japan, all these albums where it was just impromptu, nothing worked out?
ES: I’m sure I know his name.
DB: It’s like he’s the top guy, you know. Both of us are really spaced not to come up with his name. But Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, you tell me a pianist and I’ll tell you the pianist least influenced by classical music of all those guys, is one David W. Brubeck. I’m the least. Because I never played one good classical piece of piano literature in my life. Which I wish to heck I could do well. There’s so many guys out there – Michel Camilo, great classical pianist. So why do I get the label of being the classical pianist when I don’t play classical piano? I couldn’t read music! And I wasn’t interested in classical piano – I was interested in listening to it, but not in playing it.
ES: You’ve expressed admiration for Keith Jarrett –
DB: That’s it! Keith Jarrett, that’s the monster piano player of all time. There’s the guy. Fantastic pianist. Why I couldn’t think of Keith’s name, because he’s on my mind all the time.
ES: You’ve heard his jazz playing as well.
DB: Yeah! Great jazz player. One time they were playing his music before my concert, and boy, what a great jazz – [tape cuts off]
ES: Another pianist I wanted to ask you about is Lennie Tristano. He’s no longer with us of course, he’s sort of receded into history a bit. What do you see as his historical legacy and his influence on your playing?
DB: Not much influence, because I was in a period where I didn’t want to be influenced when he was coming along. He was terribly important and a great musician. I worked a concert only once with him, in a club, in Philadelphia, and his group were all fantastic: Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. But they weren’t trying to communicate with the audience. Now, some guys can not try to communicate, like Miles didn’t try very hard in those days. I’ve seen Miles just do the opposite of trying to communicate and just communicate like crazy. But he’s about the only one I’ve ever seen that can pull that off. And they [the Tristano group] kind of had a barrier between themselves and the audience, but they were playing great. But the audience wasn’t listening to them. The more the audience didn’t react, the more they became introspective and great, just great playing, but it wasn’t projecting. And I feel that musically, he was saying a lot, way ahead of his time. And still, if you think back to what he was doing in [the] 40s and 50s, it would be way advanced. When I said I never listened to him, I listened to him enough to know that he was really doing something great. But I wasn’t gonna sit there and copy his recordings, you know. I might listen to something once that somebody played for me and say “This guy is fantastic.”
ES: Ted Gioia, whose book I have right here about West Coast jazz – just came out from Oxford last year – he made a comparison of you and Thelonious Monk. I don’t know if you saw it, but he was saying that it’s something critics wouldn’t normally think of, or don’t often think of. But he was saying how you both offered an alternative to Bud Powell’s melodic, horn-like style; that you both had an orchestral and compositional approach to piano; that you both used complex harmonies; you both had a percussive touch on the piano; and also that both of you were accused by critics of not swinging; and that you both tried to make your solos very thematic and have well-developed themes, rather than just improvising melodies. What do you think of that comparison and what were your impressions of Monk, even in the 50s before he became very famous?
DB: Well I agree with Ted. The first person that ever told me that was Paul Desmond. Paul used to say, “Boy, you and Monk have very much the same approach.” And Monk is another guy I never listened to. Now I’m listening more to him because I’m gonna be on the board of the – I don’t know what you call the exact title – but down in Kennedy Center there’s going to be a Monk competition, you might call it.
ES: Are you going to be a judge at the piano competition?
DB: Yeah, yeah, so I wanted to hear some Monk things. One night Monk invited me to dinner and we had played together in Mexico, and this was in Mexico, and it’s on an album where Monk and I are playing together. And when he invited me to dinner, his wife and my wife, Monk never said hello or goodbye or one mumbling word [laughter]. So it’s a dinner that stands out in my life, maybe more than any other one! And one time we were playing together, I followed Monk at the Newport Jazz Festival, and I played a tune called “Mr. Broadway,” and Monk was standing as I got offstage, and he said, “I really like that.” That’s about the only thing he’s ever said to me. And I can see in that tune why he would like it – it had some nice kind of things going, maybe Monkish? But I wasn’t influenced by Monk at all. If I ever were going to be, it would be now that I’m listening to him to find out some of these tunes that will be played by these young Monkish piano players.
