I Blame Dave Brubeck

Two things happened this week that got me thinking this morning about just how important music is to me.

One was the passing of jazz great Dave Brubeck. The other, I’ll get to in a bit…

If you know me, you know I love music. Lots of different kinds of music. I can’t imagine life without it. On “The Steve LeVeille Broadcast” on WBZ radio in Boston over the years, I did a number of shows that got listeners to think about – or call in to talk about – their own love of music and its importance in their daily lives.

The fact that I know something about music and that I’m a good broadcaster has something to do with it but I think the main reason people enjoyed hearing me talk about music on the radio or enjoy talking about music with me, is that my love for music and the importance of it in my life is obvious, it comes across.

Once at Monitor Radio in the early 1990s, I was filling in as host of their afternoon news and features program, Daily Edition. I had to record an interview with the singer-songwriter Dar Williams. Dar was new on the folk scene. She had one album out – which had received much acclaim – and she was just releasing her second one, which was why she was talking with us. The interview would be edited down and mixed with her music later. We were going to talk for 15 to 20 minutes or so but, as these things often do, it went longer. Only this one went MUCH longer. I don’t know what she expected or how many interviews she had done to that point, but I got the distinct impression that this one was quite different than what she had experienced before. She was obviously quite into our discussion, intensely so. As were the people in the control room.

That was one great interview. Dar liked it so much it was featured on the front page of her website for a long time afterward. After it was over and Dar had left the building, the producer/editor Dean Cappello (one of the very best editors I ever worked with, these days he runs WNYC radio), came in to the studio. Everybody on the crew was smiling because they knew the interview had given us the makings of a great segment for the show.

But Dean couldn’t come in and say, “Nice job, that was great.” No, of course not. We were buds so he couldn’t just give me a compliment. In his understated manner he said, “What am I supposed to do with that? I tell you I want 15 minutes and you give me an hour and a half? Oy.” We both cracked up. Then came the compliment. He told me that everybody in the control room was so mesmerized by the interview that no one moved or said anything. Until one of the younger assistant producers turned to him and said quietly of me, “Why is he so good at this?” To which Dean just smiled.

In the mid-1980s, when I was at ABC Radio News, I was assigned to cover a tribute concert at Lincoln Center honoring John Hammond, the legendary record producer and the greatest A&R man in the history of the recording industry. Among many others, Hammond had discovered, signed, or developed Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and his latest discovery, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Jazz, folk, rock and blues artists were on the bill. My wife and I were planning to go to this show as soon as it was announced because I figured Goodman, Dylan or Springsteen would either make a surprise appearance or be added to the bill at the last minute. I’d never seen any of them in person but, considering their respective ages and the fact that Goodman no longer toured, I was hoping it would be Benny…and that I’d eventually get to see Dylan and Springsteen at a later date. It was…and I did. I was going to buy tickets to the show but then I got the assignment. I told the producer, Dave Alpert, I would need two tickets because I was definitely bringing Diane. If he couldn’t get two, then give the assignment to somebody else because I didn’t care if I had freebies or not – we were going to this show. But Dave came through, big time. We sat eighth row center with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s publicist. My specific assignment was to interview Stevie Ray after the show.

We did the interview in a corner, backstage at Avery Fisher Hall. We were standing up because he had agreed to be interviewed for just a few minutes. Which was fine because I just needed “a couple of cuts” of Stevie to go into the broader story of the Hammond tribute and a couple more cuts about his second album, which had just been released. But it went longer. Not a lot longer because he really didn’t have time, he had an event to go to after the show and his wife was waiting for him. He was nervous at the start of the interview and the answers were short. But something I said or the way that I said it or…I dunno…well, let’s just say he got into it. In a big way. In fact, when we were done, he was so enthused about our little talk that he invited us to the event he was headed to. It was a party his record company was throwing for Stevie and his band to congratulate him on the fact that his first album had just gone gold. It was a small private party at the Mayflower Hotel, no media, just record company executives and friends of the band. So there wouldn’t be seats available for us. Stevie told us not to worry, when we got there his wife would take care of us. She did. We sat with the band! And they treated us like old friends.

