The Chris Brubeck Interview, Part One

I spoke with Chris Brubeck in mid-February 2020; the primary reason for the interview was in connection with then-upcoming concert dates featuring the Brubeck Brothers Quartet.

You can guess where this is going.

We had a lengthy and lively conversation, one that moved into areas well beyond what the bassist and his drummer/brother Dan – both sons of that towering figure in jazz, Dave Brubeck – do with their own group. We spent a good bit of time discussing his father’s legacy and other engaging topics.

When the concert tour was canceled (along with nearly every other concert around the globe), the planned story was scotched as well. I held onto it for while in hope – unfounded hope, as it turns out – that life would return to normal quickly and the show would be rescheduled in a timely fashion.

But the interview was too interesting not to share. So over the next several days, I’ll present an edited transcript of the best bits from my conversation with Chris Brubeck.

If you can, go see him and his band when things get back to normal. And they will. – bk

In Part One, Chris Brubeck discusses his father’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” as well as Dave Brubeck’s work with French composer Darius Milhaud.

The version of “Blue Rondo à la Turk” on Timeline heads in a significantly different direction from the original. Yet to my ears, it’s still true to the spirit of your father’s version. Did you feel a responsibility to put your stamp of the arrangement of the song?

Thanks for listening to it, and thanks for noticing. That sort of interjection of Dan playing hand drums really amplifies the original inspiration and story and genesis of how “Blue Rondo” came to be. Because, as you probably know, it really was because Dave was walking down the streets of Istanbul and heard that drum beat and, sort of, went, “What the hell is that?”

He grew up as a cowboy, so he definitely would not have heard that kind of music up in Concord, California. So, it really caught his ear, and he sat fascinated and listened to it until he figured out he could count it in nine. He heard it, I think, on his way to a radio station broadcast thing, and there were a bunch of musicians. He was all excited, like he had just seen a sasquatch or something: “Oh my god, I heard this most amazing beat.” He started counting and explaining it to everyone and they looked at him and they said, “Are you kidding? That’s, like, so common in our music. That’s like the blues to you Americans.”

Dave Brubeck

Which is, interestingly enough, kind of why there’s blues in the middle of “Blue Rondo,” too. It was amplifying that [commonality]. And it’s, sort of, my dad’s genius that he had the weird encounter of that 9/8 rhythm, put a melody into it, took the comment of “It’s like my blues to you.” He figured out, maybe, that an entire tune in 9/8 would be too much for a jazz audience, but going back into the blues would be a very secure place for his band to go to improvise, to just relax and maybe let the audience relax, too.

And then, you know, the contrast that’s on the head of going back and forth between 9/8 and the blues, it’s just something that all audiences get. You know, it’s such an obvious contrast, that they follow the game of it. So, it worked.

And for me, it’s such a classic because, well, I’ve written orchestral arrangements of it. I’ve written string quartet arrangements of it, woodwind quintets, field bands, pop groups. The Boston Pops asked me to write a version that didn’t have a jazz groove in it, so they could just play without a jazz group around. And it’s just such an amazing piece of music, such incredible forward momentum. I mean, it’s almost indestructible. [laughs] I’ve tried my best and I can’t destroy it! It’s just a fantastic piece of music.

For me, the genius of your father’s music was taking time signatures that are – to the western ears, to American ears – quite unnatural, and making them feel natural.

Yeah, well, now we’ve had at least three generations of jazz musicians, so it is natural, too. But as long as we’re going to the origins – and that was a great opening question, because you can see, I’m still blathering on about it – my dad studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud. And he’s really a significant composer, especially as it relates to west coast cool jazz, and I’ll tell you why here, without sounding like I’m giving you a lecture.

It’s interesting how this all ties in. Darius Milhaud was a very famous French composer, and they had a nickname for the group of six composers. They called them Les Six. I’m not quite professorial enough to name every one of the composers in Les Six, but they’re significant. And they are sort of a counter-reaction to Debussy and Ravel and maybe Erik Satie. And what’s interesting is that Darius Milhaud traveled to the United States and heard music in Harlem during the Harlem renaissance. And he was totally fascinated by jazz.

Milhaud wrote a ballet called “Creation of the World.” I wish I was clever enough to tell you who the choreographers were, but this is around the same time period that Stravinsky wrote “The Rite of Spring.” It was a sort of reflection of all the super modern art, like of Picasso; everything was in a state of revolution. And if you hear “The Creation of the World,” you’ll say, “Oh, my god, it sounds like Milhaud stole from Gershwin!” First of all, he is using the saxophone, in the European orchestration. And it was very rarely done, maybe not at all. But then you hear it in “Rhapsody in Blue,” but he’s, like, 12 years ahead of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Darius Milhaud

Now, okay, I’ve got to skip ahead. Cut ahead to World War II. The frigging Nazis occupied Paris, right? And so, Darius Milhaud was a French Jew. And he’d better get the hell out of there, right? So, he knew some academic composer types who thought he was a genius, and they said, “Hey, flee to America and we’ll get you a job.” He got a letter that he thought said “Come and teach in little Mills College in California,” near Oakland, California. “And you’ll get free faculty housing and $40,000 a year.” The letter had gotten wet, you see. In a smudgy way. And so he came. And what he really got was free faculty housing and $4,000 a year.