ES: You were mentioning before the irony of your being pegged as a classically influenced jazz player when you weren’t all that proficient at reading music, especially when you were first starting as a musician. How do you think your life might be different now, in your recorded history, in your playing history, if you had become a very proficient sight-reader and reader of music as a youngster?
DB: Well, I had a brother that was proficient as a sight-reader and pianist and composer. I might have been like him. And he passed away less than a year ago, Howard Brubeck, that wrote Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Symphony Orchestra. I might have been a lot more like him, but there was no way I could be like him. He had a whole different approach and different talent. Wonderful talent. So that’s who I probably would have been like, if I could have been able to read and be able to learn in a conventional way. I never could learn anything in a conventional way. I learned through osmosis, whether it was with wonderful old Cleo Brown that I worked with, and listening to Fats Waller or any of the great jazz pianists. That’s how I learned was by listening.
ES: You’re going to be playing at the Blue Note over the course of a whole week. Are you looking forward to having a whole week, the course of a week, to work out your ideas in a crowd? And what are the advantages also of being in an intimate club setting?
DB: Yeah, well I’m very interested in seeing what it will be like to go back into the club setting because I worked in one club for six years, called the Blackhawk, in San Francisco. And we worked six months of the year, and then we were forced to get out of there because, you know, you can’t draw every night for six years. And the club was full a lot, so the strategy in the club was to close all the doors, close all the windows, turn off the air conditioning so the smoke was so thick in there that it was blue from the bandstand when the lights would be shining down there. It wasn’t air, it was a blue haze. Then the people in a half-hour would be tearing from the smoke and they’d have to leave and then they’d get in whole other cover charge that was standing outside to come in. Now what do you think it was doing to us up on the bandstand, especially me? I became so allergic to cigarette smoke, when I would come home, my clothes, my hair, after the job, would smell like 80 people had just smoked in my bedroom, you know, just walking into it. Or hanging up a coat, I couldn’t do it, you know, I had to hang clothes outside. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get out of playing in clubs. Now they have no smoking in the clubs, so maybe I can go back to the club, but if they start smoking, I’m dead. I’m so allergic to it that right now there’s a huskiness in my voice, and that’ll get a lot worse if I’m around smoke. So these places now that ask me to play, the first thing I say, “Well can you have a no smoking policy?” If they say no, then I just wouldn’t consider it.
ES: It’s been well documented that you had a swimming injury in 1951, I believe it was. And does that still affect your playing sometimes, and how does that affect your practicing regime?
DB: It affects me every day. All over the house there are different places I can practice that are at different levels so that I move from one piano to a piano where I can stand up, and the piano’s on a raised, oh maybe a foot-and-a-half-up, so the keyboard is at my height standing. Then there’s one over a bed if my back is really hurting, I get into that bed. And there’s an electric piano on a table with wheels on it, and I can pull that back. And down in the cabana there’s a piano that I can play at different levels, I can move the piano to different levels. Then I got conventional pianos where I can, say, play 15 minutes to a half-hour, and then I’ve got to stand up. And sometimes I’ve played where I’d have to have the stage black out and then pull myself up in the dark, just stand there. For years I did that at the Blackhawk, until my legs and back would work, and then I’d walk off the stage, people wouldn’t know I was still up there. So it’s still – every day I exercise, and try and fight this situation so it won’t completely get me. But it’s been a rough go.
ES: I guess any pianist has to learn not to be too physically tense and not to waste a lot of physical energy in his body movements and so on. How have you learned to cope with that? And do you make certain preparations before a performance?
DB: Yeah, if I have time. There’s rarely a piano backstage, but sometimes you can do exercises where you can relax your shoulders. And if I’ve had to ride a long way on an airplane that day, sitting just kills me. So I’m in bad shape. Right there is where I sit when I eat, and you see that cushion in that chair? Those cushions are in both of my cars, and they’re at the table, and they’re all around the house. And if I let these exercises go, boy, in a couple days I’m in big trouble, so. I always figure, well, having this accident made me have to take care of myself a lot more, so maybe it’s okay.
