Dave Brubeck: 20th Century American
by Darius Brubeck
December 6, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of Dave Brubeck’s birth in Concord, California. He died at his home in Wilton, Connecticut a day short of his 92nd birthday, having lived for most of the twentieth century. Visitors to the Jazz Education Network Annual Conference in New Orleans this January will have an opportunity to view exhibits related to Dave’s long career, his role in jazz diplomacy and advocacy for civil rights. Members of the Brubeck family will be at the exhibition throughout the Conference. Authors of three new books on Brubeck, Philip Clark, Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, Stephen A. Crist, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and Keith Hatschek, The Real Ambassadors, will join me in a panel discussion moderated by JEN President Todd Stoll. What follows here is a light sketch of some of the main moments in American public life that influenced my father’s music. I’ve divided the century into decades and presidential terms.
Dave never joined a political party which is one of the reasons he was never regarded as politically controversial. Beginning with John F Kennedy, every President except the Bushes (GHW and GW) invited Dave and Iola Brubeck to the Whitehouse, Dave as an official entertainer or honouree and both simply as guests. Both Reagan and Clinton regarded him as a friend. In his late career, he was perceived as a world figure representing a universal yet typically American brand of idealism. Dave’s creative output often reflected his engagement with important events and issues, as evidenced by the themes of his major works. His public statements and artistic responses were inspired by faith in universal truths, rather than affiliations. He deeply believed in certain principles and acted accordingly.
US Presidents in the 1920s: Warren Harding (1920), Calvin Coolidge (1924), Herbert Hoover (1928)
Women gained the right to vote in national elections in the year Dave was born. Whether his mother voted for the first time in that election is not known, but the first political disagreement my father remembers was hearing his father say, ‘Dammit Bessie, you just threw away your own vote and cancelled out mine!’ Elizabeth Brubeck (Bessie) consistently voted for the Socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times.
US President in the 1930s: Franklin D Roosevelt (1932, 1936)
The Great Depression (1929 – 1939) meant scarcity everywhere and men showed up at the Brubeck ranch offering to work in exchange for food and shelter. Despite hard times, Dave’s stories made it seem a good place to grow up, almost self-sufficient, safe and stable. He attended school locally and his mother gave piano lessons. His childhood companions were his two older brothers, Henry and Howard and Al Walloupe, an Indian kid (as per ranch terminology) and those in the small but varied community living on the land or nearby; cowboys, Indians as well as Italian, Mexican, Basque and Portuguese immigrants.
His tales of these years resembled an early movie western but with modern accessories like cars, a telephone party line and, crucially for young ranchers wanting to be musicians, radio. Dave listened to broadcasts of Fats Waller and Art Tatum and the big bands of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Dave’s brother Henry, who was 10 years older, played drums in a swing band in Stockton led by Gil Evans.
US Presidents in the 1940s: Franklin D Roosevelt (1940), Harry S Truman (1948)
December 7, 1942, the day that the Japanese attacked the US Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbour marked an abrupt end of the world that Dave and his generation of Americans knew, just as the date 9/11 is the defining moment so far in our century. His father advised him, ‘join the cavalry and you’ll be alright.’ He did and was, therefore, part of ‘the greatest generation’. “The Greatest Generation” was the title of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, used in the voice-over prologue of “Saving Private Ryan”. Dave’s war recollections were vividly related to Walter Cronkite on the CD, Private Brubeck Remembers. He was in Patton’s Third Army, near the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ but instead of going into battle as an infantry sharp-shooter, he was asked to form a band to keep up morale. He recruited musicians from replacement depot personnel and lightly wounded soldiers, who had returned from the front. “The Wolfpack”, the name he chose, became the first de-segregated band in the US Army.
