Eighty years old and with a raspy voice to match, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck sounds wonderful when he laughs. And he laughs when he's asked, on the phone by a reporter, to confirm or deny a barroom rumor:
"Is it true, Mr. Brubeck, that you cut a tendon in your hand so you could reach more keys on the piano?"
The line is quiet for a few seconds, and then Brubeck bursts out laughing.
"No, really, that's a rumor I heard," the reporter says, gathering courage. "A pianist here envies your reach and says you did that. He said Earl Hines did that and you did, too."
"Oh, he does, does he?" Brubeck guffaws. When he recovers himself, he explains that he did alter his reach, but for the worse.
"I had the opposite thing," he explains. "I was injured and I can't reach that far. When I was a kid, I could stretch to a 12th. I can reach to an 11th now."
Brubeck, who will be appearing at Shea's Performing Arts Center on Wednesday at 8 p.m., is much the same in person as he is at the piano: a man of wit and of brightly blazing emotions.
His tone can change in a moment.
If his mirth is hilarious, his serious side can be devastating. In Ken Burns' just-concluded "Jazz" documentary series, Brubeck was responsible for an excruciatingly emotional moment. He broke down in tears as he told of a shock he got in the '40s when his father showed him a brand on the chest of a black ranch hand. News Critic Jeff Simon called that segment "a moment of revelation about race in America that would alone be worth watching the whole epic for."
On the phone, Brubeck admits the story was difficult to tell. "I didn't know it was going to be so hard," he says.
Such sincerity helps explain why Brubeck, though not universally worshiped by critics, is so widely beloved by the public.
Even people who don't consider themselves jazz fans adore his bright, instantly likable music, from the angular "Take Five" to the lovely "In Your Own Sweet Way." Audiences and fellow musicians admire him on a personal as well as professional level.
Local jazz pianist Joe Brancato, for one, has listened to Brubeck for years, and has liked him more and more. "His arrangements are wonderful," Brancato reflects. "He must have big hands, because he gets a very full sound. He's a beautiful guy. I'd love to meet him."
Churches and dance halls
Buffalo is lucky to be more closely acquainted with Brubeck than most cities are. People here were able to see him in an intimate setting in 1996, when he performed his Mass at St. Joseph's Church. (After writing the Mass 15 years before that, Brubeck, who was raised Presbyterian, became a Catholic. "I joined the Catholic Church. Don't say I converted," he warns.)
Further cementing his connection with the Queen City, his saxophonist since the early '80s has been Buffalo's Bobby Militello. Militello will be on hand Wednesday at Shea's, with the rest of Brubeck's quartet: drummer Randy Jones and bassist Alec Dankworth. (Dankworth is the son of Britain's first couple of jazz, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.)
Brubeck loves Militello's playing. "He's got more technique than almost anybody on the saxophone today," he says. "And his ideas are always so rhythmic and harmonically interesting."
Those factors, of course, make him a good match for Brubeck. Hits like "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo A La Turk" caught on thanks to their quirky rhythms. Not long ago, Brubeck appeared on Marion McPartland's radio show "Piano Jazz," and McPartland praised, especially, his originality.
Growing up in northern California, Brubeck built up his chops as a dance hall pianist. It's clear that he loved and valued those years in the '40s among the cocktails and neon lights. The clubs "were like heaven," he told McPartland.
These days, pianists tend to learn in college classrooms rather than on the streets. Brubeck, who switched from pre-med to music at Stockton's University of the Pacific, won't say which route to jazz knowledge he thinks is better. "Each has a lot to offer," he says.
But the dance bands in which he played had their advantages.
"When you play in a band like in a bar or dance hall, it's one-on-one learning from the other guys, working, learning, experiencing," he explains. "If you're playing in a trumpet section and you're a kid, there's always the lead trumpet player and the jazz trumpet player. The third player is usually the young guy coming up. You've got these two guys, one's a jazz player, one's a great lead player, to listen to every night. It's the same in the sax section.
