Berks Jazz Fest artists The Brubeck Brothers up close

By Mike Zielinski

Genius fascinates. Originality captivates. Inventiveness motivates.

Imagine being the sons of a living legend like Dave Brubeck, growing up with him, performing all over the world with him, and keeping him alive through his transcendent music years after his death.

Welcome to the awesome world of Chris and Dan Brubeck, two richly talented artists themselves.

The Brubeck Brothers will celebrate their father’s centennial during the 30th anniversary edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, April 4, 7 p.m., at the Miller Center for the Arts.

It will be the Brubeck Brothers Quartet’s fourth performance at the Berks Jazz Fest. Dave Brubeck performed twice in the festival.

The dynamic Brubeck Brothers Quartet is completed by guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb, with Dan on drums and Chris on bass and trombone.

It will be an extraordinary performance. Chris and Dan will have the audience traveling along the timeline of Dave Brubeck’s extraordinary life and career by sharing incredible stories about Dave and performing his uniquely innovative music.

The celestial majesty of it all is that Dave really has never left their sons’ lives.

“We felt that way ever since he passed away,” Chris explains. “The closer I was to doing concerts when he had just died, I would have a more emotional experience. In 2013 we were playing at the Detroit Jazz Festival doing one of my dad’s religious pieces that had jazz improv, too.

“We are playing outdoors on a big stage and there is orchestra and chorus and it was a beautiful day with a 100,000-watt giant modern PA system and the choir is rocking off all the buildings in downtown Detroit. I looked up to the clouds and I had tears in my eyes and thought it was so amazing we were keeping Dave’s music alive and that he is so alive because of his music.

“On top of that we’re kind of in a unique situation because when he was alive, we were playing his music with him all the time. In terms of us extending his legacy, there is nothing artificial about it because we already were an extension of his legacy both genetically and professionally and maybe me most of all because I also worked with him a lot co-composing pieces.

“My biggest fish to fry are composing deadlines for other projects as well as carrying on Dave’s tradition. Wonderfully insane. A lot going on because of Dave’s anniversary.”

Chris is a gifted composer in his own right, a profession and passion that keeps him hyperactively immersed in music. After all, he is a Brubeck. Chris and Dan have been making music together practically all their lives.

It’s a simple sanity that water gives life. It is, after all, the essence of life. Without water, there is no life. With the Brubecks, there is no life without music.

“I can’t imagine life without music,” Chris relates. “There was never a moment I felt like I was doing something I wasn’t meant to do. I didn’t want to play piano when I was 5 years old because he was really good at it, but my dad wanted me to play piano because some day I might want to be a composer and he wanted me to understand treble clef and bass clef and rhythmic notation so I would know the language to convey the ideas that would blossom in my head.

“Dave was never a taskmaster with us. A lot of people presume that Dave taught us a lot about music. But the reality was that he was gone all the time on tour. So he wasn’t our teacher. We had other music teachers. But there always was general encouragement.

“Some people have curly hair. Some have buck teeth. We have some sort of musical genes going on. Karmically it’s just not DNA. I think we were born into this family for some kind of reason as opposed to just randomness that all my brothers turned out to be musicians and had a lot of talent in their blood.”

Indeed, the Brubeck Brothers inherited their father’s creativity, technique and improvisational abilities.

Although their music is rooted in straight-ahead jazz, their concerts reveal an inherent ability to explore and play odd-time signatures while naturally integrating the influences of funk, blues and world music.

The group’s creativity, technique and improvisation can be heard in their uncompromising music, which reflects their dedication to melody, rhythm, culture and the spontaneous spirit of jazz.

Said All About Jazz: “The Brubeck Brothers Quartet attains that rarefied level where music is both relaxed and expressive, and their joy in its creation is contagious. There’s really nothing out there that comes close to their unique brand of inventiveness.”

In many ways Dave Brubeck is like the handle of a whip in their music — every movement ripples back to him. But his sons’ music is not necessarily bivouacked with yesterday.

Dave Brubeck, of course, needs no introduction to anyone who has ever heard a lick of music. He was a one-of-a-kind pianist and composer who helped make jazz popular again in the 1950s and ’60s with recordings like Time Out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and “Take Five,” the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.

Dave, who died one day shy of his 92nd birthday in 2012, performed until a ripe old age. Some men would be content to lean back and admire such a legendary footprint of accomplishment. He wanted to lay down another.

He was designated a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. He was one of the most active and popular musicians in both the jazz and classical worlds.

