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Music: The Man on Cloud No. 7

21 minute read

(See Cover) Pianist David Brubeck, described by fans as a wigging cat with a far-out wail* and by more conventional critics as probably the most exciting new jazz artist at work today, has strong ideas about how his audiences should behave while he plays. There should be no loud joking or talking; no table-hopping; no eating. Drinking, if absolutely necessary, should be done in moderation. “Some people,” he says with horror, “plunk a full bottle of Bourbon down on a table right in front of the bandstand—you know the sort that will order a whole bottle.” Brubeck does not feel that way because he is egotistical but because he takes his work with a deep, almost mystical seriousness. When he is up on the platform, with the tempo whipping about his ears and no notion where the next idea will come from, he has a devout confidence that it will come—and it always does.

Normally as peaceable as a lullaby, Brubeck has been known to come off the bandstand in the middle of a number and threaten to silence a noisy customer with his muscular hands, which, until a few years ago, were expert at roping cattle. But it has been quite a while since he has been forced to such extremes with audiences. Nowadays, people listen.

They listen to some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born. They listen in garish cellars and august concert halls. They listened last summer in Los Angeles’ Zardi’s, last month in Boston’s Storyville and Manhattan’s Basin Street, and a fortnight ago they listened and cheered him in Carnegie Hall. Last week they listened in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis as the Brubeck Quartet swung through the Midwest (as part of a jazz-concert package). Not everybody likes Brubeck’s intense, quiet music; a lot of Bourbon drinkers still prefer the wilder, louder jazz that thrives on full bottles. But in a matter of five years, Brubeck fans have grown from a small, West Coast clique to a coast-to-coast crowd—particularly on college campuses. What people hear and cheer in Brubeck is not only a new type of jazz. It is the same exuberance that is causing a tremendous boom in all types of jazz—the birth of a new kind of jazz age in the U.S.

The New Jazz Age. Across the U.S. the joints are really flipping. In Manhattan, CLUBS JUMPING AGAIN front-paged The Billboard. “A flock of nighteries and eateries have switched or converted to a jazz policy,” specified Variety. The story is repeated in many cities. The new jazz age has impressed even such a long-(and grey-) haired musician as Pianist Artur Rubinstein. “The Americans are taking jazz very seriously,” says he. “There is so much money in it.”

There is indeed. Jazz, which used to account for a tiny percentage of sales among the major record companies, has become a big moneymaker for the big labels. Across the U.S. there are also some two dozen companies making a comfortable profit by putting out nothing but jazz. Even such diehard highbrow companies as Westminster and Vanguard (The Bach Guild) have turned out money-making jazz albums. At Victor, which has just hired its first full-time jazz executive, a jazz-type record called Inside Souter-Finegan for six months outsold everything in the imposing Red Seal catalogue except Mario Lanza’s Student Prince. Last June Dave Brubeck made his first Columbia record, Jazz Goes to College, and did even better: for four months it outsold any single album by another kind of pianist named Liberace.

The new jazz age has its echoes all over the world. In Japan, singers eagerly mimic Ella Fitzgerald while dancers gyrate in the “Fallaway Twist” and the “Natural Hover Whisk.” Scandinavia has a local growth of “cool” jazz, and France has an unquenchable thirst for le jazz hot. In Britain, shops are doing brisk business in the “GENUINE ‘Mr. B.’ Shirt with its wide roll collar as worn by the Famous American Singing Star BILLY ECKSTINE.” The Communists are paying their own kind of compliment: in the East German town of Aue last week, Red police jailed members of the “Manhattan Club” for tossing partners over their heads in “crazy boogie-woogie” dancing.

In the Jazz Age of the ’20s, social critics heard the trumps of doom amid the saxophones, and Poet Hart Crane was tortured by “the phonographs of hades in the brain.” The phonographs of 1954 sound far less like hades. Jazz as played by Brubeck and other modernists (Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers) is neither chaotic nor abandoned. It evokes neither swinging hips nor hip flasks. It goes to the head and the heart more than to the feet. Spokesmen for various jazz cliques have claimed that it doesn’t swing (or swings like crazy), is cool (or hot), too intellectual (or just warmed-over bop), the end of jazz in America (or its greatest hope).

