Chris Carter: Hi, everybody. This is Chris Carter from the Bankhead Theater. And as we get ready for our upcoming 22-23 season, we’re going to be interviewing a series of artists who are coming to perform for this season. And today, I’m very excited to be talking to Chris Brubeck, who I share a first name with, which really makes it fun.
Chris, thanks for being here, I really appreciate your time. Chris is going to be performing with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet on September 21st, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and you can get tickets at LivermoreArts.org. And Chris, before I ask any questions, I’m going to read a quick snippet from one of your bios that I found online.
Just so people can get a little bit of an idea of your background. Grammy-nominated composer Chris Brubeck continues to distinguish himself as a creative force and multifaceted performer on fretless bass, bass, trombone, and piano. An award-winning writer, he is clearly tuned into the pulse of contemporary music. The respected music critic for the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein, calls Chris a composer with a real flair for lyrical melody, a 21st century. Leonard Bernstein That’s pretty cool.
Chris Brubeck: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Carter: And you know, you’re not just–you’re coming– the Brubeck Brothers Quartet is more of a jazz group, but you also have a symphonic background as well. And when I – this morning, I was actually listening to Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra, and I was–I was pretty impressed. And I have to ask you before we even start because as I was reading your bio, it sounds like you’re a– you’re a composer, symphonic composer.
So symphony or jazz, do you have a preference or a little bit of both? Or how do you what do you like the best?
Chris Brubeck: Well, actually, what I like the best is what I do, which is both because there’s– they contrast each other in a very nice way. Like as a composer., you know, it takes a lot of creativity and in the first place, in fact, I have to give you a Stravinsky quote, which sort of explains everything. Stravinsky said that composition is really improvisation, that is captured and worked on– I’m sort of screwing the quote up. But the point is, as an improviser, the same part of my mind–is creative enough to make up a phrase, is the same as the same part of me, that is a composer that makes up a phrase. But as a composer, I have to say I like that and I’m going to capture it, now I have to develop it, I have to orchestrate it up and down, I’ve got to elongate it, I got to do all these things. And it takes a ton of hard work. And the ironic thing is it’s very satisfying, like if I hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra play something that I wrote, you go, “Oh my God, I feel like a demigod. The power, the strings, the brass section.” But I can have the same thrilling feeling just playing with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet when I didn’t spend any time writing anything down.
Chris Carter: And you just improvise as you go. Which is–
Chris Brubeck: Yeah, yeah, but the creative spark is the same. And like, there’s tons of great jazz musicians that I would say would be great composers because they’re composing on the spot all the time. However, do they have the discipline and the sort of masochistic streak of sitting down for two months and writing this all down.
Chris Carter: Is it that painful, it can’t be?
Chris Brubeck: It’s pretty painful.
Chris Carter: Really?
Chris Brubeck: Yeah, because at first, when I first started composing, I thought it’s like, Oh, it’s just a matter of thinking of the music. But unfortunately, I was taught not formally, but informally, but there was a very famous conductor named Eric Kunzel from the Cincinnati Pops, who far exceeded the Boston Pops in terms of record sales. He said every note in the score has to have an articulation. Meaning you’re telling me a play– Is it a short note? Is it a long note? Is it a slurred note? And a dynamic. So you have three or four layers of information per note, per 30 instruments. You know, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of bits of information that dutifully has to put in.
So I’m sure your average listener says blah, blah, blah, enough already. But let’s talk a little bit about being a composer.
Chris Carter: When you compose, do you compose primarily from off the piano or what? What’s your kind of creative process?
Chris Brubeck: Well, that’s a good question, Chris. And for me, I’ve been doing it before there was something called Finale, which is a program which is like a musical typewriter. And so the beautiful thing about that is like, if I hear like a flute solo in my mind, I can write that flute solo on a stack I create, and in a score I create, it as a flute solo and I can play it back and it is literally a digital flute player living inside my computer. And it sounds just like a fluke. I mean, it’s not like a Donkey Kong, you know, Mario Brothers sound like an electronic piece of crap. It’s literally a flute player who is digitally playing my music. And so that’s how the way I compose, which is different from a lot of people, is I really do things because I think they sound good.