With a career that spanned over six decades, his experiments in odd-time signatures, improvised counterpoint, polyrhythm and polytonality remain hallmarks of innovation. He was one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards. His style ranged from refined to bombastic, reflecting his classical training and improvisational skills.

In 2009 Dave received the prestigious Kennedy Center Award, which President Barack Obama bestowed on him on his 89th birthday.

Dave brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners. Besides experimenting with time signatures and polytonality he explored musical theater and the oratorio, baroque compositional devices and foreign modes.

Outside of his famous originals, which had the charm and durability of pop songs (“Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “Take Five”), some of his best work was in overhauls of standards like “You Go to My Head,” “All the Things You Are” and “Pennies From Heaven.”

Great music, like great karma, sticks like glue. There were no limits to his musical dominion.
Perhaps lost in the foggy mists of time is that it’s ironic that Dave Brubeck became a musical genius and pioneer. Why? Because he was a tough as rawhide, ride-the-range cowboy. Picture the young Clint Eastwood in Rawhide. It appeared Dave’s destiny was cattle, not jazz.

Chris picks up the historical narrative:

“Dave literally was a cowboy tough as nails at first,” he explains. “Somehow his mother was a classically trained pianist who studied in Europe. My dad played the piano as a young boy. He had two older brothers who turned out to be musicians. So my father was my grandfather’s last hope to continue the cattle tradition in the family.

“Dave went to college as a veterinary major. When Dave was young, he was cross-eyed and probably had some sort of dyslexia. He always was very bad at reading music. When he was taking a chemistry class, he mixed the wrong two things and the wrong portions and he damn near blew up the lab.

“Already at that point by ear he was playing sort of swing bands and jazzy kind of stuff. His chemistry teacher told my father that his mind and heart were into music, to get out of there, go across campus and go to the music school.

“When he went to music school, within a short time everyone believed he was the most talented person they ever had in their music school. Which was fine until the final written exam which he couldn’t hear — he had such great ears. He was relying totally on what music looked like on the page and getting asked theoretical questions and he flunked it.

“The faculty had this meeting wondering what they going to do with this guy. He’s the most talented person we ever had in this school and he flunked the written part of the exam. He should be failed. Others said you can’t fail a guy who is unbelievably talented. So they went to the dean above them and they made a deal. They would give him a degree, but he had to promise to never teach music.

“My dad never felt bitter. He thought he got off good getting his degree. He never did teach music directly. But he taught millions of people a lot about music. He’s got about 40 honorary degrees from Yale and different universities.

“Ironically at the University of Pacific there are plaques where he met my mom and there are streets named after him and programs because of his impact on the musical world. That’s why he wanted me to learn the piano so I wouldn’t be saddled with the same inability to read music.

“So how did Dave manage to write 20 major oratorios (large-scale musical works for orchestra and voices)? He trained himself to write these big pieces. As an adult he learned how to read music better by composing music. He taught himself later in life to master all that.”

The magnitude of that accomplishment is somewhat staggering.

There had been two distinct camps fighting for Dave’s soul. His dad wanted him to be a cattleman. His mom wanted him to be a musician. In the end, Dave’s dyslexia twisted his fate.

And the world is better for it.

“One of Dave’s theories of why he and his brothers all turned out to be musicians even though they were in a ranch in the middle of nowhere in a town of 105 people was because their mom would be practicing Chopin, DeBussy, List and Rachmanioff all day long,” Chris says. “As she gets more and more pregnant her belly is touching the piano and that wood is going into her womb that is filled with fluid and those babies had a nine-month head start in music because she would play five, six hours a day.

“The other thing was because my dad was riding a horse in the vast emptiness of a 40,000-acre ranch in California he would come up with these little musical games, including thinking about polyrhythms like counting five against four and the horse would walk at four. Or when it got too hot, there would be a place with a pump that was run by a windmill that had a certain kind of rhythm inherent in the mechanics. He’d get under the barrel for some shade and he would listen to what he thought was a 5/4 rhythm. He developed his own take on his art form because he was so isolated.”

The intervention of fate once again had a heavy hand on the keyboard of Dave’s life.

“My dad was in Patton’s Third Army,” Chris says. “Talk about twists of fate and predestination. Because my dad grew up on a ranch and could shoot, he was assigned to be a rifleman. Dave was near the frontlines at the Battle of the Bulge.