In 1994 I did a live, hour-long interview on WBZ with jazz great Wynton Marsalis. You wouldn’t know it from his manner and the way he gives an interview today, but at that time Wynton was known to be a very difficult interview. He may or may not have been an angry young man at one time but that was certainly said and written about him in the 1980s and into the ’90s. He was considered to be controversial and some called him rude or a jerk. I never put much stock in that stuff. Wynton Marsalis is a genius and genius and geniuses are often misunderstood by we mere normal people. I figured the questions or the questioners probably had a lot to do with the image Wynton had, maybe more so than the interviewee himself. But, I really didn’t know…because I wasn’t there. But now I would be. I wasn’t worried about it but I was certainly curious to see how it would turn out.

Wynton was pushing a book so, of course, we’d talk about that for part of the hour. It would have been an obvious thing to do to also ask him about these past controversies, the time he said this or the time he said that and what it was all about. I knew that’s what a lot of interviewers did when they talked with Wynton. So that’s why I didn’t do it.

It was TOO obvious. And it had been covered. And it would be covered again. By – as the old blues song says – somebody else, not me. Look, I’ve got Wynton Marsalis sitting across from me. One of the all-time greats, a giant in music. Here’s a guy who can talk about a subject, jazz, in a way in which very few people in history can. I can do the obvious or I can talk about music. With Wynton Marsalis. To me, it’s a no-brainer.

The previous hour of the show had been about politics, some political controversy in the news that week. As the intro music ended, I opened the hour by back-announcing that topic and noting we would return to politics later in the show… “…but first we we’ll talk about music. Talking about music can be controversial too sometimes…” At this point I saw Wynton’s eyebrows arch and he stared hard at me…maybe preparing for the kind of questions he’d been subjected to in the past. I watched his expression change as I continued, “…But not tonight! Tonight we are going to talk about music, just pure music, with one of the greats of jazz…” I plugged the book and went right into my first question. Within a couple minutes he was completely relaxed, smiling, talking with love about jazz and classical music, about playing in a famous jazz group and the high school band.

He was having so much fun – and I was too – that I did something I never do during a live interview. I had a rule about this: Don’t talk to the guest about the subject at hand during the commercial breaks. Talk about something else. But we couldn’t. We were having too much fun talking about music. It was a great hour and he gave the audience something nobody else could, as I said above. They got to hear a giant talk about his art from a perspective that only a giant has.

When the hour was over, we stood up to go to the door and Wynton turned to me and said with great enthusiasm, “Man, you can interview me anytime.”

So, as I say, people like to talk to me about music because they can see it’s important to me and I know something about it. I don’t mean I’m an expert on who had what hit in what year or that I can name all the members of all the bands or that I’ve heard of any band you can name, etc. I don’t mean that at all. I can’t do that…but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, I know something about it, as in: I know about the music itself. I get it. I feel it. I wicked get it. And it’s wicked important to me.

I wrote music when I was young. I was serious about it, loved it. A few of the things I wrote are really good. But only a few because I didn’t pursue it. I knew from the age of 14 that I would be a radio broadcaster. But I learned enough about music and had enough talent that, when I was 16, I could sit in study hall for 45 minutes and write a short classical piece in my head and then transcribe it onto staff paper – the assignment I should have done the night before at home where I would have had a piano handy – and then go to my next class, Music Theory, and turn it in and get an A.

As a teenager and in my early and mid-twenties, I wrote jazz and classical pieces, rock tunes, folk songs, country songs, blues, etc. But over the years, as the creative energy was spent on putting together and executing radio shows, I stopped writing music. Completely. Other than writing a couple of songs for my show, I haven’t written a song – a keeper – in almost 20 years. But I haven’t tried either. No time. And no creative juice left over. And I have forgotten enough about how to do it that I couldn’t write jazz or classical today. But I still have a guitar and my wife has a piano.