What Is “Modern”? By now, the birth and growth of jazz have become American folklore. The critics like to call it “music of protest”: it started with slave chants, work songs, blues, gaudy Negro funeral parades in New Orleans−those noisy expressions of bravado in the face of death by such greats-to-be as King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong who blatted their way from the cemetery playing High Society or Didn’t He Ramble. New Orleans jazz moved to Chicago, where a crowd of delighted white musicians pounced on it, adding a few refinements and “protested” mostly against bad gin.

Swing in the ’30s put Chicago jazz into large bands with massed rhythms and careful arrangements. In the late ’40s bop became briefly fashionable, with its air-splitting protests against swing stereotypes, but bop’s own offbeat, spastic rhythms quickly palled. The jazz style called modern does not protest against anything very much except dullness. At its best, it swings as vigorously as any of its predecessors, but once it starts swinging, it seems to move on to more interesting matters, such as tinkering up a little canon à la Bach or some dissonant counterpoint à la Bartok or even a thrashing crisis à la Beethoven.

Dave Brubeck thinks that it reflects the American scene, and that may be true. It is tremendously complex, but free. It flows along, improvising constantly, and yet it is held together by a firm pattern. It sometimes recalls a machine that always sounds as if it were going to fly apart, but it never quite does. As always in jazz, its essence is the tension between improvisation and order—between freedom and discipline.

All this is apparent when Dave Brubeck and his men play.

A Session with Brubeck. Brubeck bends his lanky torso over the keys, concentrating like a child on a jigsaw puzzle, but his eyes are closed. The other members of the quartet—Alto Saxophonist Paul Desmond, Drummer Joe Dodge and Bass Player Bob Bates—go to work. Desmond’s tones are plaintive and pure, the rhythm of drum and bass is as rich and firm as a deep-pile carpet. Like Bach starting off to improvise a passacaglia, they lay down the tune—say, Let’s Fall in Love—as a kind of groundwork. Desmond’s eyes close, his long fingers glide over his alto’s mother-of-pearl keys, and he is off on a flight that may take him into Moorish arabesques or old English folk tunes or Confederate Army songs.

While Desmond’s horn sighs its fancies, Brubeck punctuates with syncopated figures, listening intently, now smiling secretly, now pursing his lips, ticking off the tempo with one brown suede shoe. When Desmond is through, Brubeck picks up the last idea and toys with it. He ripples along for a while in running melodic notes, builds up a sweet and lyrical strain, noodles it into a lowdown mood, adds a contrapuntal voice, suddenly lashes into a dissonant mirror-inversion, then subsides into a completely disconnected rhythm that momentarily garbles the beat. The listeners lose all contact with the original tune, but they can dimly perceive other things: a favorite forgotten song, a hymn, a twinge of sadness or an insolent snicker.

Then, if Dave feels the crowd with him and if his psyche is in good order, a unique event takes place. The rhythm seems to take hold of everybody in the room. Drummer Dodge feels it and starts to bang on his Chinese cymbal (an instrument studded with loose rivets that buzz like a dozen sizzling steaks), and his bass drum whaps out compulsively, unpredictably. Bates hunches closer to his bass. Desmond, his lips without their mouthpiece looking like a nearsighted man’s eyes without his spectacles, moves quietly away from the piano. Brubeck seems to cut his ties with the tempo and tears off on a remote pulse of his own. He grabs huge fistfuls of notes, builds them into a sonata-size movement that ignores the divisions of the stock 32-bar chorus. The notes grow progressively more dissonant. Brubeck’s head weaves in a wide arc. His fingers seem to take on a life of their own. At this point, both musicians and laymen in the audience are apt to wonder whether Brubeck will ever be able to make it back to home base. He creates an illusion of danger, as if he were a race driver “who,” says Dave, “is going to stay out there until he drives faster than anyone else. He’s going to crash or make it. That’s the way I like to keep my audience—wondering whether I’ll make it or not.”

