Composer and pianist Dave Brubeck has been a leading figure in jazz for more than half a century. He got his start in music as a student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, in California's Central Valley. He also met his future wife, Iola, on the campus. The couple recently returned as Brubeck, 86, performed in the annual Brubeck Festival.
It was a fitting venue for the legendary musician. Dave Brubeck popularized jazz in the 1950s when his quartet took their music out of nightclubs and onto college campuses, with hits like "Take Five," written by Paul Desmond, Brubeck's alto saxophonist.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet became a sensation, with Brubeck on piano, Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. In 1954, as jazz was sweeping the country, Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He and his quartet toured the world as part of the U.S. government's efforts at cultural diplomacy, visiting Poland, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran,Iraq, and many other countries.
Jazz is international, but Brubeck says the innovative music reflects its American roots. "Our greatest gift to the world is what you have in jazz, which is freedom within very significant, understood rules." Brubeck says there is a kind of jazz that offers freedom without rules, but he prefers structure with room for improvising. He says that is how society works best, as well.
The University of the Pacific is home to the Dave Brubeck Archive, which has more than 60 years' worth of recordings and documents related to Brubeck's career. Among the hundreds of thousands of items is a handwritten lullaby that the musician wrote for Iola when both were students here, and printed programs from his performances at the White House.
Archivist Michael Wurtz says the collection sheds light on America's music and history, pulling out a 40-year-old letter. "This is written from the head of the music department at the University of Alabama in 1967," he says, explaining that the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed the music department's first racially-integrated public performance. The college official wrote that it set a precedent, opening public events to members of all races.
Brubeck had already led a racially integrated musical group during World War II, while he was in the Army, and his famous quartet included African-American bassist Eugene Wright. Brubeck turned down concert engagements rather than play in segregated settings, or agree to demands that Wright perform off-stage.
Dave Brubeck says he was never good at reading music, which prompted his college dean to try to keep him from graduating. His professors were impressed with his talent, however, and brokered an agreement that he would graduate if he agreed never to teach piano.
He is now a towering figure in the world of music, and University of the Pacific president Don DeRosa includes himself among Brubeck's ardent fans. The musician returns to the campus each year, staying involved with a program that trains young musicians, who are known as Brubeck Fellows.
Dave Brubeck says he plans to keep performing. "All of my friends that I have grown up with playing -- and the great ones -- no matter what happens in their lives, they seem to want to keep playing because it restores your health and your growth. To have that happiness that is on a stage with musicians that are playing well, it is about the happiest thing that can happen."
Brubeck is known for his innovative timing, and his range of compositions, which include religious choral music as well as jazz. He continues to challenge himself, and his newest composition is based on the novel Cannery Row by writer John Steinbeck.
Music is always moving in new directions, Brubeck says, adding "You never know where it is going to go. You never know where there is going to be another Louis Armstrong or [Duke] Ellington or Chopin or Beethoven. And sometimes there is a new master like a Mozart coming into this world, and they will lead us in a certain direction that we don't know what it is going to be."
Filmmaker Clint Eastwood, a friend and fan of Brubeck since his teenaged years, is overseeing a film documentary about the musician, tentatively called Dave Brubeck: In his Own Sweet Way.