Dave’s brother Howard had stayed on the classical track prescribed by their mother, studying under Darius Milhaud as a graduate student at Mills College, Oakland, California in 1941. After returning from Europe in 1946, Dave also studied with Milhaud under the GI Bill of Rights. The war had brought many societal changes and the beginning of a ‘global’ consciousness in America. To veterans like Dave, it seemed a fabulous time to begin life as a modernist with high aspirations, an international outlook and deeply held convictions about the future of America.
US President in the1950s: Dwight D Eisenhower (1952, 1956)
The 50s was also a time of ultra-conservatism, witness anti-communist McCarthyism, the push back against rising expectations among women and minorities – uptight conformity in behaviour, beliefs and dress-codes. There was progress too, which had demographic momentum; more well-educated Americans, rapid urbanisation and great artists emerging in every field. The Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Paul Desmond was formed in 1951. The first Newport Jazz Festival took place in 1954 and, in 1959, Dave and Howard collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra. Readers won’t need reminding that the 50s – 60s was undoubtedly a golden era in jazz, with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman on the scene at the same time. Dave and Miles Davis and others distinguished the decade with experimental yet genre-defining albums.
America’s foreign policy was defined by competition between the West and the Soviet Union. The now-famous Dave Brubeck Quartet, embarked on a US State Department tour in February 1958, taking in Poland, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I can say from first-hand experience that people in these countries still remember this tour which had a lasting impact on the music scene almost everywhere the Quartet played. This was certainly true in Poland when I toured there in 2018 – 60 years later – with my own Quartet. Some readers may have seen the Sachel Orchestra from Lahore’s viral YouTube version of ‘Take Five’. If you trace the route of the 1958 tour on a world map, it’s clear it was intended to encircle the USSR and spread the word that there was more to the US than military and commercial might. America had its special and unique national culture and identity and jazz was an expression of democracy and racial cooperation. Dave honestly believed this, but was well aware that not all was glorious back home.
US Presidents in the 1960s: John F Kennedy (1960), Lyndon B Johnson (1964), Richard M Nixon (1968)
In 1960, Dave cancelled a 25-date tour of colleges and universities in the South after 22 of them refused to allow his black bassist, Eugene Wright, to perform with the quartet. Eugene Wright had joined the ‘classic’ Dave Brubeck Quartet just before the State Department tour and the group was nearly prevented from performing at East Carolina College in Greenville, North Carolina a few days before leaving for Europe. Dave and Iola wrote a musical called The Real Ambassadors starring Louis Armstrong, himself the greatest jazz ‘ambassador’, calling attention to the hypocrisy of promoting America as the land of the free abroad while failing to confront Jim Crow at home. However, jazz musicians were smart not to refuse these tours. As recently appointed ‘official’ representatives of American culture they gained status and leverage back home and an unassailable platform from which to challenge the federal government to act against institutional racism. Louis Armstrong, who refused one tour but accepted another later, notoriously called the Governor of Arkansas an “uneducated ploughboy” for opposing school integration. This pronouncement went around the world.
Dave’s first of many invitations to the Whitehouse came from John F Kennedy when jazz was still the music of an incumbent ‘new frontier’ generation and college students.
The tradition of jazz concerts on campus actually began in the early 50s, when Iola Brubeck wrote to student cultural organizers and offered the quartet’s services. This resulted in a series of Dave’s ‘Jazz Goes to College’ albums and paved the way for many other jazz artists. University concerts and tours remain important for reaching audiences outside of the few big cities in America that support full-time jazz clubs.
‘Take Five’, written by Paul Desmond and Dave’s ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’, both recorded in 1959, reached mass audiences a little later when released as singles. They ‘broke’ through on mainstream network radio. These two huge and durable chart-topping hits and the album Time Out which followed, lead to almost ceaseless worldwide touring.
By 1965, half a million Americans were overseas fighting in the Vietnam War – a calamitous conflict for the ’Baby Boomer’ generation. Maybe ‘the greatest generation’ wasn’t running things so well after all.