I don’t have any kind of Schoenberg theory I’m following–whatever, and I think also because I’m a performer. Like whatever that quote said referred to my melodic writing or whatever–you know, I’m not trying to prove a point by some kind of crazy musical theory. I’m trying to write music that I would enjoy hearing. And, you know, Bernstein’s music is eminently enjoyable. And thank God he and Copland existed or classical music would have alienated everyone. Yeah, you know, in terms of where it was going. But so the Finale thing is that I can always hear what I’m writing and then I have a meeting with a conductor, then I’ve got a Finale demo of things, all the right tempos, everything’s in tune, and that helps me immensely. And that’s how–that’s how I work personally. A lot of people don’t work that way, but that’s the way I roll.
Chris Carter: Got it. Which instrument was your first instrument, that you learned?
Chris Brubeck: Actually piano, because my father, he wanted me to learn how to play piano, not because he wanted me to become a great pianist. In fact, I didn’t even want to even attempt piano because I knew that he was a great pianist. Like even as a five-year-old, I think, like he’s got this sewn up. I don’t want to compete with him, but he wanted me to be able to read treble clef and bass clef and understand notation. So I’d have the basic tools of language because he said someday, little Christopher, you might want to be a composer and I want you to have the skills. And he was also compensating for the fact that my father was a brilliant musician, but he had problems with his eyesight. And I think his eyes were so bad at first that he probably had A.D.D. or something like that, which they didn’t call it that in the 19–mid-1920s.
And so he learned to be a composer, you know, much later in his life and he became a great jazz musician because he had to develop these amazing ear skills with tremendous ears.
Chris Carter: I didn’t know that about your dad. Well, let’s talk about your dad a little bit. Dave Brubeck was your father. I think he would have been 102 maybe this year.
Chris Brubeck: Yeah. Yeah. Because 2020 was his centennial.
Chris Carter: Yeah. And you know, I read that he and your mother were married for 70 years.
Chris Brubeck: Yeah.
Chris Carter: It sounds like a pretty stable guy, which for, you know, an incredibly successful jazz musician. That’s not always the case.
Chris Brubeck: But that’s often not the case.
Chris Carter: Yeah–You know, it’s kind of fascinating that he was able to do all that and seemed like he had it all had it put together pretty well. He was able to keep a marriage together and didn’t–nothing scandalous seemed to happen. And he seemed like he was a pretty good father to you and you had several siblings as well, right?
Chris Brubeck: Right. There were six kids in all, four of us turned out to be professional musicians. And we’ve all played with my dad. And at one point, my brother Dan, the drummer who’s going to be in this concert coming up, and my brother Darius, who did turn out to be–he started as a trumpet player, ended up being a piano player.
And myself and my father, we had a group that toured the world as the new Brubeck Quartet. That was in the early seventies, we recorded and did that kind of thing. And then my youngest brother Matthew, was a great cellist and he lives in Toronto now, but he used to live in Berkeley and was in the Berkeley Symphony and did a lot of touring with a lot of pop acts and things like that.
And we’ve sort of all played together and we had a great time. We learned a lot from our father. On the other hand, I got to say, and I’m not saying this out of pity, but just out of facts, you know, people say, “did your father teach you to play piano?” Well, he was gone all the time because he was on tour all the time. So he had to find a piano teacher for me that he thought would be good and could, you know, the consistency of a lesson time–once a week and everything. So we had to have that, but we learned a lot from him just by osmosis. I played thousands of concerts with him and I learned a lot that way.
