Brubeck on Steinbeck
Thursday, September 14, 2006
“Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.” So wrote John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel Cannery Row. And for the last five decades, Monterey has also done pretty well by its musical men and women.
So it’s about time that the Muses make the three-mile trek from Cannery Row to the Monterey Fairgrounds, home of the Monterey Jazz Festival, to link these two forms of artistic expression.
After all, the old Cannery Row of the book and the Fairgrounds of MJF have things in common. They’ve both been peopled by eccentric and creative characters who’ve overcome barriers of convention, and the sometimes adverse winds of change, to further a shared vision.
Consider the founding of the Festival in 1958 by the late Jimmy Lyons, a crusty scrapper not totally unlike Cannery Row’s Mack. A year earlier, Lyons was living in Big Sur, south of Monterey, and broadcasting jazz over KDON out of Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. With modest investments from a few of the station’s sponsors, Lyons enlisted his progressive pianistic pal Dave Brubeck to perform at a meeting of the Monterey City Council to help him sell the risky idea of a jazz festival.
Brubeck recalls that appearance by his quartet, which featured the attractively cool saxophonist Paul Desmond, but hadn’t yet waxed its million-selling LP, Time Out. At the Fairgrounds in ‘57, “We played in a whitewashed cement floor place where they showed vegetables, or maybe animals. And the council was sitting there on wooden chairs.” How did that small, select audience react? “They liked it! And that’s how we got permission to do a festival.” It began the following year, on the Fairgrounds’ main stage.
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Nearly a half-century and several memorable return visits later, Brubeck appears this Sunday on the stage renamed for his dear departed friend Jimmy Lyons. There he’ll debut his Cannery Row Suite, a multi-media piece commissioned by the Festival and co-created with Brubeck’s longtime spouse and collaborator, Iola (Whitlock) Brubeck. This musical morphing of the Row has regional resonances that extend beyond Brubeck’s love of the book, which he read while still a student at the College of the Pacific in Stockton.
Like Steinbeck, Brubeck was born in California (in 1920, 18 years after the writer) and was bred and inspired by the state. In the denizens of the author’s Cannery Row, Brubeck finds folks he encountered, and worked with, on his father Pete’s property in the Sierra Foothills. “After all, on a 45,000-acre ranch, you’ve got some characters,” Brubeck points out. “In the days before modern equipment, there would be a hundred men in hay season, and a bunkhouse, and sleeping on the ground, which I did, too. So I’m very close to that kind of life and those kind of people.
“In California, I think there was more of an opportunity to know characters like those,” adds Iola, who was also raised here and is also an alumna of the College of the Pacific, where she met her husband. “If you grow up in a [small California] town, you’re gonna run across those people.”
One of Brubeck’s first published compositions, “Dad Plays the Harmonica” (written in 1946), evokes his native state’s homey ambience. Pete Brubeck had further shared with his family images of what would become known as Steinbeck Country during regular vacations in Capitola and Santa Cruz, and engagements at the rodeo in Salinas, where Pete was a champion calf-and-steer-roper.
The Army took Brubeck away from California in 1942 but let him play piano and meet fellow military musician Paul Desmond. Enrolling (with Desmond) at Oakland’s Mills College after his discharge, Brubeck was given free private classes by classical innovator Darius Milhaud (for whom he wrote the “Dad” tribute), and was introduced to the fellow students who’d make up most of his octet. The group’s debut recording featured Jimmy Lyons reading a spoken addendum to the jazz standard “How High the Moon.” Lyons also showcased Brubeck’s trio (with Mills alumnus Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty) over San Francisco’s high-powered KNBC radio, and the pianist reciprocated by penning a “Lyons Busy” theme.
“Guys in the Navy would be hearing that show with Jimmy almost every night,” Brubeck recalls. “So when they hit port, and San Francisco was one of the main ports, they came to wherever I was playing.”
The young pianist saw no immediate reason to leave Northern California. Lyons helped him secure a gig at the Burma Lounge in Oakland, and then, “Jimmy moved us over to the Black Hawk, by talking them into it.”
With Lyons’ encouragement, Brubeck was instrumental in establishing what has been labeled the West Coast Cool sound of jazz, certified by his appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1954.
After founding and leaving the San Francisco-based Fantasy label, Brubeck moved to Columbia, and to a stunning modernistic home in the Oakland hills, where he helped Iola raise Darius, Dan, Matthew, and Chris, the next generation of Brubeck musical talent, and rehearsed his “classic” quartet. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was, of course, among the charter acts at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958. “I think that [Lyons’] drive to bring jazz to the forefront was evident,” Brubeck testifies. “And Jimmy was always thinking in terms of doing these very experimental things.”
California frontier courage was again manifest at Monterey four years later, with Dave and Iola’s “The Real Ambassadors,” its timely social commentary delivered by an all-star cast including Louis Armstrong, Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Carmen McRae. Broadway had been “afraid of the idea,” Brubeck points out. But Lyons wasn’t. “It was really one of the highlights of my life,” says Iola, “because the reception was such an emotional one. The collaboration of Dave and Louis Armstrong perhaps seemed incongruous to people, but… [Armstrong] was as happy as we were. He had a lot on the line, too: this was the first time that he had expressed, musically, any of his feelings about racial integration, or had made political remarks—with a little irony.”
Although the Brubecks felt obliged by career realities to relocate to Connecticut in 1960, they’ve cherished their regular returns to California, where the Brubeck Institute has taken hold at their alma mater (now called the University of the Pacific) and Monterey’s Festival has remained cordial after the passing of the torch from Lyons to Tim Jackson.
With his newest experiment in jazz theater, Brubeck is as close to his California experience as “The Real Ambassadors” was to his moral compass. Son Chris’ innovative band Triple Play will act as a sort of folksy chorus, evocative of Brubeck’s early gigs in Foothill dens of iniquity. Chris will also serve as the voice of “Cannery Row’s” madcap Mack, with Kurt Elling portraying the thoughtful and lovelorn Doc and Roberta Gambarini as Dora, the sagacious bordello madame with a heart of gold.
Although Brubeck never met Steinbeck, he was told by the author’s son Thom (who narrates the “Suite’s” opening and closing) that his father “listened to my music all the time.” The composer assures that the admiration was mutual. He saw in Steinbeck’s style “someone who really lived observing these characters so closely, it’s like he was part of the group he was talking about. And that’s hard to do and still sound interesting as a writer.”
Brubeck’s own lifeline qualifies him as another living, very interesting part of that venerable group, and Monterey will be glad for the opportunity to give him a warm welcome back.