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Jazz with Mr. C: The Brubeck legacy grows with the release of Time OutTakes.

Jazz with Mr. C: The Brubeck legacy grows with the release of Time OutTakes. Chris Brubeck takes us through the family’s near-tragic pandemic journey to the new collection and waxes on his father’s legacy.

By Jeff Cebulski

An essential element of my jazz upbringing is the early prominence of pianist and innovator Dave Brubeck in my listening experience. After hearing “Take Five” on the radio, I was smitten; I asked my folks if I could spend allowance money on Brubeck’s “greatest hits” album. And then I was taken, especially upon hearing “Blue Rondo ala Turk.” Later, I invested in Time In, which became my favorite album at the time.

So, when I recently received an email from Dave’s middle son, Chris, who was following up on my download of a new collection of outtakes from the famous quartet’s most popular album, Time Out, I had no hesitation—would he do an email interview? Graciously, perhaps even eagerly, Chris replied in an affirmative way.

Prior to his father’s death in 2012, Chris Brubeck, a bassist and trombonist, had been vitally active in his dad’s music. Philip Clark, author of Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, sites Chris’ involvement as part of the “Two Generations” group conception of the 70’s (including Chris’ brothers Danny and Darius), when Dave began to incorporate electric instruments. Later, when Dave regrouped his quartet, Chris became the regular stand-up bassist for a while. Chris, besides being perhaps his dad’s most engaging posthumous voice, has become known for his own compositional skills, something that he mentions during our conversation.

This interview is, essentially, part of a public relations effort to support the release of Time OutTakes, a collection of archived studio recordings from the Time Out sessions, the first album from a new label, Brubeck Editions. However, it also brings fans up to date with the Brubeck progeny’s calamitous past year and their plans for the future.

Jeff Cebulski: How have you and the family been doing during the pandemic?

Chris Brubeck: For starters we are all really grateful to be alive and well. In March, 2020, my brothers Dan (drums), Darius (piano), me [bass and trombone], and English saxophonist Dave O'Higgins were doing a tour of England, which started with a sold-out week at the renowned jazz club Ronnie Scott's in London. It is a wonderful venue but there are three bands sharing the same dressing room every night, a very international staff, and fans that really want to rub shoulders with the musicians they just heard at the club.

It was part of a worldwide celebration of our father's centennial year. Then we did a week of concerts throughout England and were slated to play a concert in Poland. Three days before that event, that concert was cancelled by the government because the crowd was over a thousand people and COVID was starting to spread exponentially.

So, we changed our plans, and my wife, Tish, and I, along with Dan, flew back to Connecticut. Darius dropped us off at the airport and drove to his home in southern England. It turned out that ours was one of the last flights out from Heathrow. A day later I called Darius and his wife Cathy to see how they were feeling. He started to cough and was running a fever for several days. Meanwhile back in Connecticut, Dan was going steadily downhill, too. A few days later they were both in the hospital lying in intensive care units. They both ended up on ventilators for weeks, put into medically-induced comas, and damn near died. It was a horrible ordeal for them and our entire family as for many weeks every time the phone rang it could have been a doctor calling to say "They didn't make it." However, my remarkable brothers had the core willpower to bravely fight through this and not give up. They are both doing very well now and are capable of playing gigs, if there were gigs to play. Cathy, Tish and I also got COVID at the same time, but luckily ours were milder cases (though my wife Tish lost her sense of smell and still hasn’t regained it completely!). Tish and I went into quarantine and, even after recovering, we didn't get in the same room with our children and grandchildren for several months, like many Americans. Only visits from the back deck and waves through the glass patio doors.

Beyond our family's personal health crisis, the pandemic wiped out years of planning for concerts to celebrate Dave’s Centennial. My usual touring band, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (Dan and me with Chuck Lamb on piano and Mike DeMicco on guitar) had more than a hundred worldwide concerts cancelled, including plans for a beautiful concert at Chicago Symphony Hall with special guests. There were cancellations from the Hollywood Bowl to Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Orchestra, New Orleans Heritage Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Detroit Jazz Festival, etc. Many of the venues, to their credit, have tried to reschedule, only to need to reschedule yet again. So, who knows when things get back to "normal”? Especially with new strains of COVID hitting America, just when our country was starting to make progress with a national approach to the pandemic, all planning is speculative. These are very difficult times for all the performing arts all over the world.