As a matter of fact, a couple of nights ago, I had a wonderful dream. You know, sometimes you have a dream where it’s more than the dream. It’s like more intense. It’s like a visitation or something. But I dreamt I was in some concert hall and I was listening to my dad play. Oh, it put a huge grin on my face. I’m sure I was smiling in my sleep because I’ve heard him so much that that part of my brain created a new concert of Dave playing his butt off. And I had the joy of hearing it.
Chris Carter: Did you wake up and try and play it right away?
Chris Brubeck: No, I didn’t. I knew that was hopeless. He’s 50 times the piano player I am, but, you know, but it was just the same for lifting my heart and enjoying my–my dad. It was so funny as–as in his career he got to this point, it was so much fun to play with him. He’d walk on stage and get a standing ovation for about 5 minutes, and then he would just play so joyfully.
And that’s what people wanted to come to see. Like the comment over and over would be like, “Oh my God. He walked so slowly to get to the piano, we thought, Uh-Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have gone to see him one more time–maybe he’s just too damn old, you know?” And then as Herbie Hancock said right before your eyes, he starts playing and he starts losing 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And he has all this energy and technique and music.
And my father just loved playing old standards. Like he loved to play “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” He was a guy that wrote “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “In Your Own Sweet Way” and all this challenging music, but this the innocent joy of a song like that and sort of creating a happy vibe is what he came to, to want to do the most for his audiences. And everyone loved him for that. One of his one of his most favorite things was Downbeat magazine has a poll, that’s the most famous jazz magazine, for the most popular jazz group, not the critics, but for the audiences to want to see. And Dave’s group won that–you know, I might be off by a year or two–let’s say they won it in 1961 or something. But his group won it again in like 19 or 2003 or something. 50-year span, you know, the same group and the only person that was the same was him, you know. So he’s doing something right, you know.
Chris Carter: Well, what is it about that music that just resonates generation after generation–You think?
Chris Brubeck: You know, I’m not sure, like at this point… like when my brothers and I were playing with my father, there was this show that went on the road was almost like a traveling musical circus, was called “Two Generations of Brubeck.” And for example, my father did a record called “Jazz at Oberlin,” it was a pretty famous, well-reviewed record. So we would go back to Oberlin College and it would be on parents’ weekend. So the kids that were in college were more like my age, and they would say, “Oh, I don’t like jazz so much, like rock and roll.” But I had created a rock and roll group, so we play and then my father would appeal to the people that were his age, the parents of the kids in college. And so now I’m getting old enough that we’re playing for kids of kids that were the kids that –kids who come to say, “my parents or my grandpa really loved your music and I grew up hearing it.”
There are you know, they’re rarer, but there are still kids– I mean, we run into kids all the time that play jazz really great. We just had a jazz camp up at Tahoe called “Brubeck Jazz Summit,” and there were a lot of kids from California that were there. And then and there’s still something a certain degree of the population will hear jazz and go, “oh, my God, that’s such intelligent music and there’s so much freedom in it, and I’m crazy enough. I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to play this stuff.” It’s just beautiful that people feel that strongly about it when they discover it.
Chris Carter: Well, we have a program here called the High School All-Star Jazz Program, East Bay High School All-Stars.
Chris Brubeck: Oh, great.
Chris Carter: These are students, high school students from around the East Bay. They have to try out for it. It’s run by a musician his name is Spencer Sussman, and he’s a pretty proficient jazz artist who’s toured around the world and he’s come back to run this program for us. And it’s competitive and the idea is to give them an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a professional musician, and especially in the jazz world. And we give them gigs and we book shows for them and they perform on our stage and other stages. And it’s, it’s really a great program and I think you’re right– It is–there’s something about it that is it speaks to your mind in a different way. I remember I had a professor tell me once about listening to jazz music as to imagine somebody kind of poking you when you least expect it.
You know, there’s just something about it that really makes you think and move kinda differently, which it sparks your brain. So I love it too.
