Friday, March 26, 2010

Dave Brubeck: A Life in American Music

Part 2

On December 6, 2010, Dave Brubeck will celebrate his 90th birthday. The editorial staff wanted to do something special to commemorate it, so we turned to Doug Ramsey, who has graciously consented to have his essay - DAVE BRUBECK: A LIFE IN AMERICAN MUSIC - posted on JazzProfiles.

It doesn’t get any more special than that.

If you are looking for more of Doug’s Jazz writings, his current musings can be found  daily on his blog – Riffitides.

And should you wish to read his essay in its original form, you can find it as part of the accompanying booklet to the Columbia/Sony Records boxed set Dave Brubeck: Time Signatures A Career Retrospective.

Last, but not least, Doug is also the author of  Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.

© -Doug Ramsey. Reprinted with the permission of the author; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

ENTER JIMMY LYONS

Dave remembers the octet as having played four paying concerts: at Mills College in 1946, in 1947 opening for the great Woody Herman Herd in San Francisco, and in 1948 at Dave's alma mater for the College of the Pacific chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national music frater­nity. Then, in 1949, they gave a concert of their newest compositions at the Marines Memorial Auditorium in San Francisco. That was a turn­ing point.

The Marines Memorial concert was attended by Jimmy Lyons, a young disc jockey with open ears. Lyons' enthusiasm persuaded his bosses at KNBC to launch a weekly program called "Lyons Busy," featuring Bru-beck and a trio drawn from the octet. Ron Crotty was the bassist, Cal Tjader was the drummer, doubling occasionally on vibraharp. In some pieces, Tjader's quick reflexes and athletic ability were needed when he was called on to switch from vibes to drums in the split second between choruses.
In 1950, Down Beat, evidently on the strength of Brubeck's first trio recordings and the attention paid his music by critics like Barry Ulanov and Ralph J. Gleason, published a piece co-authored by Dave and lola. In it, Brubeck recommended that jazzmen explore the possibilities contained in the polytonal examples of Bartok and other classical composers. But he went on to make it clear that in the matter of spontaneous creation, he felt that improvisation was the heart of jazz: "I will not go so far as to say jazz ceases to be jazz once it is written. But I do say that improvisation is the criterion by which all jazz, written or unwritten, is judged. The degree of its 'goodness' is based on its proximity to improvisation."

Although the quartet with Desmond is what most people think of when they hear the name Brubeck, the music in this collection, from the vaults of five companies, includes important recordings made before the quartet was formed in 1951 and after it was disbanded at the end of 1967. "INDIANA" was one of four trio performances the Brubeck Trio recorded in September of 1949 for Coronet, a San Francisco label established by the traditional trombonist Jack Sheedy. The two 78-rpm records were popular enough that when Coronet went out of business not long after, Brubeck (with the backing of Max and Sol Weiss) bought the masters of "INDIANA," "LAURA," "TEA FOR TWO" and "BLUE MOON." He paid $350. In those days, that was real money, especially for a young family man who wasn't working much. It was enough, in any case, to lay a foundation.

The brothers Weiss operated the Circle Record Company, a pressing plant that manufactured the Coronet 78s. On the strength of the Brubeck records they started a company that would originate, not merely press, jazz records. Its first releases were reissues of the Brubeck Trio 78s. With the whimsy and refusal to take itself seriously that overlay everything the company did as long as they ran it, the Weisses named it after a science fiction magazine, Fantasy. Many of their LPs were pressed not on conventional black vinyl but in startling chemical shades of red, green, and purple.
The company was home base for Brubeck in the crucial early years of the trio and quartet, and to Cal Tjader and Vince Guaraldi, both of whom built successful careers on the popularity of their Fantasy recordings. It also helped launch Lenny Bruce, whose irreverence and attacks on con­ventional wisdom and attitudes sounded a lot like many of the conversa­tions that took place on an average afternoon at the headquarters of Fantasy. Years later, Max and Sol sold Fantasy and their other label, Galaxy, to an employee, Saul Zaentz, who went on to acquire Prestige, Milestone, Riverside, Contemporary, and other labels, produce motion pictures, and build an entertainment empire.

