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Interview One: It's Not Easy to Take Criticism - or Praise
The American pianist talks about his musical experiences, philosophy and ideals to Les Tomkins in 1963
Source: Jazz Professional
Dave Brubeck relaxed with coffee and sandwiches in his dressing room at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, after the first three concerts of his British tour. He talked absorbingly about his musical experiences, philosophy and ideals to Les Tomkins.
What he had to say provides an insight into the forthright, positive character that some consider a major jazz innovator and individualist.
I asked Dave Brubeck how the concerts were going and happened to mention criticism. Dave looked a little apprehensive and hoped I wouldn’t start being critical, since to have such things on his mind might affect his playing in the second show. I am an unreserved Brubeck enthusiast. I reassured him on this point. Dave then let me in on his attitude to the slights and slurs - some of them illogical - that have come his way.
Name me a jazz musician who hasn’t had to go through this. I guess it’s a necessary evil, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton… you name the top people and you’ll find they’ve been criticised at some time in their career. Not at the beginning of their career, perhaps. Maybe those who were for them at first turned on them later.
I’ve noticed with me that people who were against me in the beginning are now for me. People who were for me and liked to think they helped me out or discovered me, suddenly they’re against me. If you followed carefully each person’s career, I think you’d see there is a definite cycle of criticism. You just have to ignore it and believe in what you’re doing.
It’s not easy to take criticism, though. Critics forget that when they criticise your music they couldn’t criticise anything more personal. They’re really criticising you.
Your music reflects you - it comes from within.
But you learn how to take it and continue in spite of it. And you continue in spite of praise. This is dangerous, too. You must get away from that or you won’t ever grow.
Courage is needed to pursue a belief and this has been true of Brubeck. Dave said he thought it was true of Duke Ellington, certainly; Armstrong, too.
Louis had guts enough to do the musical show written for him by my wife and me ’The Real Ambassadors’. That wasn’t easy for him. It took a lot of nerve at his age and with the security he enjoys to stick his neck out and do something new.
After all, when you do something at the Monterey Jazz Festival the critics of the world are sitting there. And we’d had no rehearsals to speak of. It was not as if we’d had two months out of New York rehearsing the show.
The first time we were on stage together was the actual performance. The dress rehearsal that we were supposed to have had that day was just setting up the stage.
It took nerve for Louis to stake his career, because when you walk out on that Monterey stage there’s no other like it in the world today. And boy, he did - and he came off great! Five thousand people stood and cheered when he was finished.
But Louis is getting a lot of criticism now. He didn’t get much in the beginning.
I asked Dave whether criticism is in ratio to commercial success. He didn’t answer this directly.
You know, today I was asked to judge a piano contest right here in this building. Thank God I didn’t have to do it, because I arrived late, so all I had to do was award the prizes.
How can I judge a pianist I don’t know? This is a jazz contest. How do I know that he hasn’t got every note worked out? How do I know that the guy who played the worst piano, made some mistakes, isn’t the best? How do I know that he isn’t the only one who hasn’t got things worked out? How can a critic possibly think he can judge a jazz concert? It’s impossible on the basis of five, six, ten performances.
It isn’t easy to judge players and see if they’re truly doing what I consider the most important thing in jazz-improvising.
Anybody who thinks that our group wasn’t improvising these first three concerts in London is out of his mind. I never heard more improvisation from any group.
This is what I’m trying to do: improvise, and to improve the technique of improvisation.
So today how could I judge? I could listen to people for weeks in a night club and gradually get to know. We’ll he’s going to play such-and-such a run here, and this is a certain chord, he’ll do it this way or this is what he used the last time he had this progression, but it was in a different tune. After that you get an idea if this is a truly creative jazz improviser.
Then, a very disappointing thing may happen. You often begin to realise that somebody you thought was a tremendous improviser is not improvising at all. Or on the other hand, some guys that you thought were sloppy and not good jazz musicians suddenly become truly creative.
So you do a complete reversal. And it took you maybe two weeks of listening every other set each night, because you’re exchanging sets with these people.
That’s why I don’t think a criticism of a jazz concert can ever be very valid.
The indefinable element, inspiration, is a variable thing for him, Brubeck admits. When you can lock that up - you’ve got it!
We’re going very well now. We’ve played three concerts and we just hope this upgrade will continue. But you never know. It can let you down for a week in a row, or longer.
One of the reasons for Dave Brubeck’s success with the Quartet has been the consistent pattern of his policy for it. For instance, he has tried to avoid personnel changes.
Once I hire a guy I feel that he’s in my group. Otherwise I shouldn’t have bothered to hire him.
The closest I got to letting a guy go was when one musician was drunk every night and often fell off the drum stool before he could finish the job. I gave him two weeks’ notice to quit drinking. He couldn’t manage it - and so he fired himself! But all the other guys that have left have done so because they didn’t want to travel or for other reasons, not because I let them go.
When people say we haven’t paid our dues, they don’t know the history of the group. They think we had it soft and easy. But I don’t know a jazz group in the world that’s had it harder.
