Dave and Iola Brubeck: A Long Partnership in Life and Music

Conducted by Caroline Crawford in 1999 and 2001, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2006.

Dave and Iola Brubeck were invited to be part of the Regional Oral History Office's music series in 1999. The idea was to focus on Brubeck as a composer and to interview Dave and Iola jointly, since she has not only been involved in every aspect of his life during their sixty-plus-year marriage, but has served as librettist for several of the large works Dave has composed since the 1960s. Brubeck is a living legend as a jazz musician, less known as a composer who spent several years studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in the 1940s. Milhaud was passionate about jazz and nurtured Brubeck's explorations in polytonality and polyrhythm, which have marked his piano style throughout his career.

The Brubecks wrote back that the idea of participating in an oral history interested them, particularly because they were currently writing their story for their family and because Dave would welcome a discussion of the large works and particularly the religious works that have occupied him in the last decades since he converted to Catholicism.

Dave Brubeck has been documented as much or more than any other jazz figure in history, including life histories by the BBC and NPR. He figured significantly in Ken Burns' nineteen-hour television presentation on PBS, and his reminiscences about seeing the scars on the back of one of the hands on his father's California ranch was perhaps the most moving moment in the documentary, the episode people took away as a symbol of African American suffering. "I asked him to cut that out," Brubeck says, and he replied, 'I'd rather cut my throat.'"

Race is an issue Brubeck has felt keenly all his life. In the 1950s he refused to play at colleges where black musicians were discriminated against, and chose texts for his compositions that were potent statements against racial injustice. "The people that seem to like to continue with racist ideas are just buying old myths without really investigating how important so many of the early players were, no matter what color they might have been." Brubeck says. "In the old days, we were all pretty close friends and it only had to do if you were a good guy, if you could play, and that was about it."

The first focus of the oral history is the Brubecks' long association with California. Iola's family of Whitlocks and Smiths settled in the Sacramento Valley, where the families had to travel two days by wagon to shop for staples and Iola remembers riding horseback to a one-room schoolhouse. Dave's grandfather settled in Lassen County in 1875, built a hotel between Pyramid Lake and Honey Lake, and in 1900 purchased land in the neighborhood of what is today the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, where the oral history interviews were held. Dave spent his early years on cattle ranches and was exposed to music through his mother, a classical pianist who studied in Paris when the children were small. His father hoped that the three sons would follow him in ranching (all three became professional musicians). Brubeck values the ranch years and claims that his experimentation with polyphony was derived from the rhythms of horseback riding.

After the Brubecks met at the College of the Pacific and married, they decided to stay and raise their six children in California rather than moving to the East Coast because the environment seemed more open to Brubeck's kind of musical experimentation. Although the family moved in 1961 to Connecticut, two of the four sons who are musicians still live and work primarily in California.

The second focus of the oral history are the large-scale compositions--oratorios, cantatas and masses--that bear Brubeck's trademark jazz style, a high degree of improvisation, polytonality and unorthodox rhythms. He composes constantly at their Connecticut home, on planes and trains. He even wrote a piece in the hospital while awaiting heart surgery, setting Psalm 30 to music and dedicating it to his surgeon. Iola thinks these compositions reveal more about Dave than his other music, and of the works for which Iola has produced the texts, The Light in the Wilderness and Gates of Justice are most often performed and closest to her heart. Dave agrees, saying of the latter: "The essential message is the brotherhood of man. Concentrating on the historic and spiritual parallels of the Jew and the American Negro, I hoped through the juxtaposition and amalgamation of a variety of musical styles to construct a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated."

Several of the oral history interviews took place at the Claremont Hotel, where the Brubecks stay and often celebrate important anniversaries. Just as he did so often in quartet playing, Dave defers to Iola in answering direct questions, and they frequently complete each other's thoughts. In the last interview, which took place just after 9/11, 2001, manager Russell Gloyd joined us, and Dave and Iola concluded our conversation by reflecting on the work we had discussed and the message it carries, so relevant in troubled times. The Brubecks reviewed the transcripts and made a few corrections and additions to the text.

If one thing has marked the Brubecks' lives it is grace. As one of the sons says of Dave and Iola's relationship—"they got it right the first time." Everything in their lives seems to have happened right "the first time": the decision to pursue music rather than ranching, the decision to have a large family and to stay in California. It must be that touch of grace that follows Dave and Iola, now in their eighties, from concert stage to concert stage and instills every performance with joy. Ask Dave Brubeck the secret of his career, his marriage, his first-place status with jazz fans of more than half a century and he answers: "Just lucky, I guess."

Caroline Crawford
Music Editor
December 2005
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley

See our Music and Dance Series for related oral histories.

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