Dan Brubeck Quartet: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Dave and Iola Brubeck

Dave Brubeck was one of the most popular, beloved and respected jazz artists of the 20th century. His career spanned the bulk of the last century; he passed away in December of 2012 – a day before his 92nd birthday – and was actively performing til the end. He played his last show in Vancouver at the Orpheum for the 2008 Vancouver International Jazz Festival. But even most hard core jazz fans are unlikely to realize that Brubeck`s success was due to a loving partnership that lasted for over 70 years.
When Iola Brubeck was managing her husband’s quartet in the early 50s, she came up with the idea to set up a tour of college campuses – the idea lead to a successful series of Jazz Goes to College recordings and brought a fresh new audience to the music. Even lesser known though is the fact that Iola Brubeck wrote lyrics for many of Dave Brubeck’s (and several of Paul Desmond’s) compositions.

Of Dave and Iola’s six children, two ended up living in Canada: cellist Matt Brubeck in Toronto, and drummer Dan Brubeck on the Sunshine Coast just outside Vancouver. Music was a family affair for the Brubeck household, the first time I saw Dave Brubeck was back in the ’70s in the Two Generations of Brubeck project with Dave on piano, and sons Darius, Chris and Dan on keyboards, bass and drums respectively. More recently Dan and his brother Chris paid homage to their father as The Brubeck Brothers with their release Lifetimes.

When I chatted with Dan Brubeck last fall on the A-Trane, he said that he’d been looking for a way to really give his mother her due. He’d had recommendations for Vancouver-based players and eventually settled on three that are well-known on the local scene – Tony Foster on piano, Adam Thomas on bass and Steve Kaldestad on tenor. Adam’s additional skill as a vocalist surprised Brubeck when Adam offered to sing In Your Own Sweet Way on a gig and the plan for the project started to come together.

FOR THE WASHINGTON POST-American jazz pianist and jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola on Thursday, March 13, 2008 at the Sanibel Inn in Sanibel Island, Fla. (Photo by Craig Litten/Silver Image)

FOR THE WASHINGTON POST-American jazz pianist and jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola on Thursday, March 13, 2008 at the Sanibel Inn in Sanibel Island, Fla. (Photo by Craig Litten/Silver Image)

Commuting from the Sunshine Coast, Dan settled in with his bandmates at the Cellar in the summer of 2013 and produced enough wonderful material for a beautiful two CD package bookended with the loving “then and now” photographs of Dave and Iola shown here – Live From the Cellar: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Dave and Iola Brubeck. Iola contributed notes on the compositions and her lyrics but passed away in the spring of 2014 at the age of 90 before the recording was released. The result is an amazing tribute for both music and lyrics in a deluxe package which was recognized with a Juno nomination for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.

Here’s a musical overview:

In my interview with Dan, we spent some time discussing the lyrical project for which Iola Brubeck was popularly known – a musical theatre piece inspired by Louis Armstrong and produced by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962 called The Real Ambassadors. The songs celebrated Armstrong as an ambassador sent around the world by the US state department and lamented the lack of civil rights which kept him a second class citizen in his own country. The performance and the classic recording featured Armstrong’s working band of the day, Dave Brubeck’s quartet, the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Carmen McRae. Louis loved the material and reportedly gave a moving performance in the last decade of his life. Quite famously no recording of the actual Monterey Festival performance exists because Armstrong’s long-time manager Joe Glaser refused to allow it fearing that the controversial material would hurt Armstrong’s career. Fortunately there was a studio recording which preserved this unique collaboration.

The New York premier of The Real Ambassadors took place April 2014 (a month after Iola’s passing) at a celebration of Dave Brubeck’s music at Jazz at Lincoln Centre. Unfortunately due to a timing mixup, Dan missed the first part of the performance but was surprised that they had managed to include the narration which in the live production thematically connected the songs and was thought to have been lost. (If any aspiring group of performers wants to mount this in Vancouver, let me know!) The Real Ambassadors is represented on the Live at the Cellar CD release by two songs: Since Love Had Its Way and Summer Song. A lyric from the latter adorns Dave and Iola’s shared headstone:

“Love to me is like a summer’s day
Silent ’cause there’s just too much to say
Still and warm and peaceful
Now the days are getting long
We can sing our summer song.”

It was one of Louis Armstrong’s favourite pieces of the production and reportedly had him in tears at the album’s recording session:

At the end of our chat, I gently chided Dan for living in Vancouver’s backyard but rarely performing here – he responded “well, we’ll have to fix that!” And true to his word, that will be fixed on the last day of this year’s Jazz Festival when the Dan Brubeck Quartet (with Miles Black on piano, Steve Kaldestad on saxophone, Adam Thomas on bass and vocals and Dan Brubeck on drums) plays Performance Works on Granville Island Sunday July 3rd at 9pm.
(You should get the CD too!)

For more previews and information about the other great artists coming to this year’s festival and information about how to get tickets, check out the Coastal Jazz Blog.

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