This week’s Monterey Jazz Festival will be remarkable for any number of reasons but one in particular leaps immediately to mind.
The 2013 festival is the first since the death of Dave Brubeck, the legendary jazz pianist-composer who midwifed the event’s birth nearly 60 years ago. The festival will mark Brubeck’s passing Friday night with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra performs a specially commissioned tribute.
I had the opportunity to see Brubeck perform several times, both in Monterey and on his frequent visits to Stockton, where he attended then-College of the Pacific in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, met his wife Iola and began performing live. University of the Pacific is now home to the Brubeck Institute, whose resident student ensemble performs at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Night Club. The festival lineup also includes a Brubeck panel discussion at 2 p.m. Saturday in Dizzy’s Den and a performance by the Brubeck Brothers Quartet at 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
I had the opportunity to interview Brubeck three times between 2000 and 2004 and will post these archival items this week in the run up to Monterey. The first interview is a lengthy, retrospective piece on Brubeck’s formative years. Here is the first installment.
The call, Dave Brubeck says, came at three in the morning.
It was the summer of 1939, Europe was on the brink of war and the future jazz legend had just completed his freshman year at then-College of the Pacific in Stockton.
Though he had been playing piano since age 4, Brubeck had enrolled at Pacific the previous fall as a pre-med veterinary student. That was in deference to his rancher-father, who wanted Brubeck to study veterinary medicine at UC Davis and return to Ione to work alongside him.
Which is why the 18-year-old was interning at Stockton Veterinary Supply Co. on Lafayette Street. Brubeck was shadowing its founder, Frank Saunders, accompanying the doctor on his various house and barn calls.
''We did a lot of things,'' Brubeck, 80, recalled this week during a phone conversation from Sanibel, Fla. ''I would hold a horse while the doctor filed its teeth. We'd vaccinate animals, and work with dogs and cats in the operating room. All that was pretty good.''
There was nothing good in Saunders' voice when Brubeck picked up that call.
''He said, 'In this business, you have to learn to take the bitter with the sweet and this morning's going to be bitter.' And it was bitter.''
Saunders informed Brubeck that a cow had been unable to give birth to the calf it carried. It was up to them to remove the dead baby from its mother.
''The doc did most of the hard work,'' Brubeck said, his voice betraying a tinge of discomfort over the memory. ''That's when I decided this wasn't for me.''
The decision proved fortuitous for Brubeck and the course of American music. Following his formative years at then-COP – where he managed to graduate from the Conservatory of Music without ever learning how to read music – and World War II service in Europe, Brubeck emerged as one of the most popular and pioneering jazz artists of the 1950s and '60s.
Known for introducing radical time signatures and classical conventions to the genre, the pianist-composer recorded the first million-selling jazz single (''Take Five''), was the first jazz musician featured on the cover of Time magazine, and established himself as an unstinting advocate of civil and human rights.
A 1942 graduate, he's also remained one of UOP's most enthusiastic boosters. He recorded a best-selling album there (1954's ''Jazz at the College of the Pacific''), has lent his name and talent to university projects, and in 1999 announced that he and wife Iola (class of '43) would leave their personal papers to the university.
In response, the Conservatory of Music has created the Brubeck Institute, a living archive designed to further the study of Brubeck and jazz.
It's fitting, then, that this weekend's Brubeck Festival headlines UOP's sesquicentennial celebration.The events underline the continuing bond between Brubeck and Stockton. He's UOP's most famous alumni. He's a living legend who honed his talents in Stockton nightclubs in an era when playing jazz still was considered somewhat rebellious.
For Brubeck, it's clear his time and experiences in Ione and Stockton played a key role in shaping his personality and professional drive.
From his adolescent years on the ranch in Ione, Brubeck learned the value of hard work and felt his interest in jazz stir for the first time. In Stockton, he found the opportunity to explore that music while UOP provided the education and the woman who would be his partner through it all.
Sixty years later, Brubeck still recalls his student days fondly. He remembers general locations. At one point, while trying to identify the name of a jazz-loving classmate, Brubeck put down the phone to consult his wife. Sure enough, Iola Brubeck produced the name.
She isn't his only link to their college days. Although they've been married for 58 years and have lived for decades in Wilton, Conn., they remain in touch with a handful of fellow UOP graduates.
Moreover, the drive and enthusiasm that marked Brubeck's years at UOP are still very much with him. Near the end of an hour-long interview, the pianist made a particular point of mentioning six upcoming releases, including solo piano projects and a piano-vocal compilation featuring Brubeck, Tony Bennett and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
''There are all kinds of things always coming up,'' Brubeck said. ''Just all kinds of things are happening.
''Today, we got a phone call where they want to do one of my ballets at some big festival and we're trying to work it into the schedule. Then there is the two-piano team in Germany recording for Koch International doing my two-piano pieces. And I've just written 12 new originals for the quartet.''
So, at age 80, with his legendary status assured, what motivates Brubeck?
”Good question,'' he said. ''Something. I don't know what.''
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