Interview: Dave Brubeck - Dave, the jazzmen's fave

He's 78 and about to start a 13-date UK tour. But Dave Brubeck, the man who brought jazz to the attention of middle-class America, has no intention of taking five. By Phil Johnson

The song "The New Frontier" by Steely Dan's Donald Fagen puts the music of Dave Brubeck - who comes to Britain later this month for a major tour, tied in with the release of a rare new album - in a very specific cultural context. Fagen's innocent narrator recalls a pre-college idyll from the early 1960s. At a party, he's smitten by a girl with Tuesday Weld eyes. "I hear you're mad about Brubeck," Fagen sings. "I love your eyes, I love him too. He's an artist, a pioneer, we've got to have some music on the new frontier." The song is a sardonic take on the optimism of America in the Cold War period; the horn-rimmed, high-minded figure of Brubeck makes a potent symbol for the era's aesthetics. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was the acceptable face of jazz for America's white middle classes. Some people still haven't forgiven him for it.

In 1954, Brubeck was the first jazz artist to make the cover of Time magazine, something he still feels a little sensitive about. "I wanted Duke Ellington to have the cover before me," he says. "We were on tour together in Denver, Colorado and there was a knock on the door at 7am. It was Duke and he was holding a copy of Time. 'Look!' he said. 'You're on the cover.' He was genuinely pleased for me, even though it should have been him. He had been the first person to get me a job in New York and later he insisted that I become a fellow at Yale."

In 1961, the Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five" was released as a single and attained the status of a pop hit - previously unthinkable for jazz - reaching No 25 in the US and No 6 in the UK. The album it was taken from, Time Out, became an icon of cool sophistication for the age. Its abstract cover painting, in a kind of Mir-meets-the-Flintstones style, is perhaps the first example of coffee-table album art.

Brubeck's music mixed jazz with classical references and complex time- signatures - "Take Five" is in 5/4 time. It was the kind of soundtrack that could have been designed especially for Mad magazine's parodies of East Coast suburban cocktail parties: narrow-tied advertising execs talked psychoanalysis over too many dry Martinis, before unwisely attempting the frug or the pony. You could even imagine President Kennedy getting down to "Take Five". The single that followed it, "Unsquare Dance", was equally charming, but less of a hit. And it dared to raise the question of whether Brubeck was, in the argot of the times, a bit of a square himself.

With a piano style that was relatively graceless, even clunky, Brubeck could not compete as a soloist with many of his peers. But he compensated by creating a signature-sound of heavy "block" chords that was to influence the next generation of pianists; Brubeck even remembers the avant-garde Cecil Taylor looking over his shoulder when he played in New York. "Generally, the guys who were on the cutting edge liked me," he says. "Mingus, Parker, Kenton, Benny Carter, Miles Davis, Ellington; they were always very favourable. Cecil Taylor said I filled a gap, but he didn't say between what and what."

Whether in response to accusations of "squareness" or not, Brubeck has spent much of the time since his Sixties heyday furthering his credentials as a serious composer. (As a student at Mills College in the 1940s, he was taught by both Darius Milhaud, whom he loved, and Arnold Schoenberg, whom he hated.) He has written quasi-classical works for orchestras and choirs, while continuing to tour the world as one of the pre-eminent ambassadors of American music, a role he first undertook for the State Department in the Cold War years. When he first toured Russia, his KGB guards asked him to autograph copies of his albums. Asked how they managed to get hold of them, they just laughed.

The coming British tour - 13 dates around the major concert halls of the UK - is a mammoth project by anyone's standards; for someone who's 78, it's positively punishing. But it's a testament to Brubeck's incredible popularity: no other jazz artist today could even get close to commanding such large audiences. It's billed as the "40th Anniversary UK Tour": back in 1958 the Brubeck Quartet was the first American act to tour the UK after British Musicians' Union restrictions on visiting artists were lifted.

Satisfyingly, Dave Brubeck's house is exactly like his music: a classic example of mid-century American modernism. Designed by David Thorn in 1961, it's a piece of West Coast architecture beached up in the affluent semi-rural commuter belt of Connecticut. (Brubeck himself was born and raised on a ranch in Concord, California.) The large, timber-framed building is in the Sixties-modern Eames style. Huge plate-glass windows look out over the carefully cultivated wilderness of the garden beyond; it has a stream and an electrically-assisted waterfall, which Brubeck switches on at the beginning of the interview. There's a pair of Eames office chairs in the study; in the kitchen, there's a moulded-plastic dining table with matching tulip chairs designed by Eero Saarinen. The deep well of the open-plan living room is filled with California gold-rush era furniture which Brubeck inherited from his parents' ranch.

With his shock of white hair and jet-black eyebrows, Brubeck still looks younger than his age. But he's beginning to show the years and seems far more fragile than when I last met him six years ago. In the small lounge next to his study where we talk, the walls are covered with jazz memorabilia. He points out a print featuring jazz legends from the past. "I'm the only one one still left alive," he says, a little mournfully. Brubeck remembers the 1958 British tour with great fondness, and he's still in touch with one of the fans he met then. Though he claims he had no idea that he had any sort of following here, at the time of the tour his albums filled six of the places in the jazz top 10. "We played all these different Odeons," he remembers. "Hammersmith, Victoria, Croydon ... Sometimes we played two shows a day and we would fill them with up to three thousand people. We met Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, who had a group called the Jazz Couriers."

Though he has rarely talked about it, Brubeck's experience as a soldier in the war has perhaps marked his music more than anything, and led to his increasing interest in composing various forms of sacred music. He followed the D-Day landings into France, and says gravely, "There's not a day goes by when I don't think about what I saw then. I was part of Patton's army, and we crossed the Channel 90 days after D-day, around the time of the Battle of the Bulge. We went through France and on to Germany, as far as a bridge where the Russian and the American forces met. When I got back home I began to play a much more aggressive, dissonant, form of jazz. My wife said I was nervous, and my blood pressure was off the wall. My father made me go to the family doctor, and he recommended that I go to the High Sierras to recuperate, so my wife camped out there for three months."

After the war, Brubeck enrolled at Mills College. His mother was a piano teacher who had studied in London with Myra Hess, and he was hoping to follow a career in classical composition. Then he encountered Darius Milhaud. "Milhaud would say, 'I wish I could do what you do, so why do you want to be like me? Make me some boogie-woogie!' Milhaud told me never to give up jazz because, he said, if you don't represent your culture, then your music will never last."

By 1951, Brubeck had formed the quartet with Paul Desmond that went on to become the most popular jazz group in the world. Ten years later, they recorded "Take Five," which Brubeck put together from two of Desmond's themes, in an attempt to force him to play something faster than the ballads he preferred. It still sounds wonderful today. Later this month, its ticking cymbals, tootling alto sax and interminably repeated piano figure will resound around the municipal halls of Britain one more time. It should be noted that Brubeck insists he has no plans to retire just yet.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet tours from 23 October to 15 November. 'So What's New?' (Telarc Jazz) is released on 12 October.

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