Brubeck at 80
MAARTEN DE HAAN, March 1998
When asked what might be the most appropriate moment to conduct an interview, the screechy voice on the telephone in Connecticut, said eagerly, “How’s about right now?”
Dave Brubeck, alive and alert, did not want to waste time finding out exactly who was at the other end of the line. He was ready to cooperate immediately, which left the interviewer (me) somewhat taken aback. (Especially because I was under the impression that I had been given the phone number to Brubeck’s agent, not the jazz legend himself.)
Like many a seasoned jazz musician, Brubeck had been busy building a musical legacy as rich as possible. The times when he was regarded as ‘merely a superficial West Coast pianist’ were long buried. Public praise from his musical peers such as Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus and an impressive body of work consisting of original compositions, including oratorios, symphonic works and ballet music made ridiculous such criticism.
Playing for four U.S. presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Regan, and Clinton) were part of his earned medals of public honour - a Musical Minister of State. On top of this high honour to play at the White House, Brubeck enthusiastically told me about his conversion to Catholicism and the 9-minute chorale and fugue he composed and performed for Pope John Paul II. This piece was based on the speech Christ made announcing Peter as the first Pope: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.’.
The man who, as a teenager, wanted to live forever on his parent’s ranch in California and be a cowboy celebrated his 80th birthday in December in Europe while touring. Willem Hubers, Brubeck’s European agent for 13 years and who also worked for the late baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and represents the Klezmatics, and singer Cleo Laine had organized this current tour.
Hubers’ contacts with Brubeck differed from that of his other clients. “Brubeck and his wife Iola have become personal friends of mine, so I always join them and the band when they tour Europe. That is unusual in my profession,” said Hubers.
This current tour included concerts in Vienna, Berlin, London, and a closing in Istanbul. Renditions of Brubeck’s Mass by a 40-piece chamber orchestra, a choir of sixty, three soloists, and the jazz quartet were scheduled. Hubers’ instinct is that a large size performing ensemble suits Brubeck’s music well.
“There is more energy, more dynamic, and more room for Brubeck to relax and excel on the piano,” said Hubers. Another feature of this tour was Brubeck’s four sons. All four of them have become musicians. Five to ten years ago, he had toured with them.
When asked about playing in the Netherlands, this venerable pianist stressed that he has many fond memories of the Netherlands, where he has played frequently. “In the 1950’s I sometimes gave two concerts a day. I started in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and right after that went to a theatre in the Hague, near the coast,” recalled Brubeck.
He mentioned that he would have stopped doing concerts in Europe had it not been for his Dutch crew. He was especially happy with his Dutch roadie, famous for his positive attitude, whom he calls a ‘magical guy’. “With his blue bus he is always ahead of us and really makes sure that everything is taken care of when we arrive. Sometimes he even sells CDs at night during the concert,” said Brubeck fondly.
As it turns out, that particular roadie - affectionately referred to by Brubeck as ‘Alfie’- has a musical resume of his own. Together with Herman Brood, guitarist Alfons Haket founded the rock band The Moans in 1964, which later became Moan and the famed Long Tall Ernie and the Shakers. After more than 20 years as a musician and many detours, Haket ran into concert organizer Hubers, with whom he had previously known as a rock drummer.
“Jazz music - I had never given much attention to it,” said Haket. “I remember going out for the first time to meet Brubeck and asking Hubers whether these musicians were black or white.” But he has learned to enjoy Brubeck’s melodious jazz and even gets goose bumps from it.
“He is such a fragile looking man, but on stage he changes into a young god. On some nights he even plays for two-and-a-half hours,” recalled Haket.
As my phone conversation with this jazz legend from Connecticut reached its end, I asked whether there was something special that he wanted to share with jazz listeners in the Netherlands. “Yeah!” he shouted energetically. “Let them know I’m still out there!”