Suddenly the rhythm seems to shift gears. Bits of familiar harmonies reappear. In a few moments, it is all over, and the music relaxes. Desmond returns for a bit of polyphonic banter with the relaxed piano, finally swings into a recapitulation of the introduction, and the audience sits back with a sigh before it applauds.

What Makes David Run? Last year Brubeck won Down Beat’s popularity and critics’ poll, Metronome’s “AllStar” Poll. “Man, they wail!” wrote Down Beat Jazz Editor Nat Hentoff of the quartet. “A kind of teamwork which is without parallel in the entire field of music,” wrote Jazz Expert George Avakian, who brought the quartet to Columbia Records. “Complicated and extremely cerebral, [Brubeck’s music] has tremendous drive and surprising warmth,” wrote Critic John Hammond. This kind of music (for 45 minutes three to five times a night) earns the quartet up to $2,500 a week. With income from tours and records, Dave Brubeck at 33 will make $100,000 this year.

Brubeck is as untypical in the jazz field as a harp in a Dixieland combo. In a business that has known more than its share of dope and liquor, Brubeck rarely drinks, and, after seriously and philosophically considering the possible value of mescaline,* rejected the whole idea. While itinerant musicians are apt to dally with the belles along the way, Dave is happily married and has four children (a fifth is on the way). Although a shady background was once almost essential to the seasoning of a real-life jazzman, Dave spent his youth playing nursemaid to heifers and earned his first money ($1 a Sunday) playing hymns in a school. Characteristically, Dave has several priests among his friends, including Boston’s Father Norman O’Connor, who used to play the piano in a dance band himself.

When people try to figure out Dave Brubeck, the result is quite a psychological jam session. “The reason Brubeck is great,” says a business associate, “is that he was one guy who knew what he wanted and kept after it.” Says his wife Iola: “He’s a guy who is very tolerant of other people. For that reason he’s always attracted others to him, often lonely people.” Says Dave’s oldest brother Henry (a music educator in the Santa Barbara school system): “Dave always had my father’s horse sense. When we boys were broke, Dave always seemed to have a buck or two in his jeans.” Says California Sage Gerald Heard: “There is energy flowing from him to the people. David recharges people; he fills them with vitality.” Says Jazz Promoter Norman Granz, who does not always understand Brubeck’s “far-out” music: “He’s way out on Cloud 7.”

The contrapuntal arrangement of Brubeck’s character has a strong bass of common sense and energy—perhaps because his father was a rancher and cattle buyer. His life also has its flights of lyricism—perhaps because his mother was a music teacher with dreams of being a concert pianist, or perhaps only because he grew up among the green Western hills. But above all these, there are high, hammering, urgent notes—and that may be because Dave Brubeck always seems to be looking for something.

The Shoeless Wonder. In the Brubeck home at Concord, Calif, (pop. 12,493), his mother kept five pianos. Dave was playing the piano by the time he was four; he started searching almost as soon as his fingers touched the keys. Instead of practicing the method of famed Piano Pedagogue Tobias Matthay, used by his mother for her stream of pupils, little David spent every minute that the keyboard was free picking out pieces of his own. He tried harder to please his father (who gave him four cows when he was eight and called Dave his “partner”); later he learned to rope, brand and vaccinate cattle. Eyeing his older brothers practicing their violin and piano, Dave protested against his own music lessons: “Ma, you’ve got two musicians; I want to be a cattleman.”

But the boy just could not keep his hands off the piano. When the family moved to a ranch house near Ione, southeast of Sacramento, the cowhands used to gather around evenings to listen to the boy play, and sometimes Dave’s father would pick up his harmonica and with Dave run through every cowboy tune that they could think of.