Now that I’m retired – and have had a few months to exhale and chill – I am creating again. Writing. Mostly fiction and some essays and commentaries. And lately, because I’ve embarked on a particular writing project that really turns me on, I have been writing up a storm! I can’t stop! It is flowing like a river after the spring thaw. I’m writing what I need to do for this new project but I am writing other things – lots of things – EVERYTHING! – too. And what I am writing these days is good. It really is! I’ve been getting great compliments and feedback from other writers – published authors! – and that has revved me up even more and is, in part, what led to this latest project.

It reminds me of back in the day, when I used to write songs – folk songs especially – and I’d go on a writing binge and just churn them out, one after another. I thought of that yesterday as I headed out for my regular beach walk. An email had come in announcing the latest version of the music accompaniment software, Band-in-a-Box, which I’ve been using for years when I play the clarinet. I haven’t played much the last couple of years because of two shoulder operations – I didn’t have the strength to take the instrument apart when I was done playing. But, although the shoulder pain hasn’t budged a bit (ugh), structurally the shoulder is sound and the strength has returned. And I’m settled now in my new digs. So the time is right for me to start playing again.

So I’m walking over to the beach yesterday and I’m thinking about all this – I want to play my clarinet and my writing has the creative juices flowing and I have time now to do whatever I want – and I start thinking maybe I could start writing music again, just a little, for myself and about how much I would like that. And as I hit the beach, check the wind, decide which direction to walk and set my target to turn around at, I said to myself: “There’s no good reason I can’t walk down this beach and come back with a song.”

So I did.

I came up with a piece of the melody for the verse rather quickly and played around with it, changing it, inverting it, playing with the tempo. By the time I’d reached my turnaround point, it was pretty much done. On the way back, I wrote most of the bridge. Then I edited and rewrote the verse some more. With nobody else on the beach (hey, it’s a weekday, it’s cloudy, it’s Maine, it’s December), I hummed it aloud over and over, tweaking it and memorizing it. I liked it.

When I got back, I took off my coat and sat down at the piano and played the verse and put some chords to it. Then I finished the bridge. Done. It’s good too. I played it for Diane later. She liked it. I haven’t decided whether to write a lyric. Now I’ve got to come up with a title. But here it is, the first song I’ve written in a long time. A keeper.

It made me feel really good. Not in the “I’m proud of myself” way, no reason to be. I should be able to do that, write a song like that. Now that I have time it should be no biggie. But I felt good to be creating music again after such a long time, to be having fun that way, and because it will probably lead to more songs, more fun creating.

So this morning, I was thinking about the importance of music in my life…because I wrote a song yesterday and because Dave Brubeck died this week.

The first LP I bought with my own money was “Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits.” I was 13 or 14 years old and a big fan of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I loved the music these guys made. I had already started writing music and I was jazzed (if you’ll pardon the expression) by their explorations into uncommon time signatures and amazed by the mastery of their performances in those odd structures, so smooth and comfortable, so cool.

They caused me to experiment with time signatures in my own compositions and as a result, furthered my interest in jazz and classical music and opened my ears to the traditional folk music of Transcaucasia.

A jazz composition I wrote at age 15 or 16 was a tribute to Brubeck’s alto sax player, Paul Desmond. It took the 5/4 time signature from Desmond’s piece, “Take Five” and reversed the count. Instead of counting it 1-2-3, 1-2, you had to count my song, 1-2, 1-2-3. When I told the music director of our school system, Frank Cagliuso, about it, he asked how another musician would know how I wanted it counted. I told him they would have no choice because I wrote the melody right on that count. When I brought it in and played it for him, he said, “This is really good, Steve!”

The bridge featured alternating bars of 3/4 and 4/4 which was inspired by Brubeck’s song, Three To Get Ready (Four To Go). The melody on the bridge did two things rhythmically, it was written right on the three beats of the 3/4 measure and it quoted  from the 5/4 melody of the verse in the 4/4 measure. I was really keeping you on your toes with this one! And yet, it flowed. Brubeck and Desmond could have played this song as if they had written it. We played it in one of the rehearsal bands I was in. I still have a lead sheet for it – never decided on a title. This is the one jazz piece I wrote that I wish somehow I could have placed in the right hands. Some jazz group could be playing it now. It’s good. I can’t believe I wrote something that good 40-plus years ago.

