December 6, 2020 is a date worthy of a blog. Why? Well, it just so happens to be pianist and composer extraordinaire, Dave Brubeck‘s 100th birthday! Yep. The big 1-0-0. And here to commemorate this special occasion is none other than Dave Brubeck’s lifelong friend and fan, (and our dear friend in music) Dr. John Salmon.
Back in March 2018, Dr. Salmon graced our dinner table and tickled our ivories before his spectacular concert with Dr. Dmitry Rachmanov at CSUN California State University Northridge. His wit and warmth made for a memorable visit which I hope will be repeated in the near future. But I digress.
Without further ado, I’m thrilled to present my students and readers with this candid, insightful and heartwarming interview honoring the late great Dave Brubeck.
LRW: Dave Brubeck was born on December 6, 1920. What can you tell us about the significance of this centennial anniversary?
JS: Whoa, that’s a tough one to answer. Suffice it to say that Dave Brubeck has been one of my strongest professional and personal inspirations. His music has been in my head since I was a child – supposedly I could put the Time Out and Time Further Out LPs on our family’s stereo when I was six years old. I remember clapping on the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 7th beats of “Unsquare Dance,” and annoying my parents and older siblings. When I was 10 years old and after 4 years of piano lessons, my mother bought me a music book of transcriptions of “Take Five,” “It’s A Raggy Waltz,” and other hit Brubeck tunes. I still have that book and it’s weird to see my 10-year-old self’s handwriting, trying to figure out 3 vs. 4 rhythms with a diagram.
LRW: Hey wait. My dad played me those LPs for me when I was a young teen. Totally changed my world. I’m impressed with your precociousness. I’d love to see those 10 years old scratches and notes. May I ask, what was your relationship with Dave Brubeck like? How did you get to know him?
JS: I sent Dave Brubeck a fan letter in March of 1971, when I was 15 years old. Months went by with no answer. And then, one day in October of 1971, I received a letter in the mail from Mr. Brubeck that left me speechless. In my mind, Dave Brubeck was as famous as Elvis Presley, John Lennon, or Dick Clark and I never thought I’d have any contact with a celebrity! I still have that letter and have had it laminated at least 4 times in the intervening decades.
And I’ve been able to have that letter included in two of the articles I’ve written about Dave, most recently in the American Music Teacher article of 2013. Here’s the link to a pdf for your readers to enjoy.
LRW: OMG that is so cool. That last paragraph is worth tweeting.
Thanks for sharing this treasure. Did Dave continue corresponding with you after that?
JS: Dave and Iola Brubeck would send me Christmas cards after that, some of which I still have, but it wasn’t until 1992 that he began to know who I was. That was the year that my article “What Brubeck Got From Milhaud” was published. Here’s the link to the pdf for your readers to enjoy.
LRW: What a great read. Brubeck must have been very pleased with your story. I never knew he suffered from dyslexia. More interesting is the fact that both he and his older brother Howard studied composition with the venerable Darius Milhaud! Milhad was truly a mentor as well as a teacher to Dave, championing his passion for jazz. No wonder Brubeck named his firstborn son, Darius. What happened after that?
JS: After that, Dave started sending me all kinds of scores, most copies of his manuscripts, asking if I would be interested in playing and/or recording any of them.
LRW: OMG kvelling (and a little envious).
JS: I remember playing Points on Jazz at a recital at Interlochen Center for the Arts in April of 1993, and Dave sent me a letter that the then-president of Interlochen, Dean Boal, had sent him afterwards, praising my performance. Then, in 1995, my first CD of Dave’s “classical” piano music, “John Salmon Plays Brubeck Compositions” came out.
BTW, for your readers, The order of the 8 movements of Points on Jazz is:
A la Turk
The way they show up on youtube is kind of wackily disordered.
LRW: That’s so cool of Dean Boal. What an exhilarating moment for you. For my readers, “Points on Jazz” is a ballet suite which was composed for two pianos as a set of rhythmic variations on a theme. Some of the variations are based on jazz concepts, others are derived from the classics. Click the Points on Jazz link above for more. I need to get that CD and play it for my piano students. John, thanks for clarifying the order of the 8 movements. Much appreciated.
JS: No problem! That would be great! BTW, Dave’s older brother Howard Brubeck had passed away in 1993. Howard had been an important part of Dave’s musical life, editing, transcribing, and arranging many of Dave’s compositions, including the solo version of Points on Jazz that I recorded on that 1995 CD. It was Dave’s first time to hear the solo version and he was both impressed and grateful. While I could never have replaced Howard’s role in Dave’s life, in the mid 1990s I started to do a lot of the things Howard had done for Dave – look over scores, contribute to publications of Dave’s music, make arrangements, and record it.
