Dave Brubeck on musical telepathy and improvisation in the Quartet


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SS: Well, as a piano player, one of your primary partners, of course, throughout your jazz career was Paul Desmond. And, you and Desmond seemed to have an almost telepathic connection musically, especially during improvisations during your performances. How did that musical connection, that almost ESP telepathy come about?

DB: You just used the term ESP that Paul used about how we work together. And, it grew from kind of a wild stage I was in for a while. But, when Paul would come in and sit in and want to play, we had kind of an immediate understanding, largely because we liked the same kind of music. We liked Stravinsky, and Bach, Bartok, show tunes. Paul loved great movies, and great Broadway shows. So did I. And, if your backgrounds are similar, your way of improvisation has a connection between what you grew up liking and listening to. That helps a lot. Sometimes I'd play with young musicians that have no connection to my past. And, I'm not connected to them. And, it doesn't make it as comfortable as when I'm with my old gang like Bill Smith, or Dick Collins, or guys we grew up in a similar environment.

SS: It's interesting you bring up the idea that you had a common background and interest musically on which you could draw during improvisations. And, you and Paul would often have conversations musically during a given performance in which you're trading quotes or themes from different tunes and different sources. Can you talk about that aspect of your performances, where you're actually talking through quoting different tunes throughout a performance?

DB: (laughter) Oh yeah. Paul was great at playing quotes, and I was good at knowing what the quotes were. See, if you did that with younger guys, they wouldn't have any idea what the tune was because it's 60 years old. They weren't even conceived in any way at that time. (laughter)

So, he had certain things he played if he wanted me to go a certain direction. And, I would pick up on it. And, if I got too wild, he'd play [PLAYS PIANO] Don't Fence Me In, or [PLAYS PIANO] You, You're Driving Me Crazy (laughter). And then there was a certain lick he'd play when he wanted to play stop time, when he played that lick, everybody in the band knew you're going to, "Pow," right on the beat, and give him two bars or four bars, whatever he does, that sets up a pattern. It's the same thing that happened with Joe Morello and I, or Eugene Wright.

SS: So, the quartet almost developed its own musical language in which you could give each other cues or directions on where you wanted to go?

DB: Yeah, yeah.

SS: And, I remember reading that Paul could even pull out quotes that would comment on, let's say, current situations or events in his own life. For example, wasn't there a case where he got a speeding ticket or something --

DB: Oh yeah.

SS: -- and was pulling out quotes throughout the next performance, commenting on that?

DB: Yeah. I think it was the New Yorker that sent out one of their very fine writers to do a story on us. So, he went on the road with us, and one time he said, "You know, this must be all worked out." And, we just laughed at him. Well, this night, we were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

And, Paul was driving. Paul liked to drive fast. And, pretty quick, there's red lights behind us. But he also watched in the rearview mirror to see what was happening when we were speeding. Now, the writer was in the car with us. And, the Pennsylvania patrolman -- I think he was a state Pennsylvania cop -- came up and he didn't have his hat on.

And, usually the Pennsylvania police had a wide-brimmed hat almost like a Texas cowboy's hat, but straighter. And, he said we had to follow him, and go to a place where a judge would see him, right then from the throughway. We went across the railroad tracks, down a farm road.

He got in the driveway and started honking his horn. Pretty quick, some guy got out of bed, came out, and he was a judge, and wrote out a ticket and a fine. He wanted the money right then. And, so the next night, without a chance for us to rehearse, Paul started playing -- he started with [PLAYS PIANO] Where Did You Get That Hat? in the middle of a chorus.

And then [PLAYS PIANO] Down By the Station Early In the Morning (laughter) into the next thing. And, he told the story, and the guy had to know that it couldn't be rehearsed.

SS: The writer who was skeptical that your choruses weren't worked out ahead of time.

DB: Yeah. Right, yeah. (laughter)

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