Nothing so grand seemed in the offing at the little company tucked away in jumbled rooms below Market Street, at first in an alley called Treat Street and later in another named Natoma. Brubeck and the Weisses recorded more trio sides. Fantasy released recordings made by the Bru­beck Octet, but only after the trio had proved that Brubeck could sell records, which had begun to move well not only in the Bay Area but in Portland and Seattle. From among the first records, "BLUE MOON" was chosen best of the month by Metronome magazine. That started a series of awards to Brubeck that has never ended. Three of the trio's recordings, including "UNDECIDED," were on the best-of-the-year list in Jazz 1951, Metronome's yearbook.

BAY AREA SUCCESS

Now Jimmy Lyons, the enthusiastic disc jockey, had more good news for Brubeck. He had landed the trio a job at the Burma Lounge, a popular club near Lake Merritt, virtually in the center of Oakland. After a month of baking, Dave, lola, and their two sons said goodbye to the corrugated oven at Clear Lake. The "Lyons Busy" program, riding on the powerful signal of KNBC, sent the live music of Brubeck, Tjader, and Crotty the length of the West Coast and far out into the Pacific, where sailors picked it up on shipboard radios. When the sailors had liberty in San Francisco, every Navy man's favorite port, they sought out the trio at the Burma Lounge, then later across the bay at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, which became Brubeck's virtual headquarters.
As much as six months out of every year, the trio, and later the quartet, played at the Blackhawk, a monument to dimness, dustiness, and the proposition that in a sympathetic setting the listener can become a part of the creative process. His Blackhawk experience must have had a lot to do with the development of Brubeck's often-quoted observation that the success of the quartet was due in large part to the participation of its fifth member, the audience.

"I've worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer," Guido Caccienti used to say of his long, narrow temple of gloom. Guido, his partner Johnny Noga, and their wives, Elynore and Helen, kept the prices reasonable and kept musicians and audiences relaxed with their good-humored tough­ness. It wasn't unusual for a line of customers to wait more or less patiently to pay their dollar cover charges at the door while Elynore and Helen exchanged gossip or the latest Mort Sahl line.
Musicians loved to play the Blackhawk, which the Dave Brubeck Trio helped establish as a jazz club. Count Basic had to love it, to be willing to squeeze 16 instrumentalists and Joe Williams onto a bandstand roughly twice the size of a cocktail table. It was one of Miles Davis' favorite places to play, and Thelonious Monk's, and Shelly Manne's, and the Modern Jazz Quartet's. And, of course, Cal Tjader's and Vince Guaraldi's. On one occasion in the early '50s, when their quartets were working regularly and gaining in popularity, Brubeck's path crossed Gerry Mulligan's, liter­ally; when his group moved south from the Blackhawk to The Haig in Los Angeles, Mulligan's quartet moved north from The Haig to the Blackhawk.

Dave recalled that "It usually took me half an hour to find a parking place in this part of town. Paul would pull up in his car at the last minute and saunter in. Once at intermission I asked him, 'How do you find a parking space?' He said, 'Come across the street and I'll show you.' He was parked in a yellow no-parking zone. I said, 'See what that says, sfpd? San Francisco Police Department?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'Safe for Paul Desmond.'"

Where the Blackhawk once stood at Turk and Hyde in the Tenderloin, no building now stands. The corner is a parking lot, without so much as a plaque to commemorate one of San Francisco's cultural treasures, one of perhaps a half-dozen jazz clubs across the country that may not have made anyone rich, but, through their owners' love of the art and the artists, made a difference in the development of the music.

DESMOND REDUX

Dave had left standing instructions with lola that if Paul Desmond ever showed up, she should not let him in the house. But one day, the Jack Fina experience behind him, Desmond came to the door. In New York, he had heard a recording of the Dave Brubeck Trio on a jazz radio station. lola let him in. Dave was on the back porch pinning diapers to the clothes line.

lola was susceptible to Paul's charm from the first time she met him. She told Gene Lees 40 years later that Desmond looked so forlorn, she went out back and told her husband, "You just have to see him." Brubeck did and, lola said, "...he was full of promises to Dave. He said, 'If you'll just let me play with you, I'll baby-sit, I'll wash your car.'"
Brubeck was unable to keep up his resistance. The partnership was back on, at least in spirit. But making the trio a quartet was impossible finan­cially because club managers discouraged anything that might jeopardize the growing success of the trio. Desmond sat in, but the businessmen interested in the modest fortunes of the group were not particularly happy when he did.