Fortunately, January, 2020 had kicked off with some plans that DID came to fruition. We went to the Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans, and our family launched our new public charity, Brubeck Living Legacy, with a beautiful, extensive exhibit curated by Tish and her team. We gave a special concert featuring Darius, Dan, me, and Dave O'Higgins saluting our father's great tunes. Other artists at the conference played sets dedicated to Dave Brubeck's music and his centennial was a theme of this extraordinary gathering of superb jazz musicians and educators. This included elementary school music teachers who were using our father's music to demonstrate the fun of understanding odd time signatures. That's what I call reaching across generations. The Louis Armstrong House made a special presentation saluting my parent's musical (lyrics by my mother, Iola Brubeck) called The Real Ambassadors starring Satchmo and Carmen McCrae. Out of this grew an hour- long video of wonderful young musicians assembled by the Armstrong House, performing some of the music from this show which championed not only jazz diplomacy but Civil Rights as well. We were happy to be part of that effort which was just distributed this year as part of Black History Month. Brubeck Living Legacy is also deeply involved with our musical and administrative partners at Classical Tahoe to open a special jazz music camp, The Brubeck Jazz Summit. Both last summer and this summer's immersive camp experience with acclaimed teachers, international students, and COVID-worried parents and staff had to be cancelled out of caution. We are certainly hoping that with vaccinations we will come roaring back at Lake Tahoe in 2022.

Also, in late January 2020 a piece I wrote for the centennial, "The Time Out Suite" for orchestra, premiered in California. It was wonderfully played and was rebroadcast 11 months later to over a million listeners on NPR's "Performance Today" to celebrate my father's birthday on December 6. That's a lot of ears hearing my father's music again. That was my goal, to get his beautiful melodies and chord progressions into the minds and hearts of as many people as possible for the centennial celebration. In February, 2020 the Brubeck Brothers Quartet was featured on the Jazz Cruise, a superb floating jazz festival that tours the Caribbean with many of the top jazz musicians in the world jamming on board. John Clayton formed a big band which played his "Suite Sweet Dave: The Brubeck Files." John insisted on integrating our group with his big band so that was an honor and a blast to play together! One of the BBQ's sets was rebroadcast on Sirius XM Jazz Radio in December and on New Year's Eve as well as part of Dave's Centennial.

Lastly but very special to me is that I had been commissioned to write a major choral piece in the style of my parents by a festival in Switzerland. Many jazz fans might be only slightly aware of the remarkable fact that our father and mother,Iola, wrote 18 major, hour-long oratorios for vocal soloists with chorus, orchestra, and jazz group. This new piece I wrote was based on Biblical text assembled by Father Michael Sherwin and was titled "Mary Magdalene and The Garden Dweller." People often ask me, "How long does it take you to write a big piece for orchestra and chorus?" I usually have no idea, but in this case I do because the planets must have all been aligned perfectly. I had a creative blast in April 2019 setting the text while composing on my father's grand piano over a period of one week. I finished setting the final text stanza with chords and melody on Easter morning. Considering the subject matter, that was some kind of cosmic timing. Of course, there was a lot of additional work orchestrating such a piece; flushing out all the voice movements in the choral parts and making structural sketches for the improvising jazz interludes etc. This Swiss premiere featured Darius, Dan, me, and Dave O'Higgins so they were immersed in the rehearsal and performance experience. Darius told me that when he was very near death in his coma from COVID, the main choral theme from this piece became his mantra: "Love is stronger than death." He told me that on the phone as soon as he was able to talk. What was a religious experience for me when composing became a "religious experience" for Darius, and he claims it helped him focus, stay positive and spiritually climb out of the "valley of the shadow of death"! The intersection of art and real life (and death) doesn't get much heavier than this.

That's the kind of year it has been for the Brubeck family, filled with positives, disappointments, artistic support and caring from the jazz community, and everlasting gratitude that "we are where we are," as of today: alive, recovered and doing well. If we never get to play again, we "left it all on the playing field" as they say in sports. And at least we have fine recordings to chronicle our evolution and lives as musicians and composers. COVID has taken us out of the circus of performing, new hotels very night, new cities every day, airports, cancelled flights, and mad scrambles because it is in our DNA that "The show must go on." We've been doing this for more than half a century!