Chris Brubeck: Well, that’s great. And you know, I want to say something too, is that when you’re talking about my parents’ long marriage. There’s a lot of things about my mother that the general world doesn’t know, but she’s the one that invented the idea of doing jazz concerts at colleges. And she was tired of my dad coming home from legendary jazz clubs like the Black Hawk, you know, at three in the morning and smelled like a cigarette because everyone smoked in those days because doctors used to have full-page ads about smoking was good for your health. Keep that in mind. You know, Life magazine. Yeah, you can always trust those corporations, you know. So anyhow, she thought like–man, I don’t want you–why can’t you be viewed as legitimately, as a string quartet, the kind of dialogue you have in your group with Paul Desmond, etc… Yeah, it’s a high level of music and you shouldn’t have to be competing with cigarette smoking and people trying to pick up their dates and Waring blenders, making, you know, pina coladas or whatever, you know.
And so she said, okay, where can I put you? Where there are people who are kind of more intelligent that would appreciate was harder to understand about jazz. She went “Ah-ha college.” There’s already a filter system there. You know, the brighter, more motivated people are going to college and they’ll probably like jazz. So she wrote to all these places and said, please consider having my husband come in and play.
And one of the earliest records he did was “Jazz Goes to College”, “Jazz Goes to Junior College” opening up that–that market and so besides being a lyricist, that’s one of her great contributions to the general field of jazz.
Chris Carter: Yeah, well, my dad went to college in the early sixties, and I was telling him about the Brubeck Brothers Quartet coming, and he was very excited. And he said, you know, he reminded me that’s pretty much all he listened to when he was that age. So I think your dad probably had a big influence on that generation.
Chris Brubeck: Yeah, and it’s amazing because we’ve been fortunate enough to meet some pretty heavy people that tell me the same story as people that aren’t that heavy, which is including like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, you know, and Senator Richard Blumenthal recently, you know, like this is the music that really turned them on. And I have one theory about, you know, “Take Five” becoming such a big hit, which is, you know, it doesn’t have a ton of chord changes. It’s almost over like an E-flat pedal and it’s very modal. And that was at the same time that Indian music was starting to come into the American consciousness. And I don’t think the average person would tie those things together, but I think somehow that was it. It was in five, which was weird. It didn’t have a ton of chord changes and it had that thing going on. So I think that was all in the ethos and all sort of came together for that song to take off.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Chris Brubeck: I remember when I was a kid, people sometimes will ask me like, “Well, when did you get–really get it in your head that your father was really a big deal?” And I remember very specifically he was doing a concert in New Jersey and I was sitting in a diner and, you know, the kinds of diners when you were a kid where there’s one in each booth and there’s these like metal menus that you can flip the pages.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Chris Brubeck: And I’m sitting there’s like, you know, Rolling Stone “Satisfaction”, the Beatles, you know, “She Loves You” or Beach Boys or whatever. And then it was like Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” and going, “Oh my God, my dad made the jukebox–on the jukebox that’s significant!”
Chris Carter: That’s awesome. Well, were you ever you know, because you became a–you grew up to be a professional musician. Was there anything else you wanted to do or were you kind–of sometimes when you have a successful parent, it’s a little bit of a challenge to follow in their footsteps. But was your–did you always want to be a musician? Was there anything else you wanted to try out?
Chris Brubeck: No, it was pretty much always music. I mean, I just had a fantasy, like when I was in third grade, I loved watching Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants and, you know, or, you know, some sort of fantasy about basketball. But in ninth grade, I was the last kid cut from the freshman basketball team and when that happened, I was bummed out and I said to my dad, “Hey, I know there’s this really cool music school. Can I go there instead since I didn’t make the basketball team?” And I was very lucky to be thrown in with all these super talented high school kids that went on to Juilliard and became very famous in the classical world.
