Friday, February 14, 2020

Jazz Impressions of Dave Brubeck

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Dave Brubeck had an immensely successful career as a Jazz musician, but it was never a certain thing.

He was based in San Francisco so he wasn’t a part of the West Coast Cool and the LA studios scene. And while he respected what was going down on the East Coast with Bird and Diz, he couldn’t play that way even if we wanted to. It just wasn’t his thing.

The blueprint he followed was based on his interest in polytonality and polyrhythm which dated back to his studies after WWII with the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, CA.

His success in the Jazz world was largely due to his and his wife Iola’s persistence, the huge musical talent that Dave and his close colleague Paul Desmond would ultimately bring to bear on their musical endeavors and his insistence on playing his own style of music which would reach its ultimate expression in the huge amount of original music that Brubeck wrote over his lengthy career.

The Brubecks were raising a young family and they couldn’t afford to fail. Dave’s music was all they had to fall back on, and despite his success as the years went along, he never got over the insecurity of making it.

When the Brubecks journeyed from their home in Connecticut to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the Claremont Country Club in Oakland, CA, they did it as part of a scheduled trip to Japan. They had gigs lined up in all the big cities on Japan’s main island of Honshu! They were in their seventies!!”

In many ways, Dave Brubeck is really a living example of the fictional Horatio Alger character who makes his way in the world through pluck and luck [aka “The American Dream”].

Dave’s initial base in northern California was not particularly propitious. His quartet became a fixture at San Francisco’s Blackhawk, with an occasional gig at the hungry i and other North Beach and Bay area clubs, but the work paid scale and was regularly irregular, to say the least.

He did have a recording contract with Fantasy Records, a label along with the Weiss Brothers that Dave helped bring into existence, but the label had limited, local distribution which did not provide the group with national recognition.

Other than those based in the greater San Francisco Bay area, those Jazz critics who did hear the group were scathing in their reviews of its music.

Ultimately, the saving grace for Dave Brubeck and his music turned out to be a selecting the right venues to perform it in and by choosing interesting compositional themes to form the basis for many of his recordings.

Thematic venues, both at home and abroad, would hold the initial key to Dave’s success. Appearances at Colleges -Festivals -European Tours; this was the stuff that cemented the success of Dave’s quartet

Had it not been for Iola’s idea to book the group as a college concert attraction, one wonders what the fate of the DBQ might have been?

And Dave’s success on college campuses brought him to the attention of George Avakian who signed him to a contract with Columbia Records [Sony Music Group] which helped his quartet achieve both national and international acclaim.

Not surprisingly then, a theme that predominated many of Dave’s earliest recordings was in performance recordings at college and junior college venues such as Oberlin, OH, College of the Pacific, CA, Fullerton, CA JC and Long Beach,CA JC, respectively, Jazz Festivals including those at Newport, RI and Monterey, CA and Jazz clubs including Storyville in Boston, MA and Basin Street in New York City.

Once ensconced at Columbia,  George Avakian’s supportive patronage [and later, Teo Macero’s] allowed Dave’s imagination to run wild and new compositional themes now took the form of albums based on the music from Walt Disney’s animated films, a Composers series with standards by Cole Porter and Matt Dennis, music closely associated with the American South, the newly arrived bossa nova melodies, and the scores from notable Broadway shows such as “West Side Story.”

Dave had always been intrigued with unusual time signatures and while at Columbia this interest would be manifested in thematic recordings such as Time Out, Time Further Out, and Time Changes [which included “Elementals,” Dave’s extended orchestral composition, the first of many as these elaborate orchestral pieces which were to become another device in Dave’s lexicon of themes].

Because of Columbia’s extensive distribution abroad, Dave’s music now found considerable acceptance internationally and this resulted in what were to become many of my favorite recordings in the vast Brubeckian discography. Included here are the many “Jazz Impressions of” LP’s which included those drawn from the Brubeck Quartet’s trips to Europe, Eurasia and Japan [there is also a Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. and a Jazz Impressions of New York just to keep things geographically ecumenical].

In the following liner notes to The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Jazz Impressions of Eurasia [Columbia/Legacy CK 48531], Dave explains how this theme developed into an album of six original compositions:

“In early February 1958, the Quartet and I boarded a Pan American Clipper for London. Our tour, which began in England, took us through the countries of Northern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain into Poland, through the Middle East (Turkey, Iran and Iraq) and on into India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ceylon. When we returned to New York in the middle of May, we had traveled thousands of miles, had performed over 80 concerts in 14 different countries, and had collected a traveler's treasure of curios (see cover) and impressions (hear record) of Europe and Asia.

These sketches of Eurasia have been developed from random musical phrases I jotted down in my notebook as we chugged across the fields of Europe, or skimmed across the deserts of Asia, or walked in the winding alleyways of on ancient bazaar. I did not approach the writing of this album with the exactness of a musicologist. Instead, as the title indicates, I tried to create an impression of a particular locale by using some of the elements of their folk music within the jazz idiom.