Nonetheless, when the trio was booked into Los Angeles, Desmond went along to sit in at The Haig and later at Zardi's. Dave's family also went to L.A. The Brubecks had been living in an apartment in San Francisco and now rented a tiny cottage on the beach at Santa Monica. They had put money down on a house near San Francisco. When the work in Los Angeles ended and it came time to close on the house, Dave and lola put Darius and Michael in the car and drove all night to keep the appoint­ment. Brubeck remembers having lola periodically slap him to keep him awake during the 400-mile drive.

They arrived on time, to discover that the deal on the house had fallen apart. Their down payment money was tied up in escrow. Most of their belongings were in storage. They had no place to live. So when a booking materialized at the Zebra Lounge in Honolulu, Brubeck took the trio, the wife, and the kids to Hawaii. Stone broke, living in cramped quarters, eating food from cans that had been dented and sold at reduced prices, the Brubecks' fortunes were at a low ebb.

They got lower.

The beaches of Honolulu provided sunshine, water, free recreation, and distractions from poverty. To Dave, lola and the boys, the Tjaders, bassist Jack Weeks, and Dave Van Kriedt, afternoons on the beach were relief from ungenteel poverty. Weeks had replaced Ron Crotty in the trio and Van Kriedt was in Honolulu playing a separate job. They were all together one afternoon when Dave, diving through waves, hit a sand bar and wrenched his neck with so much force that an ambulance driver, noting the angle of the head, thought the injury was fatal.

"I heard him calling ahead on his two-way radio, telling them that he was bringing in a DOA; dead on arrival. I thought he was right," Brubeck says. "I was going in and out of consciousness."

The first hospital he was taken to rejected the patient for inability to pay. When it was established that he had been in the service, arrangements were made for him to be admitted to Tripler, a Veterans Administration hospital. Late that night, lola, who had seen Dave being taken away, got a call informing her that her husband was probably not going to be paralyzed, as doctors had at first feared, that, in fact, he was showing improvement.

Nonetheless, the damage to vertebrae and nerves required him to be in traction for three weeks, ending the job at the Zebra Lounge and putting the Dave Brubeck Trio out of business. Tjader and Weeks went home and formed a new group. Nearly 40 years later, Brubeck still feels pain in his back, neck, and fingers; the legacy of his accident in the Hawaiian surf and a reminder that the outcome could have been infinitely worse.

In traction, on his back painfully scribbling a note to Desmond, Dave wrote, "Maybe now we can start the quartet." Desmond saved the note all his life.

AT LAST, THE QUARTET
Out of the hospital and back in San Francisco, Dave convalesced, then finally got together with Desmond in early 1951 and formed the first Dave Brubeck Quartet. Desmond had kept eating by taking a job in the reed section of the band led by Alvino Rey, who was several years beyond and several pegs below his success in the 1940s with an admired show band. By now, his leadership attempt happily behind him, Desmond had no desire to be anything but a sideman and leave the worrying to someone else. The inclination was so strong that it extended to his business rela­tionship with Brubeck. Throughout all but the earliest years of their career together, they never had a signed contract.

"Paul and I never had an argument about money," Brubeck told Gene Lees. "He never looked at the books. He never asked the attorney to see anything. He said, 'Whatever you say is right.'"

When Paul died, by terms of his will, his share of royalties was left to the American Red Cross, which still receives proceeds of the group's record­ings, and royalties from Desmond's universally popular composition "TAKE FIVE."