“He was near the Army depot and a truck pulled up with USO girls who had arrived to do a show for the troops. The brass knew that the German Panzer divisions were coming in the next day or two and the Apocalypse was at hand. Turns out they needed a piano player. My dad is sitting on his helmet, raises his hand and volunteers to give it a shot. He plays his ass off.

“A guy by the name of Colonel Brown hears him and doesn’t want my dad to get his ears shattered by artillery or get killed or have his hands blown off. So he gives my dad a special order to find fellow musicians and leave as soon as he can. Colonel Brown says it’s more important for you to make music for the world than go to the frontlines.”

The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces in World War II. According to the Department of Defense, American forces suffered 89,500 casualties, including 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 captured or missing.

The musical world owes a debt of gratitude to Colonel Brown, who altered Brubeck’s life and likely saved it.

Another transformative figure in Dave Brubeck’s life was Darius Mihad, a French-born Jewish composer/conductor/teacher who came to America to escape the Nazis. His compositions were influenced by jazz and Brazilian music and made extensive use of polytonality.

“The teacher he was able to study with was Darius Mihad under the G.I. Bill after World War II,” Chris says. “Mihad was a real genius. He respected jazz and asked my dad why he wanted to study with him.

”My father said, ‘Because I lived through World War II and I know I have a big piece in my heart and soul that I want to write because of the horrors I’ve seen in World War II to explore the teaching of Jesus Christ and make it a big concert setting. I can’t see how people who believe in the same God and the same Jesus could do that to each other. I want to work with Biblical text to get people to see the hypocrisy and maybe relive what Jesus said, which was to love your enemy, not blow them up.’

“My dad wanted to learn orchestration from Mihad, who was a master at it. My father wanted to make exciting European orchestra music. But Mihad said that he and his French composer friends all thought American jazz was interesting and exciting, like boogie-woogie.

“The piece Dave wrote was The Light In The Wilderness and was recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony and toured the world with university choirs and got a good review in Time magazine.

Speaking of Time, Dave made the magazine’s cover on Nov. 8, 1954. The cover story described his sound as some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born.

By 1959 the jazz maestro became a veritable rock star with the release of the album Time Out on Columbia Records, much to the amazement of some Columbia executives who fought against its release because they were convinced it had all the commercial appeal of a lullaby performed by a rhinoceros headbutting a boulder.

“There was nothing calculated about Dave becoming a big commercial success,” explains Chris. “The tracks on that album were very original and fresh. ‘Take Five’ is lots of solos and not much chord changes. Maybe America was ready for that. The record company didn’t even want to put it out.

“Goddard Lieberson, who they called ‘God,’ was head of Columbia Records. He was a musician, not a bean counter. The marketing people thought the album was doomed for failure. Sometimes your originality just hits at the right time and you’re recognized for it.”

Time Out was intended as an experiment using musical styles Brubeck discovered abroad while on a U.S. Department of State-sponsored tour of Eurasia, such as when he observed in Turkey a group of street musicians performing a traditional Turkish folk song that was played in 9/8 time, a rare meter for Western music.

The album received negative reviews by critics upon its release, So much for critics.
It became one of the best-known and biggest-selling jazz albums, charting highly on the popular albums chart at a time when 50,000 units sold for a jazz album was impressive. It consequently produced a Top 40 hit single in “Take Five,” composed by Paul Desmond, and the one track not written by Brubeck.

“God” had made the right call and Brubeck now was a musical god. The divine thing about becoming a musical god is that you have life everlasting here on earth.

Long live Sinatra. Long live Elvis. Long live Dave Brubeck.

“The first time I realized my dad was a man of some prominence was in the 1960s when we were in a diner in New Jersey with a jukebox,” recalls Chris. “They had Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Elvis and Dave Brubeck with ‘Take Five.’ Wow! My dad made the jukebox! He must be some serious sh-t.

“I’ll tell you another big highlight in the same contour. Years later I was recording with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios when I found out that Paul McCartney knew that Chris Brubeck played the bass and I was invited to meet him. I loved the Beatles.

“To hear Paul McCartney say that he and John Lennon used to listen to ‘Take Five’ trying to figure out how my dad worked that out and saying that my father was a great genius. That is an affirmation of some kind of status.”

In his closing comment, Chris mentioned that the last time the Brubeck Brothers Quartet performed in the Berks Jazz Fest it was with the Reading Pops Orchestra in 2016.

“My dad was the first guy to say that classical orchestras and jazz musicians can play together,” he noted.

Of course he was. He was – and is – Dave Brubeck.

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