When the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello was disbanded in 1967, it was news on national television. “An end of an era”, The Huntley- Brinkley Report said. Dave actually wanted time to compose large-scale orchestral and choral pieces, feeling it was the best way to engage with the issues of the day. His first cantata, The Light in the Wilderness was written in 1968, fulfilling a mission he had envisioned from the time he was a soldier. After seeing the destruction and cruelty of war between ostensibly Christian nations in Europe, he wanted to remind people of the basic tenets of Christianity. He therefore wrote music commending kindness, charity, forgiveness and love. He continued to write works based on religious texts while engaging with contemporary issues for the rest of his life. The Milliken Archive of Jewish Music notes that “Dave Brubeck has always maintained that he wrote his second large-scale sacred composition The Gates of Justice (1969) to bring together—and back together—the Jewish people and American blacks. The natural bond forged between them during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s had weakened and was starting to break down by 1969, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.”
The US Presidents in the 1970s: Richard M Nixon (1972), Gerald Ford (1974), Jimmy Carter (1976)
During the first years of the ’70s, the Vietnam War was still the most divisive issue for society as a whole and Dave wrote Truth is Fallen in response to the Kent State Massacre when students were shot down by Ohio National Guardsmen. After nearly a decade of protests, and with a generationally and culturally divided nation, Nixon finally called it off in 1973. ‘Truth’ involved not only setting Biblical texts as a rebuke to US warmongering and violence, it was also an attempt to work across generations and genres. My brother Chris’ rock band, New Heavenly Blue, was featured in a kind of a concerto grosso setting.
Dave maintained a quartet, which now featured Gerry Mulligan and he also included my brothers Chris, Dan and me in Two Generations of Brubeck and The New Brubeck Quartet. The classic quartet reunited for a 1975 Silver Anniversary Reunion Tour.
The US Presidents in the 1980s: Ronald Reagan (1980,1984), GHW Bush (1988)
The climax of the 80s was undoubtedly the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In retrospect, it signalled the end of the Soviet Union which happened two years later and, of course, the end of the Cold War. In 1988 the arms race was still on and America was ahead and able to continue out-spending the Soviet Union. This led to a series of summit meetings between Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. President Reagan brought Dave and his then-current Quartet (Bill Smith on clarinet, Chris Brubeck on bass and Randy Jones on drums) to the party, a reciprocal state banquet hosted at the US Embassy in Moscow (30 years after the famous ‘cold war’ tour of 1958). US State Department staffers reported that the meetings didn’t go particularly well until after the group played. Soviet and American officials relaxed, tapped their feet in time (I’ve seen the video) and the mood shifted. Business that had to be done was done. While this is obviously a mere footnote, it can be claimed that jazz and Dave Brubeck played a role in the success of the 1988 summit.
US President in the 1990s: Bill Clinton (1992, 1996)
Earth is Our Mother (1992) is Dave’s setting of a speech attributed to Chief Seattle. It is a plea for society to take responsibility for the environment and goes further by reminding Americans that capitalist notions of land ownership made relatively little sense to our country’s first inhabitants. Shortly after this, in 1994, Dave was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton, received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement (1996) and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999.
US Presidents in the 2000s: GW Bush (2000, 2004), Barack Obama (2008, 2012), Donald Trump (2016)
Perhaps the finest public moment for Dave and indeed for the whole family, because all of us were present, was Kennedy Centre Honours in 2009. This 3-day program of events in Washington, D.C. comprised a round of ceremonies, banquets and a televised public concert that coincidentally took place on Dave’s 89th birthday. Considering the long road from cancelling southern colleges that wouldn’t accept a black bass player to receiving a medal in the Whitehouse from America’s first African American President, my parents felt their hopes for the nation had been realized.
Dave Brubeck’s last performances were in 2011, a year before he died. Iola lived on for three years more, actively sharing in the lives of her children, grand-children and great-grand-children. I feel they left us at the right time, as they would have been so disappointed by what came later.
For more detail: http://davebrubeck.com/about/timeline/