The message from the outgoing voicemail said, “you’ve reached the Brubecks. Please leave a message.”
The caller was left a bit awestruck at how everyday it was, maybe even mundane, to hear Tish Brubeck apologizing for not being able to answer the family’s phone. After all, the Brubecks might be considered the first family of popular jazz.
Tish lives in Connecticut with her husband Chris Brubeck, bassist and trombonist with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. Chris, of course, is the son of one of the most legendary jazz musicians of all time, pianist and songwriter Dave Brubeck.
Bravo Niagara! Festival presents the Brubeck Brothers Quartet – Chris, his brother Dan on drums, guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb – Wednesday, June 22 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre’s Partridge Hall. The show, postponed from its original date in 2020, will celebrate the music of Chris and Dan’s famous father to mark the centennial of his birth.
Dave Brubeck was one of the jazz world’s first pop stars. His 1959 album Time Out peaked at number two on the Billboard pop chart and became the first jazz album to sell a million copies. That record’s Blue Rondo à la Turk and Take Five, both played in unusual time signatures, are two of the most recognizable jazz numbers ever.
Chris says the first time he realized how important his father was in the music world was when he was about 10 years old. The family had stopped at a diner in New Jersey.
“My dad was playing at a concert in New Jersey, and we stopped to eat,” says Chris. “The diner had those table-top jukeboxes. I remember flipping through the pages. It had the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, then I saw Take Five by Dave Brubeck. I thought ‘holy cow, my dad must be important.’”
Born in 1952, Chris was a teenager when rock and roll nudged jazz out of the way in the early- to mid-1960s, but says he never went through a rebellious stage when it came to talking music with his famous father.
“I was in seventh grade when the Beatles really hit,” he remembers. “My father didn’t understand what all the commotion was about. If you wrote In Your Own Sweet Way, or The Duke, how are you going to be impressed with the Kindergarten-level harmonic complexity of She Loves You. I didn’t like any of the early rock and roll stuff, like Duke of Earl, either.”
It was when Dave Brubeck finally heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Can’t Buy Me Love that his opinion on the Fab Four softened a bit, and Chris remembers the family sitting around the record player listening to Rubber Soul intently.
“The first time he heard Michelle and Norwegian Wood, he really, really loved that stuff.”
Chris dabbled in rock music early in his musical career, with bands such as New Heavenly Blue and Sky King. Listening to their records now, though, it’s clear that their musicality was a step ahead of most contemporaries, combining rock with elements of jazz, classical, blues and bluegrass in their sound.
In fact, it was while touring with New Heavenly Blue in 1972 that the idea of joining his father’s quartet arose.
“We would play places like Oberlin College (in Ohio), where Dave had recorded a record,” Chris says. “My brother Darius had the Darius Brubeck Ensemble, featuring Dan on drums, and within the space of a single weekend his band, my band and Dave’s band would all play the same place.”
At that point, Dave’s most famous quartet — Gerry Mulligan on saxophone, drummer Alan Dawson and Jack Six on bass — had just broken up. A promoter suggested that father and sons get together to do a few numbers as a family.
“We hadn’t even thought of it,” marvels Chris, “because we were each doing our own things. But when we did it, the reaction was crazy. There was this fifth element, the family playing together, that knocked it up a level. Then we thought about touring with just the four of us instead of our three separate groups, and it just made perfect sense.”
Dave, Chris, Dan and Darius became the New Brubeck Quartet, the three siblings immersing themselves in their father’s music while playing together off and on for nearly three full decades, until 2001.
“I played hundreds and hundreds of gigs with (Dave) all over the world,” Chris says. “Dan has played a few less, but we are part of the legacy of Dave’s music at this point.”
As Dave began to tour with other musicians in the new millennium, Chris and Dan formed the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and began touring and releasing albums of their own.
Their father continued to tour and record for more than 10 years, until he died of a heart attack in 2012 on his way to a cardiology appointment, just a day shy of his 92nd birthday.
The Brubeck Brothers Quartet’s 2012 and 2018 releases, Lifetimes and Timelines respectively, both paid tribute to their father. But the brothers, along with DeMicco and Lamb, put their own stamp on his jazz classics, taking things in different directions at times from where Dave would have gone.
“Dave wrote such great music, and we have fun playing it,” Chris says. “Jazz is a vehicle to stretch out on. With a number like Take Five, we never play it the same way twice. We don’t imitate Dave’s music, and audiences really seem to love what we do.”
As much as he reveres his father for his musical talent, Chris also holds up his service during the Second World War and his subsequent role as an ambassador for the U.S. with his historic 1958 State Department Tour as points of admiration.
He also points out that his mother Iola collaborated with her husband and Louis Armstrong on a musical called The Real Ambassadors, which addressed the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, the nature of God, and a number of other themes. The musical had only one performance, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, though Dave recorded an album of the songs in 1961.
Surely, if there was a list of those in the jazz world who deserve a tour in honour of their centennial, Dave Brubeck would be near the top of the list. And it’s worth the two-year wait for the Bravo Niagara! Festival show, scheduled appropriately just three days after Father’s Day.
“I’m glad that Alexis and Chris stuck with us,” a grateful Chris Brubeck says. “Dave was born in December of 1920. So all of 2021, it was still 100 years. That gave us an automatic extension. You know Leonard Bernstein’s centennial lasted five years. So it’s not a stretch for us to do it now in 2022.”
Tickets for the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, Wednesday, June 22 at the PAC’s Recital Hall, are available at.bravoniagara.org/live. The show begins at 7:30 p.m.