Still determined to help his father in his business, Dave studied to be a veterinarian at the College of the Pacific at Stockton, Calif. But he switched to music after one year. Dave and two roommates moved into a cellar they called “the bomb shelter,” which was soon embroiled in a continual jam session. Dave began playing jazz piano in nightclubs. He also played on a weekly campus radio show whose co-director was a pretty sophomore named Iola Marie Whitlock. Dave stomped his feet so hard as he played that the noise almost drowned out the music, so she made him take off his shoes. He hated fraternity life, but did go to one frat dance and took Iola. She wanted to be an actress and writer, was therefore an intellectual. He, on the other hand, was a character, and he lived up to it. “Tell me,” he opened the conversation in his jalopy, “tell me about this Plato cat.”

Two weeks later, they were engaged.

American Heritage. Brubeck’s parents were Presbyterian, gave him a mildly religious upbringing, but he developed a searching religious bent of his own. With deep scruples against taking life, when World War II broke out, he did the next best thing to being a conscientious objector. “I resolved never to have a cartridge in my gun if I ever landed at the front,” he says. “I wanted to be sure beforehand that I could never kill a man.”

As it happened, he never got to the front, played in Army bands on the Coast and in the ETO (where he rarely traveled with fewer than three liberated pianos). He was home again in 1946, determined to be a composer. He played the piano in local joints and studied with France’s famed Darius Milhaud at Mills College. Teacher Milhaud filled him with counterpoint and polytonality, fired him with the conviction that improvisation of jazz was as valid for him as the improvisation of toccatas and fugues was for Bach. “He told me,” says Dave, “if I didn’t stick to jazz, I’d be working out of my own field and not taking advantage of my American heritage.” Searching Dave Brubeck found a goal: to show that jazz is music.

The music he began playing was ruggedly individual. Even Dave’s own sideman and best friend, Saxophonist Desmond, almost walked out when he first played with him. “We decided to play the blues in B flat,” says Desmond, “but the first chord Dave played was G major! It almost scared me to death.”

In California in 1951, Brubeck’s newly formed quartet found itself in an area bursting into musical blossom. About that time, Progressive Bandleader Stan Kenton passed through Los Angeles, and some of his crew, e.g., Trumpeter Shorty Rogers, Arranger Pete Rugolo, Drummer Shelly Manne, French Hornist John Graas, settled there and became famous. A hollow-eyed trumpeter named Chet Baker and an underweight baritone saxophonist named Gerry Mulligan made themselves fast killings among the cats. By 1952, the West Coast was the U.S.’s newest, biggest stomping ground for jazz. Brubeck felt right at home, shuttled between such clubs as San Francisco’s Blackhawk and Los Angeles’ The Haig.

When his early records (for Coronet) were selling poorly, he bought back the master disks and started his own label, Fantasy (he still collects some $2,000 a month from it). Brubeck built an imposing glass-and-redwood house in Oakland overlooking the bay—a house on a hilltop, which is where he always wanted to live.

Jazzman’s World. Brubeck does not get to spend much time in his house on the hill. He is away six months of the year, living in the jazzman’s restless world of all-night coach rides, smoky nightclubs and hamburger joints at dawn. Nowadays, the quartet travels in better style than in the days when it chugged cross-country in Dave’s old car, with the string bass tied to the ceiling. But Brubeck still retains most of his frugal habits: he travels with one suit (two pairs of pants) that rarely gets a pressing, and usually washes his own nylon shirts in the bathroom. His wife used to go on tour with him, but he was nervous whenever he knew she was listening to him. (“When are you going home?” is his standard question to her whenever she comes to hear him play.) Despite his casual, smiling manner and his slouching walk, Brubeck is constantly tense. Unlike other musicians, jazz players of Brubeck’s type cannot simply sit down and play from memory or from the sheet: since they never play a piece the same way twice, they are under the constant pressure of having to invent music.

Wherever they go, Brubeck and Saxophonist Desmond seem to be enveloped in a kind of electric field in which they can communicate almost without words. Their only “arranged” passages are occasional introductions or endings. Before a recent recording session, the desultory opening dialogue went something like this:

“What are we going to do?”

“Well, I’m going to take an eight-bar intro . . .”

“Then I play counterpoint to you, and you take the rest, but the rest of what?”

“Why don’t we do like we always do, keep things going and kick it around and see if something happens?”‘

“If we goof the counterpoint, which we certainly will, playing it for the first time, keep going.”