JC: I was touched by your story about how Darius' "religious experience" was initiated by your composition. May I ask how your father's/parents' evident religious affectations--as witnessed by his sacred concert compositions--influenced your and your brothers' lives, and perhaps your musical vocations?

CB: My father's first big religious composition was The Light in the Wilderness. I went to the world premiere in 1968 and witnessed how significant this piece was to both my parents. It was coming from a place where their art intersected with their spirituality. This piece had been something my father had wanted to compose ever since going through the life and death re-defining experience of World War II in Europe.

My parents were Christians but not formally affiliated with a particular church. But as a young person I grew up in an environment where you couldn't avoid contemplating Jesus as the most significant philosopher the world has ever known. When you hear Jesus's words sung in a powerful musical setting (as it was by a baritone soloist in The Light), it gets even deeper into your heart, mind, and soul than the printed words in a Bible. For example, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul." I certainly thought about that many times during the last [impeachment] hearings and votes in Washington. Most of these elected officials take an oath, swear on a Bible, and think they are Christians. Yet it is so clear that they don't think or live according to the philosophy of Jesus. This is exactly why my father and mother, who could think quite radically about issues, would always use words from Jesus and the Bible because, in theory, that was as "conservative" as you could get.

I can only speak for myself actually, but all my siblings were looking for religious answers in different ways. Eastern Philosophies like Zen Buddhism, Hinduism to Evangelical Christianity, Native American Beliefs were explored with intellectual and philosophical curiosity. But as one Guru pointed out, and I am paraphrasing, there are many paths to get to the mountain top, but if you keep switching paths you may never arrive at your destination.

So, oddly enough, my father had his ultimate religious experience when he was composing a piece for a concert Mass for the Catholic Church. It was called "To Hope," and it is a very beautiful work. After the premiere it was pointed out by a priest friend that the piece was missing a section that was usually included; some sort of setting of the “Lord’s Prayer”—Our Father who art in heaven, etc. So, my father was thinking about that and dreamed the entire setting. It was presented to him with all the lyrics, the chord changes, the movements of the inner voices—he heard it all in his dream. He woke up and rushed to put it down on paper while it was still in his mind and inner ears. Now this dreamed composition, "Our Father," is a part of the piece and absolutely gorgeous. It DOES sound perfect, like no other notes should follow or precede the ones that are there. My Dad, through music, felt this was such a deep experience that he thought it was a sign from God to formally pick and stick with an exact religious path at last. So, he formally converted to Catholicism.

And to point out what kind of person my mother was, she did not convert with my father. They always worked together on new pieces with religious texts, and she helped choose and edit the passages and assemble the different translations of the Bible required, but she kept her own independent religious beliefs. Their spiritual curiosity inspired them to write "The Earth is Our Mother" based on a speech by Chief Seattle made in 1854. They also wrote music inspired by texts by Martin Luther King, the prophet Isaiah from the Old Testament, and the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Whoever offered truth in words, they were interested in setting them to music.

On a personal note, the most awe-inspiring concert I played involving my father's music after his death was during the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2013. Chris Collins, the festival director, organized a performance with full chorus, orchestra, and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet lit up downtown with the Mass being pumped through this huge sound system. I looked up at the blue skies with the rolling white clouds drifting by, and I couldn't help but think my Dad was somehow hearing this great aggregation of talents playing his music and feeling hopeful about the future of humanity.

JC: What is your earliest recollection of your father as a musician?

CB: Early memories include our dad jamming on Christmas Carols with us over the holidays…that was just pure fun. I had no awareness that he was a musician of note but I was simply happy he could tickle those black and white keys and music (that was a lot more fun than what I heard on the car radio) came flying out around the room. We used to play toy instruments and gradually replaced them with real ones.