The trio had been a success, but the change to a quartet meant a rebuilding challenge. Fred Dutton and Herb Barman were the initial bassist and drummer, with Wyatt "Bull" Ruther or Norm Bates playing bass and Lloyd Davis or Joe Dodge on drums as the band evolved. After the trio dissolved, Cal Tjader had gone on to work with Alvino Rey, then formed his own band before joining George Shearing in 1953. Ron Crotty was back with Brubeck for much of 1953 and 1954.
The group worked in the Bay Area, mostly at the Blackhawk, with occasional forays into southern California or the Northwest. But before the end of 1951, they began to gain attention. The band found itself in demand in clubs around the country. Performances of the spirit, fresh­ness, and intricacy of "LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING" (in this collec­tion), struck a chord (altered, augmented, or diminished; rarely orthodox) with listeners.

BRUBECK TIME

The improvement in fortunes extended to domesticity. There was a new real estate transaction, and this time it did not collapse. By the middle of 1954, a house in the Oakland Hills contained six Brubecks, Christopher having made his appearance in 1952 and Catherine in 1953. Dave liked it there. He liked it so much that even though national success was in the air, he was on the verge of ignoring it in favor of spending the rest of his career gigging around the Bay Area. There were trips east, but as late as 1954 Brubeck was reluctant to commit himself to the road life that would be required to achieve and maintain major stardom.

In 1954, Brubeck received a boost so unlikely for a jazz musician that the mere thought of it might send him into gales of cynical laughter. time magazine made him the subject of its main article in the November 8, 1954, issue, with an Artzybasheff cover painting of Dave and a caption paraphrasing his boyhood piano idol, Fats Waller: "The joints are really flipping." In the mid-50s, before the pervasive hype of television diluted the impact of every print medium, a cover story in time was a national event. It brought massive attention to the subject.
By then, he and Fantasy had agreed to an amicable separation and Dave had signed an agreement with Columbia Records. But in the overlapping commitments to the two companies, there were to be three more Brubeck albums for Fantasy: in 1957 one of solo piano, and another reuniting the quartet with tenor saxophonist and composer Dave Van Kriedt, Brubeck's boon companion from the Mills College and octet days. In 1961, long after Brubeck had become, with Miles Davis, one of Columbia's two major jazz artists, he recorded a quartet album for Fantasy with clarinetist Bill Smith, another octet alumnus, replacing Desmond.

THAT'S HOW IT WAS, MOVING EAST

In 1959, while Brubeck vacillated over whether to aim for a big career, his attorney, James R. Bancroft, asked him, in effect, whether he was inter­ested in getting out of debt and being able to put his children through college. The family was more than broke; Dave recently had paid off a loan to cover back taxes. Bancroft persuaded Brubeck to rent the Oak­land house, go on the road for a year and move his family to the East Coast, near the sources of most of the potential work in clubs and at the colleges where the band had become increasingly popular. In compari­son with the East, there wasn't nearly as much work for jazz musicians out West in those days. He could always move back to the house in the hills above the bay.

A Columbia Records executive, Irving Townsend, was about to take over the label's jazz operations on the West Coast and offered to let Brubeck rent his house in Wilton, Connecticut. Dave and lola took a deep breath and made the move.

The house, one of a dozen in a colony owned by a woman who liked to rent to artists and writers, was in the woods. It had openness, light, and lots of room. The Brubecks liked living there, and Dave enjoyed being able to spend time with his family rather than chewing it up traveling back and forth from coast to coast. Eventually, they decided to sell the house in the Oakland Hills and build their own place in Wilton, an establishment immediately christened by Desmond "The Wilton Hilton." Visitors re­member a piano in every room, including the kitchen. In 1992, they still live there. From its hill, the house looks down and across a sweep of the property's 20 acres of meadow, streams, and woodland.
Brubeck's career had begun to show that it had the potential for steady, respectable growth. Now it took off. His record sales leaped, not only the Columbia recordings with Desmond, Bob Bates, and Joe Dodge, but the ones on Fantasy as well.

Paul gave up his flat in San Francisco and took a spacious top-floor apartment in a building at 55th Street and 6th Avenue in New York; "right at ground zero," he said. He lived there the rest of his life, ten stories up from his favorite restaurant, the French Shack, and within easy striking distance of clubs, concert halls, book stores, record shops, and Fruits of the Aegean, a Greek seafood place that was another of his preferred dining spots. The apartment was just around the corner from the Half Note after it moved to midtown, making it easy for Desmond when he worked there in the 1970s to "fall out of bed and into the club."