ES: Do you ever find your technique varies depending on the setting that you’re in? For instance, if you were in a concert hall, would you find yourself making larger gestures to reach a larger audience, and if you’re in an intimate club setting, does that affect your playing as well?
DB: Oh boy. My physical condition affects me the most. Like I just said, if I had to come a long way in an airplane, then get in the car and ride to the concert, and get up there on the stage and play, that affects my playing more than anything else, how long I’ve had to sit that day. And I used to try to walk five miles every day as a way to keep my back in shape and the rest of me in shape, and I do a lot of weird things to keep this going. I was told that I should swim every day of my life after I got out of the hospital. Well, how can you swim every day? But I have a very small pool in the basement, and I have bungee chords tied to the side of the pool, and a special belt, and a old orange lifesaver that I put around my neck, and I do kicking and backstroke exercises in this very small pool that’s just big enough to do this. So I fight the scene ever day.
ES: Before we finish, I’d like it if you could just give us a sense of your compositional projects. Are you working on any specific commissions, and what’s your present activities?
DB: Yeah, there’s always so many going on, and there’s so many unfinished things right now. But I’ve completed eleven large works for orchestra and chorus. And then I’m supposed to do a new piece that has to be performed in January of next year. So that I’ll be working on. There’s always new things coming up.
ES: How do you think you’ve been served by the whole reissue boom, and do you listen to your old records?
DB: Oh, I had to listen to everything I’ve ever done to do the 4-CD box [Time Signatures: A Career Retrospective]. Have you heard the 4-CD box?
ES: I’ve seen it and I’ve heard a lot of the individual Columbia records. It’s a retrospective of the quartet, from the whole span, ’54 to ’67, I guess?
DB: ’46. It starts with the octet.
ES: So that’s pre-Columbia records, but they obtained the rights to it?
DB: Five different companies are in that box set. The biggest group is with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, and Eugene Wright. But it starts with the octet, with Bill Smith on clarinet, and it ends with the duet of Bill Smith and I playing “Stardust” in ’91. So ’46 to ’91, the same clarinetist.
ES: And you had an important role in the production of that box set?
DB: Very. I picked all the tunes. There were other people that were involved too. My manager saw everything through, and people down at Columbia helped. But it was mostly Russell Gloyd, my manager, conductor. And I and my wife that really picked each track. You know there’s 59 or 57 different cuts, but there’s 108 LPs to chose from.
DB: Yeah. So [laughter] that’s quite a few.
ES: That’s amazing. That must have been a lot of work. Also, was it unusual to be surveying your entire career and have to pick out and to reduce it all to four CDs? How can you reduce a whole career to four CDs?
DB: It should have been twelve CDs, yeah. In fact, it was supposed to be three, started as two, then they got up to three, and then finally to four. Yeah, it was time-consuming and an experience I never would have had unless I had to do it. Who’s gonna go back and listen to over a hundred things, you know? And really listen, because you’re putting them down as a retrospective, which is with your name on it, that you really believe in, so you better be very careful what you’re putting in there. There were certain things that I would have rather had in there, but they just wouldn’t work. There’d be a time reason, well, you can’t get this one in, but you could get this one in. So you pick something that might be second choice. In other words, the CD was full, and if I put in something that was too long, it would be impossible. So you put in something shorter, but for the most part, I’m very proud of this. And it did make me listen to everything, and always some of those early things were – Paul and I were so idealistic about it being improvised and not rehearsed, and that old “Over the Rainbow” from Storyville. I think that’s one of the greatest things that I’ve ever done, and Paul thinks so too. And yet it was made on a kit that a kid had under his chair. This kit allowed him to make a tape machine, you know, he bought the parts and put it together. And the quality is so horrible. And that’s another thing is, when you’re doing something like this, Columbia wants the quality to be great, you know. But sometime, quality has nothing to do with why something is great. A scratchy old Bird album might be the best thing you’d ever want to hear, you know?
