Front Row: Dave Brubeck
In his 75 years as a performer, longtime Wiltonite DAVE BRUBECK has earned just about every accolade that can be awarded a master of jazz music. Just last December, on his 89th birthday, he was fêted at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. This month, in conjunction with his quartet’s April 29 appearance at Stamford’s Palace Theater, he’ll receive an award smaller in scope but no less heartfelt—the 1st Annual Stamford Center for the Arts Legacy Award.
Try to talk to Brubeck about his accomplishments, however, and it’s clear that what he really loves discussing is his family. For him, the highlight of the Kennedy Center Honors was the fact that four of his six children—musicians Darius, Chris, Dan and Matthew—showed up in a surprise tribute. “I had written the committee and suggested they be invited to appear, but they wrote back, ‘Nice idea, but we’re going in a different direction,’” he says. “Everybody who works for us was sworn to secrecy. Even my daughters-in-law were in hotels right near us, but they avoided me. And then bang! my sons appear on stage. On the Kennedy Center broadcast, you could read my lips: ‘Son of a bitch!’”
Natives of northern California, he and Lola, his wife of 68 years, first came to Connecticut in 1960 to be close to Columbia Records’ New York City studios, so that he could more easily fulfill a three-album-a-year contract. They didn’t intend to become permanent residents until their kids balked at returning to the West Coast. “We couldn’t believe it, but they liked the Connecticut schools better,” Brubeck says. “Wilton High School is wonderful.” (Particularly the high school choir, which premiered his work “Benediction,” recently recorded by the Pacific Mozart Ensemble on his 2010 CD Sacred Choral Works: Songs of Praise.)
In a realm famously populated with “tortured artists”—though he finds the stereotype of “jazz musician as junkie” overblown—Brubeck’s rep has always been salt of the earth. He’s kept grounded, he says, by “hanging out with the right guys. You’re thrown on a tour bus, sometimes for a couple of months, and everything goes on there; but if you sit in the back and write music with the other composers, you’re with a good bunch.” By some estimates, he’s recorded 142 discs, and virtually all of them are still in print. Of course, the best known is Time Out, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. “In concert, I have to play ‘Take Five’ or ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ if I want to get out of the auditorium,” he says, but admits that a project he did with Louis Armstrong, 1962’s The Real Ambassadors—with lyrics by Iola—is a bigger personal favorite.
Nevertheless, there are more CDs to record (one up-and-comer celebrates children’s lullabies and nursery rhymes), more pieces to create (“Ansel Adams: America,” a collaboration with son Chris, has its New York premiere at Lincoln Center April 9), more shows to play (even for an artist who’s performed everywhere—repeatedly—except China), and plenty of emerging artists to mentor (through the 10-year-old Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in California). “My wife was looking through my mother’s diary recently; when I graduated from high school she’d written, ‘There’s some hope for David still,’” he says, chuckling. Springing eternally, we’d add.