The heart of any musical work, jazz or classical, is not the theme itself, but the treatment and development of that theme. And the heart and developmental section of these jazz pieces are the improvised choruses. Therefore, the challenge in composing these sketches was not in the selection of a theme characteristic of a locale, but in writing a piece with chord progressions that would lead the improviser into an exploration of the musical idiom I was trying to capture. At the same time, the piece must fulfill the requirements of a good jazz tune—that is, the chord progressions must flow so naturally that the soloist is free to create. Many melodies, which could have been developed into compositions if our music were completely written, have been discarded, because in these jazz impressions of Eurasia the improvisations by the soloists are comparable to the developmental section of a composed work.

How does one go about writing such themes? One way is to listen to the voices of the people. The music of a people is often a reflection of their language. I experimented with the words "thank you" as spoken in several languages, since that was the one phrase that I used most as performer and traveler.

It is evident that once the pieces for Jazz Impressions of Eurasia were composed, that the creation of the album was as much the work of Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Joe Benjamin as it was mine. In these jazz impressions they have proved themselves to be not only great jazz musicians, but improvisers with unique imagination and adaptability.”

When Jazz Impressions of Eurasia came out as a CD in 1991, Jazz author, critic and Jazz Journalists Association President, Howard Mandel visited with Dave and the result was the following interview which Howie has graciously allowed us to reprint on these pages.

© -  Howard Mandel, copyright protected, all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.


“Dave Brubeck has some stories to tell about going where no other jazz artists had dared yet to tread.

At the beginning of 1958, Brubeck was the most popular progressive instrumentalist in America—so influential he'd established an oeuvre of meters far from the beaten 4/4 path, so confident he'd successfully challenged segregation by featuring his black bassist during an extensive tour of the American South. Brubeck was a hit on college campuses, drawing large crowds and substantial performance fees. Yet he leapt at the chance to take his wife, two children and quartet on a strenuous 120-day tour of "Eurasia" at the behest of the U.S. State Department, financed by the Eisenhower Fund.

From England to Copenhagen, into Germany and Poland, through Turkey into the remote Middle East, India and Pakistan, the then 38-year-old pianist led alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright on a mission officially meant to charm the Old World's cultures with thoroughly modern music. But the Brubeck Quartet's tour proved equally effective in bringing "foreign" influences into jazz—a music which, though a product of the American 20th century, will never be outdated and recognizes no geographic boundaries.

"The experiences were just fantastic—sometimes very frightening, but great," says Dave Brubeck, today on icon as eminent as the American Eagle — which he resembles in the glint of his piercing eyes, the deep cut of His strong features, and the full flow of his white crown. After decades of international travel and dozens of recording sessions, Brubeck's memory remains sharp — he recalls the exotic names and places, strange customs and arduous travails of the 1958 tour in detail.  "It is one of my favorite tours," he announces, "and this is the album that came out of it!"

Brubeck wrote the six tunes on Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia (plus "Blue Rondo A La Turk," an enduring theme unveiled on his subsequent Columbia album Time Out) while traveling, and recorded them almost immediately upon the band's return. The tour was repeatedly extended as the State Department continued to find odd spots for the Quartet to perform, but its end was necessitated by on iron-clad concert contract with Texas A&M and bassist Wright’s agreement to join Carmen McRae (so that Joe Benjamin replaced him in realizing Brubeck's musical journal of the road). By going into the studio so soon after the trip, Dave's impressions were captured in all their immediacy. And as is the desired case when vivid ideas are preserved by getting them down before their freshness fades, the spirit of the journey lives in the music — as though caught in amber — after 33 years time.

"'Nomad' was about the nomadic Turkish people," Brubeck recalls. "We were in Kabul, a city the dogs come into at night from the outlying districts, so you're not very safe on the streets. The dogs come in packs and they're out for whatever they can hunt or find. But the nomads ride through, and they string drums on either side of their camels as a signal of their arrival and to scare off the dogs. I heard them, and that's 'Nomad.'"

And here is the famous Dave Brubeck Quartet, on original, distinctive, interpretive ensemble. First there's Joe Morello's inspired tom-tom motif, sketching the scene in league with Joe Benjamin's nightshade bass. Then the glory of Paul Desmond's alto — a focused beam of moonlight glinting off the caravan's trappings. And finally, Brubeck's deft block chords forming a rhythmically assured accompaniment, framing the experience through a lens of delighted discovery.

"Brandenburg Gate" is somewhat more restrained in its exuberance, but partakes of similar enthusiasm for its sources: the baroqued legacy of Bach (in the clock-like regularity of its circle-of-fifths modulations through harmonic minors), the "imitative" antiphony of Brubeck's phrase; following Desmond's to suggest a fugue, the cantus firmus provided by Morello's subtle brush work and Benjamin's graceful walk — and the blue notes and gentle swing that color the air jazz.

The story behind "Brandenburg Gate" is too good to ignore. "This was before the Berlin Wall was built," Brubeck says. "The State Department thought the best way for us to go to Poland was through Eost Germany, but it was against the law for an American to go into East Germany. A German lady named Madame Gunderlock, a very ancient promoter everybody seemed to know, was one of the few people who could go into East Germany through the Brandenburg Gate. So they asked me to get into the trunk of her car.