"That's what you look for growing up, to find these bands that have great players that will challenge you and teach you. Now they're gone for the most part," he sighs of the big bands. "Not completely gone, but nothing like it used to be."
When Brubeck was growing up, big bands were everywhere. "The radio stations hired people to come in every day and be broadcast. Then there were the theaters that had bands in them. I got to play with some great people, right in California, where I went to school," he adds. "Gil Evans was from Stockton. His big band was from Stockton."
Brubeck played with Evans' band, and recalls with equal glee the night he sat in with alto saxophonist Jerome Richardson.
Another major inspiration was the jazz singer and pianist Cleo Brown, who recorded extensively for Decca in the '30s. "I worked in a bar with her," Brubeck says, in his disarming, forthright tavern lingo.
Decades after Brubeck had met Brown, McPartland invited her to appear on "Piano Jazz." By that time, Brubeck says, nobody had heard from the singer for years. "Everyone thought she was dead," he says.
"But she had just quit playing jazz and was playing gospel in a church in Denver. When I told Marion she was out there, she said, 'She was one of my big influences in England.' So she had Cleo come to her show. And you should hear that show! Cleo must have been in her mid-80s, but boy, she could still play! She wouldn't play jazz, but she'd play 'Jesus Loves Me,' and it would sound just like her old recordings. It's great! That's what you want!"
It was thanks to Brown that Brubeck wound up meeting Art Tatum, the most marvelous of all jazz pianists. "I saw him when I was a kid. She gave me a letter of introduction," he says.
Tatum's worshipful audience included such keyboard titans as Vladimir Horowitz and Oscar Peterson. Peterson, after hearing him for the first time, reportedly quit playing for a month out of shock and discouragement.
Hilariously, the college-age Brubeck wandered into a pianist's worst nightmare: He had to follow Tatum's act. "George Wein, who runs the Newport Jazz Festival, hired Art and me in his nightclub in Boston," he explains. "I played on intermissions."
He admits to feeling something of Peterson's trepidation. "We could all feel that way," he sighs. Tatum's virtuosity, he says, was superhuman. "He was beyond everybody, and still is. It's like a Mozart. They don't happen very often."
Brubeck survived that gig, though, and swung to fame in the '50s with his first quartet, which included saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Dodge and bassist Bob Bates. In 1954, he had the honor of appearing on the cover of Time magazine, giving jazz a new validation. Over the years, he has played for four presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton. He attained a grip on the public that few jazz musicians could match.
Now, he's respected as a patriarch of jazz. But he's a modest, charming man who keeps his successes in perspective.
In his appearance on Burns' "Jazz," Brubeck explained that he was embarrassed that the Time magazine cover hadn't gone to Duke Ellington. He said he spoke apologetically to the band leader about it. It's all too easy to imagine Brubeck, the most earnest of musicians, turning this matter over in his mind for decades. It seems no wonder that, even at 80, he is still working out his own place in music.
That means, of course, that he's constantly busy.
Last year, Brubeck recorded a solo piano CD called "One Alone," with introspective versions of such standards as "Over the Rainbow" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." His sons Dan, Darius and Chris are respected jazz musicians themselves, and frequently join their father on stage and in the recording studio.
Brubeck mentions offhandedly that he has just written 12 new jazz pieces. Might we hear a few at Shea's? "Probably, yeah," he says, as if it only just now occurred to him.
His biggest excitement currently is that his alma mater has created a Brubeck Institute. It will include a Living Archive of his papers ("We sent 156 legal-sized boxes already," Brubeck marvels), provide an online resource and also schedule regular performances of his works. Inspired, Brubeck is composing up a storm. "I've written a string quartet and two piano pieces," he says.
Too many irons in the fire? For most artists, maybe. But not for Brubeck. He behaves as if being different were simply an accident.
"From the time I was a kid," he shrugs, "I seemed to always be going in my own direction, rather than follow the herd."