But that beat the hell out of a concentration camp for being a Jew. So, my father got to study with Darius Milhaud on the GI Bill, when he got out of World War II, and so did a lot of other guys that were in the war who were musicians. And they knew he was famous. It was a little like, what if Stravinsky was teaching at Mills College?

So, how this really started in the west coast cool, is that when my dad first met Milhaud, he said to him, “Well, why do you want to study with me? I hear that you’re a jazz piano player.” And my father said, “I want to study with you because I want to learn how to orchestrate, write for all the instruments, learn the language, so I can communicate, and write a big piece for orchestra that talks about how horrible war is, and to remind people the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

And I don’t want to mislead you into thinking he’s like Billy Graham, but he just couldn’t believe that people that believed in Jesus and God – you know, the Germans and all the other Europeans – could be slaughtering each other. They didn’t even have any lame excuse of one was Chinese or one was Muslim: “They’ll go to hell and you won’t.” You know what I mean? It just was so bizarre to him. So that was one of the things he swore to himself. “If I live through World War II, I want to write a piece like this.”

So, Milhaud said, “You want to study with me because of that?” He said, “Yeah, because we think you’re the most exciting music in the world.” He said, “Well, I’ve got news for you, young Mr. Brubeck: all my French composer friends, we all think that classical music is dead, and the most exciting thing we hear is American jazz. Play some boogie-woogie for me!” So, their lessons used to start like that.

And then what happened is that Milhaud would say to the other GIs who were studying with, “I love American jazz so much! When I give you a counter-point assignment, or how to work on a fugue, instead of doing the traditional methods like the second prelude by Bach, I want you to take a song like ‘How High the Moon,’” – which has very similar chord changes or bass note chord movements – “and do your counter-point assignments to that.” So, those people studying with Milhaud became a group called The Octet. That was the beginning of the sort of Gil Evans, more composed, more counter-point jazzy sound; it’s all these students.

And then after doing this for a couple years, and getting to the point that they were very inventive and very great, they couldn’t get a job, even on New Year’s Eve. My father said, “I gotta feed my family.” So out of that became the Dave Brubeck Trio with Cal Tjader and a bass player named, I think, Ron Crotty. And Dave started catching on.

In those days, we’re talking about catching on modestly, like working at a place like the Vermont Lounge in Oakland. And being able to feed his family making, probably, less than $100 a night for three guys. But that was the beginning of the whole thing.

I have to ask. Is your brother Darius named after Milhaud?

Absolutely. And I didn’t quite hit the punch line, as my dad used to say. The punch line is that as he got to know him and respect his talent, Milhaud said to my dad, “When you start touring the world, the most important thing for you to do, the most important thing for me to do, and all composers in their genre: keep your ears open. Listen to what you hear and incorporate that music into your music, and you will be creating something new and wonderful.”

So, in Milhaud’s case, he went to New York, he heard jazz licks in Harlem, he put it into European music in “The Creation of the World.” In Dave’s case, he had that mantra in his ears from hearing Darius Milhaud say it, and he goes to Turkey and he hears that jazz beat and that becomes the basis of “Blue Rondo.” So, he listened to his teacher’s words well.

That all hangs together. Thank you for sharing that.

Yeah, and then the other thing that’s really cool … I’ll try to describe it to you. Milhaud lived in that campus housing in Mills College, and he considered the Brubecks as his adopted family. So, he said to my parents, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be an American, or really own a part of America, but you would make me feel great if you would promise me that you would always have a part of your home be my square foot of your home.” Which seems like a funny thing to say.

Then one occasion – I don’t know if it was Christmas or what – in the ‘50s he presented my parents with a square foot drawing, a self-portrait of him, but instead of a line where his cheekbone would be it was a small treble clef, and he had the themes of his pieces written to outline his face and he had a pipe and his hat that he would always wear. And my parents had it turned from paper into a copper etching. And where ever we’ve lived, we’ve had his self-portrait hanging in our house, to tell him that his square foot of America was always under our auspices.

So, still today?

Well, actually, at this point, because my parents are both gone, now it’s around, but the square foot has moved with its namesake. My oldest brother, Darius, who currently lives in England, it’s in his house now. So, in a way, we’ve betrayed it because it ain’t in America anymore. On the other hand, Milhaud probably wouldn’t recognize America, if it were in this square foot of current America, like, “What the hell’s going on here?”

Come back for more from my fascinating chat with Chris Brubeck.