That song was purposefully written with the time signatures in mind. But I got so deep into messing with time that I was writing melodies without thinking about meter. One day I wrote a motive that I could not figure out. (I’d probably been listening to Bartok!)

I kept playing this theme over and over again on the piano and trying to count it. I really liked it but didn’t know if it was going to end up being a classical or a jazz composition…and it looked like I was never going to find out because I couldn’t write the rest of the piece if I couldn’t figure out what time signature the “signature” part of the melody was in. (Pardon me for the puns, I can’t help myself.)

I had to bring it into school to play for our band director, Itamar Lubetsky. I had written it on staff paper but without specifying the length of the notes because I didn’t know where the measures started or ended. Just the pitches were on the page, notes with no stems. I played it for him a couple times so he could memorize the rhythm and then he sat down and played it over and over and tried to count it. It took him awhile!

We had an unusually good music program at Burlington (MA) High School and unusually good teachers. That resulted in very good students. For three years I was in Mr. Lubetsky’s music theory classes. He enjoyed my composition efforts and I often made him laugh with my penchant for writing music that purposely broke the rules he had just taught us but which worked musically nonetheless. One of my proudest moments in music was when I brought in a motive for an assignment he had given the class. We were to write a type of piece called an Invention. We had been studying the form of an invention and listening to examples. I wrote a motive which was too long for the form but I loved it so much I brought it to class anyway. “LeVeille!” he shouted, as he shook his head while looking at my staff paper. He said my name as if it were a curse word. The other students, who were very good musicians themselves, had heard him say my name like that before. They all laughed knowingly. “This is good. But you can’t use it,” Mr. Lubetsky said, smiling. “But it is very good. You can’t use it but I will use it. I will use it to write a fugue. I will call it ‘Fugue in D Minor, Based On A Theme By LeVeille.'” The class laughed again, knowing he was completely serious. He really did like it. And he ended up letting me use it as the motive for my invention. “But remember,” he told me after class, “this is NOT how you write an invention.” He relented because he knew there was still some learning going on here and he wanted to see what I could do with that theme. I wrote a nice little invention with it. I wonder if he ever wrote that fugue.

Which brings us back to that day when I brought in that other motive that I couldn’t figure out the time signature for. Mr. Lubetsky sat at the piano, playing it over and over. Grunting and playing it again. And at regular interviews shouting the curse, “LeVeille!” interspersed with, “aaaaarrrrggghhh” and more grunting.

Finally he got it. “Okay mister smart guy,” he said, “Making me work hard on my lunch break. What you have written is a measure of 7/8, a measure of 3/4, a measure of 7/8, a measure of 4/4.” (Those four measures repeated with the melody resolving at the end of eight bars.) My response? “Wow! Cool!” Mr. Lubetsky laughed and played it some more, this time singing the melody and trying out some chords. I ended up using that theme as the second part of a multi-section jazz composition. The first part of that piece – after the introduction which was in 4/4 – was alternating bars of 6/8 and 5/8. The third section was in 3/4 and the finale, a variation of the intro, was in 4/4 with a rock beat. It was performed twice, at my high school’s spring concerts. But I wasn’t there. I had pneumonia so I was at home while an adult stood in for me on tenor sax, playing with the other teenagers in our group.

Although I knew early on that I was bound for a career in radio, I loved my time playing and especially writing music. And I can’t thank Mr. Cagliuso and Mr. Lubetsky enough, or their colleagues – Bob Tyler, Tom Vento, Doug MacIntosh, John Whitney, Joe Wayshak, Joe Corcoran and others for all they added to my life by teaching me how music worked and furthering my ability to appreciate it in its many forms.

But, as important as those men were in my life, the truth is that all of the above – and so much more – was the fault of Dave Brubeck, who passed away this week, and his quartet featuring Paul Desmond, who died in 1977. I never saw them perform in person but never missed a chance to see them on TV. I listened to their records over and over again for many, many years. These days they are on my iPod and I still listen over and over. My life would not be the same without them.

Related:

Text excerpts from my 1994 Wynton Marsalis interview 

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