And so my big thing that was different is that I knew my dad had, you know, jazz all sewn up–as I wanted to have very–and did have very creative rock and roll groups that were, you know, you know, very different. One group was called Sky King. It was very funky. I remember Chicago Sun-Times called “The Thinking Man’s Funk,” and I like that idea. And so I did that until the mid-seventies. And then after we put out our third album, it’s like we ran into some shenanigans with Columbia Records and half the band quit music and we’re bummed out. My dad said, “Hey, Chris, man, why don’t you start playing jazz with me, you got the chops.”
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Chris Brubeck: So I did that. At that point in my life, I was ready to do that, having paid all the dues, you know, you got two bands, you’re going on the road, you don’t have enough money for a gig, so you sleep at a rest area on the side of the highway. You know, I’d done all that stuff for a few years. I was like, Okay, I’ll do the better gigs now.
Chris Carter: Twist my arm. That sounds great. You’re–you are a Bay Area guy. You mentioned the San Francisco Giants. Your family has roots in the East Bay, is that right?
Chris Brubeck: Absolutely. My dad was born in Concord and his parents had something to do with Concord, too. But when he was very young, they moved out of Concord and God knows how big that was in 1930, you know, maybe it was a town of 5000 people or something. But they moved to a minuscule town called Ione. Our grandfather, Pete, Grandpa Pete was a real cowboy, like a rodeo champion roper from the Salinas rodeo, you know, which is not for sissies, you got to be the real deal to compete down there. And he was hired to manage a 40,000-acre ranch. And if you ever go up one of the big highways, you still see Grant Line Road as an exit. That was the edge of that ranch.
Chris Carter: Wow.
Chris Brubeck: Yeah, that he managed. So I always kid with my dad, you know, I said, hey, man, you grew up eating organic beef whenever you wanted, pre-World War two and the chemical revolution, you know. So, he and my two uncles were–all my Grandpa Pete wanted them to do was be cowboys. And my father literally was a cowboy, I have footage of him roping and steering and branding and all that, but he had this musical talent and eventually, that outdid the cowboy.
Chris Carter: Didn’t deny it. Okay, that’s a great story. Well, let’s–tell me a little bit about the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and what we can expect. So you just–you mention your brother Dan is performing with you, who are the other musicians in the group?
Chris Brubeck: The other musicians in the group are Mike DeMicco, who’s a great jazz guitarist, tons of chops. And Dan and Mike have been playing together for damn near 35 years because they were in a band before this called the Dolphins. that did three records and toured the world and they were more of a fusion band. But dance fusion sort of became less popular probably about 25 years ago. And my brother said, “Well, maybe we should stop doing fusion, do more straight ahead.” And then they asked me if I would like to play bass with them, I said,” Sure, yeah”– I started. And then the newest member of the group has only been in the band 20 years. That’s it. His name is Chuck Lamb and he’s a great pianist.
And in the seventies, he had a group called Dry Jack, which Rolling Stone magazine called one of the early great fusion groups. But he you know, all of us have that background where we played fusion, we played funk, we played rock, but we all love straight-ahead jazz. And when we play, “straight-ahead jazz”, all those other elements, you know, sneak in a little bit.
But, you know, it’s basically–it’s jazz. It’s not baroque jazz. It’s not Dixieland jazz. You know, it’s jazz just roaring right up the middle. And fortunately, we’ve put out CDs that did really well in the top ten of national airplay, so I know that it’s not like total fantasy that we are good or know what we’re doing, or at least there’s a lot of radio stations that support my fantasy that we’re good and we know what we’re doing.
Chris Carter: So we can expect a good show. So last question. You know, I’m not–I listen to jazz. I listen to lots of different types of music. I’m probably more of a casual jazz fan, but I do listen pretty regularly to someone who’s just getting into jazz. What advice would you have for them and would you kind of tell them to listen for if they were to come to this performance?