ES: How would you compare your current quartet to the classic quartet, the 1951 to 1967 quartet, in the roles that each musician plays within the group and also your role as a leader. Are you more of a definite leader in this group than you were before?
DB: It’s just about the same when you go back to the trio. You know the trio really was the spawning ground for the quartet, ’cause many of the same arrangements were played and just added Paul Desmond. The same approach, taking standards and twisting them all around was kind of the approach of the trio and the quartet. Till one night, Paul said, “We’ve gotta hire somebody to write some originals.” And I said, “Paul, you gotta be kidding. I’ll write two after the job.” And I wrote “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Waltz” that night, and from then on we started doing a lot of my compositions. But we had had such a bad experience with doing compositions with the octet, the public wasn’t ready for all those far-out things. So we knew we could keep the interest of the public if we took standards that they knew, and as soon as we presented the melody, just change to our own improvisations, then it was okay. We played a lot of dances in those days too. And people danced when they heard a tune that they knew, they’d stand up and go to the dance floor, if it was in a good tempo for them. And as soon as that was established, you could forget about the tune, you know. They’re out there, just the beat is all that was important. So you could turn things around and do all kinds of outlandish change. And then at the end play the melody again, and they’d know the tune’s over, and then start another tune with a melody and do the same thing.
ES: I do have a historical question. In 1949, when Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans were doing arrangements for Miles Davis and his famous Birth of the Cool sessions, do you think either of those arrangers had heard your octet work and were aware of what you were doing?
DB: I don’t know. I don’t know. Be interesting to ask. A lot of guys were aware of the octet. Guys in Woody Herman’s band, because we opened for them one concert. And a lot of arrangers were aware of the octet in the California area. Duke seemed to be aware, I don’t know how he was, but he seemed to be aware.
ES: Do you anticipate more of your records being reissued by Columbia, even the ones prior to 1954?
DB: Well, all of Fantasy that were commercially released are now available on CD. There’s some new things that we’re trying to find – I shouldn’t say new, they’d be new if we found them. They go back to the ’50s, that we can’t find them, we know they were recorded. And I have some tapes of them here in the house. If we couldn’t find the originals they would be not great acoustically, but there are some tapes of two Bill Smith quartet sessions. One is called Old Sounds from San Francisco and I think the other is Swinging on the Golden Gate. If we can find them, we’re looking for them now. When Fantasy called me, they said, “We’re interesting in putting out some of the old things, can you give me the serial numbers.” And I said, “Well why don’t you start with number one, number two, number three.” [laughter] You know, I said, “That’s the way your company started, was with me.” And he heard these young kids working for Fantasy now that have no idea of the history of the company. So we were able to find everything, a lot of it was in Beacon Storage. And eventually I hope to find these other things that haven’t been released. Then, there were a lot of things found at Columbia, in a place called Iron Mountain, which is underground in New Jersey. And there’s still things to be found up there, if we can find them. We found the serial numbers but can’t find the actual recordings. Whether somebody has taken them, or they’re lost in the underground – they leaned on what they thought was a wall, and it swung open, like in a mystery movie. And there was a whole room they hadn’t been in before, that somebody said must have been over twenty years, so no telling what they’ll find in there.
ES: Some people complain with reissues that the people doing the reissues are too much purists, because they include all these alternate takes of the same tune all in a row, and that they insist on releasing them in the same order that they were recorded. Do you think that that’s overdoing it?
DB: Sure, because if the artist liked the take, he wouldn’t have made another one. And eventually, you pick the take that you think is the best. I don’t think they should be allowed to release second, third, and fourth tapes [sic]. There’s, for instance, one of the most famous singles in the world is “Take Five,” it’s the wrong take.
DB: Paul Desmond went crazy when he heard it.
ES: Sold a million copies.
DB: Oh, sure. But he was furious [laughter].
ES: On the LP it’s a different take, then?
DB: No, both it’s the wrong take [laughter]. So floating around is the take Paul liked the best, someplace.
ES: Is that going to come to light, the right take?