From then on, nothing further was said—they communicated through what Brubeck regards as a kind of mental telepathy. They will often get bored with the same idea or decide to make a switch at the same moment. They have many private musical jokes, e.g., Brubeck will play a few bars from a lovesong to kid Desmond about a girl friend, and once Desmond memorized the telephone number of a blonde by keying musical notes to each figure—Seaside 3-5474, i.e.

Cadillac & Ford. Their technique is getting smoother all the time. Explains Brubeck: “Everything we play is superimposed on the tune, and each chorus is superimposed on the one before it. If you don’t goof, you’re obliged to keep going farther out all the time.” Both Brubeck and Desmond habitually venture into keys that are entirely foreign to the one they are supposed to be playing in, for they are firm believers in what musicians call polytonality. Some tunes, like On the Alamo and Let’s Fall in Love, stimulate the Brubeck crew to new and fancier flights, month after month, then drop out of the repertoire when they begin to bore the men. The quartet may swing into These Foolish Things, which seems to remind them of lots of other things (including Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Lazy River), or into Fare Thee Well, Annabelle, which begins with a polytonal fughetta and is interrupted by a hoarse dissonance that sends the whole band into a fit of laughter. The prom perennial, Stardust, is popular with Brubeck and Desmond because its stately harmonic progressions flow as smoothly as the Mississippi, allowing them freedom to improvise in their most carefree vein. Of course, they never play the tune any more, nor the original harmonies. All that remains of poor old Stardust is the memory of a mood.

Says Desmond: “The melody is just a vehicle. It’s like an old Ford with a new Cadillac motor put in.”

Brubeck, the driver who pilots the strange, souped-up vehicle, rarely stops worrying about whether the audience will be with him. Says he: “The audience is part of creativity, maybe some of them for the first time in their lives. When it works, that persistent beat starts to become a live thing in the room. Pretty soon it is so solid everybody feels it, and it comes back to you. Then you can really start to play music.”

When he feels he has “really” played music, Brubeck seems almost in a kind of trance. It happened at a recent recording session. Dave finished in a fever, grabbed a handkerchief, wiped his face and ran to the wall as if he wanted to burst through it. Paul laughed aloud, followed him and spun him around. Brubeck was laughing, too, great yelps of laughter. He threw his arms into the air, drunk with music. A photographer who happened to be there was caught up in the excitement. “You’re hot,” he yelled, “by God you’re hot! Don’t stop now!”

Is Anybody Happy? Dave Brubeck is not stopping. Besides his inner drive, there is plenty of competition to keep him interested. Big bands continue to get off the ground (Count Basie, Woody Herman’s “Third Herd,” Duke Ellington). The nation is laced with touring jazz packages, e.g., “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” with stars such as Pianist Oscar Peterson, Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Singer Ella Fitzgerald. Serious composers continue to find stimulation in jazz; this month will see the U.S. premiere of a work by Swiss Composer Rolf Liebermann, a kind of concerto grosso in which the Sauter-Finegan band will act as jazz concertino to the Chicago Symphony’s long-haired tutti.

Writes Jazz Historian Barry Ulanov: “The kind of jazz that seems to be growing up around us, less and less fitfully, more and more artfully, demands a hearing. It will out . . . It will be played with such conviction that its progress will become unmistakable . . . It will make its way, as all enrichments of human culture have in the past.”

One of these days, restless Dave Brubeck thinks he may go back to his original ambition of being a composer. In the meantime, he is finding that his improvised kind of music is just as real as the “composed” kind. Says he: “I can go out and play and not give a damn whether I am a composer or not. I have yet to find the composer who I think is happy. Composers have all year to think about the next note. We have to decide in a second. But they are not played very much, while in jazz you can perform what you compose. When I get inspired, I’m the happiest guy in the world.”

*An intellectual jazzman with an experimental or complex swinging beat. For glossary of other modern jazz terms, see p. 66. *A drug whose effects include Technicolor illusions and a relaxed sense of time, enthusiastically described by Author Aldous Huxley in his book, The Doors of Perception.

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