LRW: What a gracious tribute and so kind of you to dedicate your time in Howard’s place. It’s true that Dave Brubeck also wrote a lot of pieces for classical pianists, right? What can you tell us about those? Have all of his compositions been published?
JS: Yes! Several of his large-scale “classical” pieces are published in Seriously Brubeck. These are very difficult! But there are a lot of easier pieces, such as the Nocturnes and Two-Part Adventures that are more intermediate level. I’ve recorded most of this music on my four CDs of Brubeck compositions.
Not all of Brubeck’s compositions have been published. For example, Ansel Adams: America, co-composed by Dave and his son Chris Brubeck, was written for symphony orchestra but I recorded a version I transcribed myself for solo piano, using Dave’s and Chris’s orchestral score drafts and some of Dave’s original notes. Someday, I hope to get that solo piano version published. And there are many other pieces of Dave’s that haven’t been notated yet. Suffice it to say that musicologists, pianists, and other professional musicians have a lot of work to do before we can fully recognize Dave Brubeck’s compositional output.
LRW: Wow! I’d like to get my hands on those piano pieces along with your CDs. Indeed. I hope all of Brubeck’s compos see the light of day in the not too distant future. I understand he also wrote a lot of large-scale choral pieces, such as the oratorio The Light in the Wilderness, the cantata The Gates of Justice, the cantata Truth is Fallen, and the mass To Hope! A Celebration. Are these jazz works? What is the style?
JS: Ooh, another great question! These are difficult to lump into one stylistic bin. I guess many people would automatically assume that they are jazz oratorios and cantatas, but that is not correct. Tone rows emerge all over the place, such as in the cantata Truth Is Fallen, sounding more like the dodecaphonic music of Schoenberg, but then a 1970s rock band shows up. And then there are chorales that sound like the music of J.S. Bach, one of Brubeck’s most important classical influences, quite tonal and conceived in traditional SATB style. Every year there are more and more doctoral dissertations on Dave’s choral works and several prominent choral conductors, such as William Skoog, are keeping Dave’s many choral works alive through performances and recordings.
A key issue in discussing Dave’s choral works is the religious themes and texts of many of them, making many of them sacred choral works. Dave was as devoted to these compositions as to any straight jazz tunes. To a large extent, his disbanding of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1967 was due to the fact that he wanted to devote more attention to composing; significantly, one of his first major compositions to be premiered, in 1968, was the oratorio The Light in the Wilderness.
LRW: Thank you for clarifying. Quite a feat he accomplished. I will enjoy listening to and sharing these great works with my students. Tell us about your own Brubeck-ian endeavors. I love how your families became close friends.
JS: Indeed. I continue to play Brubeck’s music, both his classical compositions and jazz works (over which I improvise!), as in my recent presentations for the Virginia Music Teachers Association. Long term projects include coming up with a piano solo score of Ansel Adams: America (basically, I guess, transcribing what I played in the CD. And I will start combing through all the scores in plastic bins under my pianos in my studio, to see what might be the next project. There are many possibilities! Just last week, I saw a note that Dave scribbled to me in the late 1990s asking me if I might come up with a piano concerto version of the orchestral/jazz combo version of Elementals. And then I found a score of his piano duet Four by Four, with a handwritten note from Dave, “Do you think this would work as a piano solo? Would you be interested?”
So, there is a lot of potential work to be done. With a composer as prolific as Brubeck, it will probably take several more years—perhaps, alas, decades—before his works are fully catalogued. What a great legacy he has left us!
LRW: Agreed! Our culture is richer for that. I’m delighted that you continue playing Brubeck’s music for teachers associations and on your CDs. Thank you for sharing these wonderful insights into this remarkable composer and pianist. I look forward to hearing about your musical projects as they unfold and look forward to blogging about them when they come to fruition.
Before we end, I have a special treat for my readers. John has gifted us with this recording of an informal conversation he had with Dave Brubeck over dinner one evening in Duisburg, Germany, May of 1994, when they were there for an honorary doctorate Dave was receiving from Gerhard Mercator University and John was participating in the ceremony. Fortunately John’s good friend Bill Duncan was there with his primitive yet functioning tape recorder, so everything got recorded, from the clinking of glasses, to talking with the waiter, to their informal yet profound conversation on a wide variety of topics (Dave’s experience at College of the Pacific, his experience as a soldier during WWII, etc.) Enjoy!
P.S. To purchase CDs of John Salmon’s remarkable Brubeck compositions and more, click this link.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Were you inspired? We’d love to hear. Please share your inspo in the comment section below.
If you enjoyed the interview, please feel free to share the enjoyment on your favorite social media platforms. Thank you for your interest and support!