I also remember other musicians coming over and they sounded real good to my young ears, too. We called them our musical uncles, Uncle Paul (Desmond) and a few years later Uncle Joe (Morello) and in 1958 Uncle Gene (Wright) … the rest of the world would ultimately call them "The Classic Quartet." Dan is three years younger than me and was born to be a drummer. I definitely remember him sitting on Joe Morello's lap, probably around age 5, while Joe was teaching him how to hold the drumsticks and play simple patterns. I used to love to lie down under the piano where I was out of everyone's way and hear and feel the vibrations of the bass and the bass drum and the low end of the piano. It was one of my favorite places to be.

My oldest brother Darius played trumpet and piano and then my next oldest brother Michael gravitated towards the alto sax … guess who gave him some pointers? Paul and Mike had an unusual affinity all of their lives. Music was a source of fun and happiness in our family. I know it sounds unbelievable but once in a while Dad would break out his ukulele and play a song while he was tap dancing just to send us kids into hysterics!

JC: What is your earliest recollection of your father as a famous jazz artist?

CB: My father had broken his neck in a diving accident while playing a Honolulu club in 1951. He almost didn't survive it but did a long stint in traction at the Veterans Hospital and pulled through. His back hurt him the rest of his life and it even affected his dexterity as a pianist resulting in more of a "block chord" approach that he became known for. When I was 6 or so, Dad might announce at our family dinner "Hey the fellas and me are giving a concert tomorrow night, any of you want to come with me?" My other brothers had Cub Scouts etc., but I could go so I cheerfully volunteered. But part of the deal was I would have to promise to sit in the back seat and rub my Dad's neck and back on the ride home as his muscles would lock up during the concert. A small price to pay for witnessing that great group in action and watching the audience absolutely love and respond to what they were hearing and watching—music being CREATED right in front of their eyes and ears!

I knew in my heart and soul that this was a wonderful way to spend your life and earn a living. The connection and joy between the audience and the performers was a thrilling thing to watch. When I was 7, Dad took me on a tour to Jamaica where I witnessed the impact of the Quartet in a different musical culture. I fell in love with steel drum bands and calypso music and also got to see Jamaicans’ exuberant reaction to the Quartet's style of jazz.

The last big incident that stood out in my memories occurred a few year later when I was about 11. I went to a gig with my Dad in New Jersey and we stopped at an old fashioned "silverish" train-car diner. It was the classic kind with ripped red leather seats and a juke box with flip pages in every booth. As we waited for our burgers I was looking at Beatles and Beach Boys songs and next to them was "Take Five." I KNEW then, “Wow - Dad's really made a significant imprint on American culture." Later when I met Paul McCartney at Abbey Road Studios where the London Symphony was recording my music, imagine my delight in hearing Sir Paul tell me "Oh yeah, me and John used to listen to your dad's music and try to figure out all the odd time signatures! 1,2,3,4,5…1,2,3,4,5." That was an amazing moment for me among many cool encounters in my lucky life, from meeting President Obama to hearing tales about my babysitter, Lenny Bruce…being in this family has been an interesting ride so far!

JC: How did the idea of your record label and dive into the archives come about?

CB: Brubeck Editions, our family label, evolved because, to celebrate my father’s centennial, two books were written about him: one a biography A Life in Time by Philip Clark; another, Dave Brubeck's Time Out by Stephen Crist described in detail the making of one of the most revolutionary and legendary jazz LPs of all time. The authors, who were conducting interviews with us, mentioned that their research had uncovered that there were outtakes from the Time Out sessions. We got rough copies of tracks and on a day off while "Brubecks Play Brubeck" was touring England a couple of years ago, we listened to most of the music. It was terrific and as we listened to Paul's stunning solo on my sister's song "Cathy's Waltz,” we thought some of what we were hearing was arguably better than the established version. A family record label had been a long-time dream of ours but of course we had all been extremely busy pursuing our own recording, touring and composing careers. A family meeting which included my youngest brother, cellist, Matt, and the rest of my siblings and spouses led to the decision to go for it. My wife, Tish, assembled our excellent team of independents for radio promotion, press, art design, manufacturing and distribution. Tish has been basically running the label and deftly coordinating all these elements to work harmoniously.

We decided the discovery of these extraordinary outtakes from Time Out as we were going into our father's centennial was the opportunity and the crossroads for us; it's "now or never!" S