Desmond's importance to the success of the quartet is unquestioned, especially by Brubeck. Both of them told me on several occasions that even the stunning moments of contrapuntal improvisation in the best of their Fantasy and Columbia recordings did not approach the peak of what Desmond called their "inspired madness" at the Band Box and later when he sat in with the trio. There's a hint of it in the 1952 Storyville album that for the next 25 years remained Paul's favorite, more than a hint in the 32 bars of counterpoint in the live broadcast of "LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING" from 1951, and an intense dose of it as Dave supplies his partner harmonic direction and rhythmic accents in "LE SOUK," 1954, one of Desmond's greatest flights of invention.
That accompaniment is the work of a man in profound concentration and support, deep in the interaction of emotions and intellects that constitutes jazz improvisation. It epitomizes and symbolizes the selflessness and interdependence that in its finest moments make jazz an act of coopera­tive creation without parallel in the performing arts. The frequency of those moments in the Brubeck group is what led bassist Eugene Wright to tell a fellow musician who came backstage one night to question Wright's presence in an otherwise white band, "Look, man, there's a lot of love in this group."

The power and weight of many of Brubeck's solos have led his critics to charge him with the sin of heavy-handedness, excessive romanticism, bombast. Once in the 1960s when we were discussing jazz criticism, an activity he regards with alternate amusement and frustration, he said, "The word bombast keeps coming up, as if it were some trap I keep falling into. Damn it, when I'm bombastic I have my reasons; I want to be bombastic. Take it or leave it."

THE ACCOMPANIST

Many critics, full of admiration for Desmond, wondered how he could put up with what they considered the insensitivity of Brubeck's piano play­ing. They did not hear or could not hear what led Desmond, in his most serious moments of discussing his friend, into effusions of praise for the attentiveness, delicacy, and suggestiveness of Brubeck's accompaniments.

Ignoring the success of the early trio, it was often alleged that without Desmond, Brubeck would never have made it. In that invaluable interview with Marian McPartland, Paul responded, plainly:
"I never would have made it without Dave. He's amazing harmonically, and he can be a fantastic accompanist. You can play the wrongest note possible in any chord, and he can make it sound like the only right one.

"I still feel more kinship musically with Dave than with anyone else, although it may not always be evident. But when he's at his best, it's really something to hear. A lot of people don't know this, because in addition to the kind of fluctuating level of performance that most jazz musicians give, Dave has a real aversion to working things out, and a tendency to take the things he can do for granted and most of his time trying to do other things. This is okay for people who have heard him play at his best, but sometimes mystifying to those who haven't.

"However, once in a while somebody who had no use for Dave previously comes in and catches a really good set and leaves looking kind of dazed."

In the quartet, Brubeck's taste for a little bombast extended to the exuber­ances of drummers. In a few places on the celebrated Jazz Goes To College album he can be heard encouraging the bass drum detonations inserted into his solos by Joe Dodge. "Yeah, Joe," he exclaims, whereupon Dodge launches another little mortar attack.
Desmond's idea of appropriate drumming was more in line with that of one of his heroes, Lester Young. Young had been conditioned in his Count Basic days to the impeccable ball-bearing smoothness of Jo Jones and he spent much of the rest of his career discouraging the enthusiasms and paradiddle fills of those he sometimes called "the bebop kiddies."

"Just a little tinky-boom," Pres used to instruct his percussionists. "Don't drop those bombs back there." It's no wonder that Desmond loved to play with Connie Kay, the former Lester Young drummer who took his sub­tlety and mastery of time to new levels with the Modern Jazz Quartet.

On the other hand, and both feet, there was Joe Dodge, succeeded by Joe Morello. Dodge, an old San Francisco hand, was a bear of a man, a swinger capable of using wire brushes to drive the time unobtrusively but whose temperament had something in common with that of a bombar­dier. Desmond was fond of Dodge's playing and arranged a truce under which Dodge would keep things down to, at maximum, a medium roar when Paul was soloing.

… TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 3