His association and friendship with Paul Desmond began with the original Octet. The altoist was an integral part of his plans for the Quartet which, as Dave explained, owes its existence entirely to the dictates of circumstances.
You see, the Octet didn’t work for four years we were together. From ‘46 to ‘So that group was waiting for a job. I think we worked about three concerts. We had to scuffle and work independent of the group, and it was an excellent group.
When people say that we haven’t paid our dues it’s simply because they don’t know the history of the group.
They think we’ve had it soft and easy. But I don’t know a jazz group in the world that’s had it any harder than the Octet did.
All of us from San Francisco, we didn’t have any bed of roses. People complain about London and nothing happening. Well, you’ve got the jazz Mecca compared with San Francisco in I946. There weren’t more than one or two jobs in the whole city that were worth working.
So the Octet couldn’t get work and Jimmy Lyons, a disc jockey at NBC, said he could get a job for the rhythm section. Well, it was one of those things where nobody was going to say: “Well, don’t work. Don’t leave us.” We were all trying to work wherever we could. And that’s how the Trio came about.
Then circumstances took a hand again. I was injured while swimming in Honolulu when the Trio was working there. I had to go into hospital and was put out of work for two months. My drummer and bass player, Cal Tjader and Jack Weeks, couldn’t wait; so they went back to San Francisco without me.
I wrote to Paul from the hospital and it was just a scribble because I was supposed to have been paralysed.
“Will start the Quartet when I get well.” I said: “Get me a bass player and a drummer” and I named the two people in San Francisco that I didn’t want. When I got back those were the only two Paul could find! These two guys couldn’t stand each other and it couldn’t be a rhythm section. When they both left I was able to get two guys that I wanted.
People say I’ve been lucky but there’s no such thing as luck. You don’t give up, you work. In the worst circumstances in the world your only answer is: straight ahead.
In fact, I’ll tell you. The night these two guys put me on the spot, each one demanding that the other be released, I said one of the corniest things I ever said in my life. I said: ‘I’m going to the top, and if you want to go with me, stay. ’ And they left.
I wasn’t really displeased, but I knew Pow! I’m going. I’d starved for too many years, I’d carried around too much dead-weight and there was very little gratitude from anybody. Finally I decided: ‘I’m not going to starve in San Francisco. I’m going to get out and make it.’
A feature of earlier Quartet performances was the counterpoint between piano and alto. I always found this interwoven jazz both fascinating and entertaining. I have felt it a great pity that it has been missing from the current group’s output to a large extent. Dave gave me a very full answer.
It’s because Joe Morello and Gene Wright aren’t that kind of rhythm section. So you move in another direction. Cal Tjader wasn’t that kind of a drummer either.
When Paul and I used to start playing counterpoint he got very disinterested in what we were doing. That was when Cal was with the Trio and Paul used to come and sit in all the time. A good drummer isn’t moved much by the kind of counterpoint that Paul and I love to play. You can’t have everything going on in one group.
Now you would think it would be simple for me to say: ‘Now, Joe, just relax and keep a simple rhythm and let Paul and I play some counterpoint. ’ He would do it, but he wouldn’t love doing it. So you have to have things going on that everybody loves, as a meeting ground.
Paul and I do get in some counterpoint more than we played on the last three concerts. But we’re doing a lot of new things and the counterpoint usually comes later after you’ve played a tune quite a while. Paul and I both would like to go back to that.
But I don’t like to think of a rhythm section being bored back there while Paul and I have a ball. Because there’s nothing for them to do but keep out of the road.
Can you imagine Joe Morello doing nothing but keeping out of the road? You don’t have the greatest drummer in the world to tell him to do that.
I’ve seen leaders make drummers sit there and keep time. I saw one drummer who had locked into the position that the leader made him play brushes in all night. Finally he could never play again, and he was a great drummer.
I’d like to make it clear that I consider Gene and Joe an excellent rhythm section - by far the best we’ve ever had.
When Joe Dodge left, Paul wanted Joe. When Norman Bates left, Joe wanted Gene. I always find it better to keep the sideman happy. The suggestion of Gene Wright was very welcome to me. I’d been listening to him for years and had been very impressed by his playing.
After Paul recommended Joe we had a lot of talks about it. His reason for suggesting him was his great brushwork and restrained drumming. He was surprised when he found out what Joe could do when he had the freedom I gave him. With Marion McPartland he’d been restricted. She had never used his great talent to the full.
As soon as he joined the Quartet I gave him as much scope as he wanted. Now you compare the way he was before with Morello today. Joe does naturally things that I would have had to have taken some other guy and schooled him to do.
You’ve got to have a team. You find out their approach and eventually everyone will start giving. We’re coming to a point now where each guy’s individuality can be subordinated to a group sound. They’re playing better and better without my laying down rules and demanding a style from them. Eventually we will find a level that fits.
It’s closer to that than it’s ever been.
Considering the enormous talent of Gene and Joe, it’s a marvellous thing that they both don’t try to steal the show.
Copyright © 1963, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.