Dave and Iola Brubeck on their memories of other jazz greats


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SS: So, we'll start with your friend Duke Ellington.

DB: Oh, he was and will always remain one of the guiding forces in American music. And, I was honored to be a friend of his, and an Ellington Fellow at Yale University.

SS: Louis Armstrong.

DB: Louis, just so much dignity, and fun, and a great performer to be with.

SS: Dizzy Gillespie.

DB: Dizzy (laughter)... I've toured a lot with Dizzy, and he was brilliant. The name Dizzy doesn't really seem to fit him as far as I'm concerned: Brilliant Gillespie. He was an intelligent, creative guy that was way ahead of his time.

SS: Miles Davis.

DB: Miles was very good for me. In many ways, he introduced my music to the rest of the jazz musicians. His recording of "In Your Own Sweet Way" and "The Duke" were very wonderful for me. And, we were kind of friendly for years. And, my sons came home one day to find Miles and I shooting baskets out in the basketball court, and Miles hitting the speed bag and making it purr -- a different Miles.

SS: Yeah, I've guess you've seen a different Miles than the public persona. How about John Coltrane?

DB: John was with Miles, and we spent a lot of time with both groups, especially at the Black Hawk in San Francisco. And, at that time he was finding his way, and he'd play, and play, and play, and wouldn't want to stop. And, the classic remark of Miles when he got off the stand he said, "You know, I don't know how to stop playing." And Miles said, "Just take the horn out of your mouth."

SS: (laughter) Now that's the Miles we all know. How about another sax player, Charlie Parker?

DB: Like I said, Dizzy was brilliant. So was Charlie, just a brilliant mind, tremendous loss when he almost self-destructed. I've been with him a lot where there was no way of keeping him on the straight and narrow as much as we all tried. He just couldn't.

SS: How about Charles Mingus?

DB: Ah, Mingus... He was a friend. The only way I can tell you of how we were together is to listen to a duet that we made for a film where when it was over, he embraced me, and it was just great because I refused to rehearse with him because I knew we'd probably get into arguments.

But, we went live on film. And, that's the only way I would play with him was if we'd just go for it and don't try to get us together to rehearse. And, it was great.

SS: Art Tatum.

DB: Probably the greatest genius certainly of the piano, but I would include in music, just way ahead of everybody. I think bebop learned a lot from him. I know they did. And, a lot that happened that he never got credit for, but all of the pianists that I know agree that he was the greatest pianist that ever has played jazz.

SS: Another pianist, Thelonius Monk.

DB: Yeah, another great talent. We recorded one time together -- one tune, and that was a lot of fun. And, I liked his music. Surprisingly, he liked mine. And, so that made us friendly. And then, one night we had dinner together with his wife and son.

And he never said a word, "Hello, good bye," and not too long ago his wife said, "You know, Thelonius enjoyed that night just so much. He's always talking about it." And (laughter) he never said a word to either of us. So, he must have had something that he could pick up what you're thinking.

IB: You know, there was a joke that went around among musicians because Thelonius had this habit of sometimes he obviously couldn't stay at the piano and concentrate. He'd get up and walk around, and then come back or something. And somebody would say, "Yeah, but he was thinking a great a chorus." (laughter)

SS: Ella Fitzgerald.

DB: Oh, wonderful. We toured together a lot. I wasn't her pianist, but I have played with her. One night, she came into the club in San Francisco, the Black Hawk. After her club date closed, she came in. A lot of musicians would come into the Black Hawk. But, this night, Miles and I were sitting at the bar, just us and the bartender, and she came in, and walked over to me and said, "Would you play for me? I feel like singing some more."

And I said, "Sure." So, we both went up on the stand, and she sang a few tunes. When we got off, went back, sat by Miles. And he said, "You swing, man. You're blankety-blank band don't swing." (laughter)

Now, Miles had been quoted that our quartet didn't swing. That's why he said, "You swing, man. Your band don't swing." Then I thought to myself, how many nights have you told me, Miles, that your own band don't swing? Don't have to be talking to me... Fix your own band. (laughter)

SS: Well, that was quite a complement to you personally, I guess, if not your band.

DB: It was, yeah, because he didn't have to say anything. Miles could put you down very quickly, but to say something nice was great.

SS: Another singer you worked with, I think, a little more extensively: Carmen McRae?

DB: Iola's favorite singer.

IB: Yeah, and go ahead.

DB: You.

IB: Well, I just think that she basically was an actress who can sing, because every song, whatever it was, she found the story, and the emotion behind it, and each song was like a complete little story. And, I think that's very rare among vocalists because so often they're singing the notes and they're singing the words, but her intent -- as I say, she was basically an actress who sang.

SS: That's a great way of describing her and her performance style. Jimmy Rushing.

DB: Jimmy was one of my favorite singers, especially some great old tunes with the blues, and I was so fortunate that he asked me to accompany him with my quartet. We made a great album that I think is really a strong album. That's there. I hope it's always going to be around.

SS: That's great that it's on record for people to continue to enjoy. Willie "The Lion" Smith.

DB: Oh, Willie, one of the great stride pianists that ever lived, and we toured together. And, one night he was on first, and to open the concert, with a cigar in his mouth, and his derby hat...

But, before the concert started, there was a television crew backstage, and the emcee was to interview Willie. And, when I got through with sound check, go back, and take his place -- and Willie would come out and start. So, as I walked into the set, the emcee said, "Isn't it true, Mr. Willie 'The Lion' Smith, that white men can't play jazz?" And Willie said, "I want you to meet my son."

SS: Pointing to you?

DB: Yeah (laughter).

SS: One last name, Nat King Cole.

DB: Oh, I admire Nat almost as much as Art Tatum, and I knew him before he was the great singer that he became by hearing his trio -- just fantastic.

SS: He was a piano player, right?

DB: Oh, was he! Just a wonderful pianist... Listen to the old Nat Cole Trio records, and you'll hear one of the greatest.

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