"I refused," he laughs while retelling the tale. "Americans were going to jail for lesser things than that, and disappearing for six months to years. I said, I’ll get in the back seat. If they question me I'll tell them why I'm going, and hope I can explain it. I was going to meet somebody from Poland who had papers that would get me through East Germany to Poland. So Madame Gunderlock drove me to what looked like a police station: a huge room, cement floors, wooden benches, and nobody in there. I sat in there for hours, alone.

"After a long time a man came in, walked over and sat next to me, but didn't say a word. I thought, 'What does this mean?' Finally he said, 'Are you Mr. Koolu?' I said, 'No, my name is Brubeck.' He said, 'No, you Mr. Koolu.' I said 'No' and he got out a Polish newspaper. There's a picture of me, captioned 'Mizter Kulu' — Mr. Cool Jazz! Well, he had our papers. I had to return and get the band and two of my children and my wife on the west side back through Brandenburg Gate, with no one to help us in a country where everything was hard to do anyway, and I couldn't speak the language, and I remember almost getting on the wrong train track to the wrong place..."

But he wrote the right song. When Brubeck returned to West Berlin years later to play the first concert East Berliners were allowed to attend there and began "Brandenburg Gate," the entire audience in the 10,000 seat Sports Palace stood up. His work, like the Gate itself, had become a symbol of unity regarding The Wall.

Brubeck's relationship with his listeners throughout the Eurasian tour was mutually empathic. For one thing, he often based themes on one phrase that, when attempted in a native tongue, always endears travelers to their hosts: "Thank you." His theme for Turkey's Bosphorus Straits, "The Golden Horn," comes from the rhythm of "choktahsa-keraderam" and features Desmond's Sephardic wail after a piano introduction developed from a dissonant cluster against Morello's tattoo. The Turkish "thanks" is a tongue-twister, and Brubeck is not noted for a Bud Powell-like right hand, yet his fingers negotiate the close turns of the moral line with aplomb.

The Polish "Thank You," ("Dziekuje," pronounced something like "chenkuye") reflects the mixture of sorrow and hope with which Brubeck encountered the deterioration of one of his homelands (he claims German, Polish-Russian, English, and maybe Native American ancestry).

"When we got to Poland we traveled in a bus where the floorboards were out and you saw the road down through your feet — that's how beat up everything was, the country had been destroyed so thoroughly, terribly. We'd done 11 concerts in Poland when I visited the Chopin museum one day; we took a train to the next city to play that night. On the train I wrote 'Dziekuje.'

"I wanted to play it as a thanks to the great Polish audience. There was no time to rehearse it because we went right from the train to the concert hall. I just hummed it to the guys, and wrote out the basic chord changes, but we never actually sat down and rehearsed it. It was very Chopinesque, because I'd been so impressed seeing the cast of Chopin's hands and his piano in the museum. So I told the interpreter that I wanted to call it 'Dziekuje'. We performed it after the interpreter told the audience what it was. When we finished, there was an absolute, interminable silence in the hall, which was one of the most frightening moments of my life. And then suddenly, cheers from everybody — the place exploded with applause. For some reason it was like the concert had become a church or a tribute or something. I hadn't planned it that way."

"Marble Arch," near which free-style debaters gather in London's Hyde Park, brims with the insouciant curiosity of a tourist on a double-decker bus. Joe Benjamin's solo and Desmond's stop-time passages, Morello's dapper brush dance and Brubeck's concluding ascending chords summon the image of four such tourists trading anecdotes about their visits over ale at a pub.

"Calcutta Blues," perhaps this album's most deeply felt track, can't help but change a listener's mood. "Millions sleep in the street every night," Brubeck remembers. "There were three plagues going on in Calcutta, and the taxis were used for ambulances and hearses. You don't forget those kinds of things. Nothing can change you more than seeing the misery of this world, and the great good we could do." The only thing that comes close is attending to the expression of those who've witnessed such situations and relate the truth.

Dave Brubeck has many more travel stories — of recording an impromptu collaboration with Indian musicians while electric current fluctuated, resulting in tape distortion; of bejeweled, tropically-treated pianos being hoisted by 20 bearers through the streets for bis performance; of being shot at by shepherds while flying through the Khyber Pass; of being rich with useless zlotys upon leaving Poland; of leaving Baghdad hours before his hotel was attacked during a spasm of violence. Not did his adventures end in 1958. Eugene Wright returned to the group to perform in Moscow for Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev during the 1989 summit meeting. Brubeck had been detained because his papers were filled out too well. He'd been threatened with on-stage assassination

Yet the pianist prevails. He goes to Europe for five or six weeks every year. He's toured Australia nine times, Japan five times, "and on the way, you play places like Singapore, Hong Kong, maybe Jakarta."

"I think that's what keeps us going, the wonderful vitality that comes from performing. You get so much back from the audience," Dave Brubeck enthuses. "I've gone out there sick, and at the end of the concert come off feeling just great."

One needn't wonder how his audience felt. To know, simply listen to Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia.”                                     

-Howard Mandel

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