DB: Well, I’d like to see if we could find it, you know, trace it back [laughter].
ES: As someone who broke a lot of barriers as far as jazz being respected by the establishment, particularly on college campuses, and being accepted by college music faculties, we now see jazz being accepted in a lot of different institutions, like Lincoln Center and so on, it’s now sharing time with classical music in these institutions. Do you think that’s an important development for the music, or is it not really that essential as far as the survival of jazz?
DB: Well, it’s great and it’s something that Stan Kenton tried to promote, and other people, but didn’t have the right time and place, you know. The atmosphere has to be just right to pull something like that. When we recorded with the New York Philharmonic, with Bernstein conducting, that took some little maneuvering, but we had the right people. Bernstein wanted to do it, the president of Columbia records, and Teo Macero. It was a fluke that we were – it was the late 1950s that we were able to pull that off and play, I think four concerts with the New York Philharmonic. One afternoon and three nights, or one afternoon and two nights, I can’t remember. Talk about a funny situation, because the broadcast is different than the recording, because improvisation was going on, and there was one piece that had this huge retard and my brother wrote it with the idea that the whole orchestra, and everything retard, but Joe Morello keep the same tempo through the retard. I think it was maybe the first performance, an afternoon, that the broadcast was. So when Leonard Bernstein brought us back onstage to bow, he said, “Tell your drummer to follow me.” And we’re taking bows at the same time, and I said, “Leonard, he can’t see you.” He said, “Why?” And I said, “Because his eyes, he can’t see you.” And he said, “Well he didn’t follow the retard!” [laughter] So there’s the only time that this is played the way my brother conceived of it is on that broadcast. No, after that Joe had got the message that he should some way follow Leonard.
ES: I’ve mentioned Lincoln Center before, and Wynton Marsalis, who basically runs the program there – he’s not the official director, but he’s the artistic director – and he’s taken some heat for what some people think is a very conservative presentation, where the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will be doing a recreation of Ellington’s orchestra year after year after year and they’re not using Lincoln Center as a forum for more experimental or more forward-looking jazz. What do you think of that, or is it useful to have an institution keeping Ellington’s music alive?
DB: Oh, I’m all in favor of keeping Ellington’s music alive. But it’s very hard to come into that new situation and maybe they want to be very careful what they do. And there’s no way of me telling what they’re thinking. I know I’d love to do some of my pieces down there that would just knock that audience out. So far there’s been no interest, but I’ve played a few times at Lincoln Center where they’ve done my big sacred works, and they went over very well. I’d love to do at Lincoln Center a very jazz-oriented piece that uses classical and jazz, and it uses Isaiah as Old Testament prophet, and Martin Luther King as the prophet of today, and combines the Jewish and Afro-American situation as being so similar, in that both peoples were enslaved, both were dispersed all over the world, both have had so much prejudice against them throughout the world. And it’s just such a strong piece. We just did it in a synagogue in Chicago with the Fourth Presbyterian Church choir, and the week before that we did it with the St. Thomas Cathedral. There’s a St. Thomas University that teaches Judaism and Catholicism on the same campus. I mean, that’s what they teach, nothing else too much. So we use their choir, and the Basilica Choir, and the choir from the Tabernacle, the temple choir. So you have these three choirs on stage from different types of backgrounds, and members of the orchestra from Minneapolis Symphony. But this is such a strong piece that could say so much to the New York audience. I think we only did it once in New York at the – oh, I forget where we did it, maybe – ah, I forget now. But this is the kind of thing, I’d like it to be music that you could present through the jazz or through the classical, Lincoln Center. But I’ve had to fight prejudice all my life because of writing a piece like this. Because the orthodox Jews might not want to do it, or another form of Judaism would be against it. We just did it here in Fairfield at the Jesuit College, at Fairfield University. And what a success we had. So you can bring all these different elements together, and this is what you should be doing with music, is bringing people together. And not hassling over is this this kind of jazz or that kind of jazz. It should be all kinds of jazz, all kinds of classical music. It should be a forum for all the composers.