Chris Brubeck: Uh-huh. Well, it’s interesting because a lot of people, as I mentioned before, will say your father’s music was like the gateway for me to discover jazz at all, you know. And then from there, maybe they started listening to Miles Davis or whatever and getting deeper down the trail to John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk or people like that. But my dad’s music is pretty welcoming. And when we do our concerts these days, especially because of my dad’s centennial, we had big concerts planned all over the world, for like a Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Orchestra and the Hollywood Bowl and unfortunately, COVID wiped all that out. And I just say, “Well, we’ll wait till the next centennial to celebrate it.”
But we’ve been doing a lot of Dave’s music as part of that sort of centennial salute. So that’s one thing the audience can expect is to hear, you know, our interpretations of Dave’s timeless music. But in terms of what to listen for it’s just to understand that jazz is a lot like, if you know what the classical term means is like theme and variations, where you state the melody like people say “well, how much of what you played is improvised?” And you’ll say, “Well, there’s a structure, and then we’re making it up on top of that, and we listen to each other and everything’s changing all the time. So it’s probably about 90%.” And I really discovered that a lot of people actually don’t believe that that could be true, that you can play so well that it sounds like it’s rehearsed as a string quartet where it is written down, but it’s actually just everyone being a really great musician and listening.
And that’s the thing that an audience can really feel. Like, I love classical music and I love hearing, you know, orchestra music, but when an audience witnesses people actually creating something in front of them, they can often feel that. And I remember I looked at this little old lady, came up to me after a concert. and what she said, “I loved the way you boys played music. It was so fun. It was almost as if you were making it up as you went along.” And so I thought that was great, but rather than being condescending about it, I thought, you know, that actually says something–like, you know, like we’re magicians from their point of view like that was so together, it couldn’t have possibly been that we just made it up. It had to have been rehearsed. And so it was a great underhanded compliment.
Chris Carter: Well, it might just be inside of you, and you’re just conjuring it somehow, but… I agree. I think that’s the one–one of the wonderful things about your style of music and by the way…go ahead.
Chris Brubeck: When we play in our concert, I usually–we usually have a tune where Chuck literally makes something up that’s never, ever, ever been played before like this, okay, I’m turning you loose, Chuck, just do what you do because he’s great at just totally improvising whole plots from zero. And my brother Dan is a really exciting drummer in terms of playing creative drum solos and odd-time signatures.
I would consider him to be one of the best in the world and you know, he’s been doing it for 50 years playing drum solos and “Take Five” around the world. And it just boggles everyone’s mind how he can play so polyrhythmically and he has a lot of energy. It’s sort of like if Keith Moon from The Who became a jazz drummer, you know, that kind of energy.
And you know, Mike has all the blues and jazz and bebop chops and I’m wheeling away on the fretless bass. So we have a real cohesive group with its own sound. And I think that everyone’s going to going to relate to that combination of having a good time and playing creatively. And my dad always said, the audience is the fifth member of the group.
You know, the energy we get with an audience, I mean, if they give us energy it comes right back, and pretty soon you’ve created this beautiful little musical monster between the audience and the musicians. That’s great.
Chris Carter: Well, great. What a gift. And I was just thinking because you mentioned Thelonious Monk. I didn’t even realize this, but we’ve booked two second-generation artists, jazz artists, this season because we have T.S. Monk coming.
Chris Brubeck: Well Great!
Chris Carter: A few weeks after, you know, Thelonious’ son is going to be here as well.
Chris Brubeck: Oh, man. Well, that’s fantastic.
Chris Carter: Yeah. So we’re very excited to have you come to The Bankhead, I personally am really looking forward to it. I really appreciate your time today, Chris. So Chris Brubeck with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet coming to The Bankhead Theater on September 21st. You can get tickets at LivermoreArts.org. And come for a great show. If you’ve never been to The Bankhead Theater, Chris, acoustically, it’s a really great venue.
I think you’re really going to enjoy it. So thank you again and thanks, everybody. Bye.
Chris Brubeck: Thank you, Chris.