This interview was originally broadcast in 1999. Brubeck died on Wednesday at age 91.
In 1954, polls in the leading jazz magazines Metronome and Downbeat selected Dave Brubeck’s band as the year’s best instrumental group. That same year, Brubeck was the second jazz musician ever featured on the cover of Time Magazine (the first being Louie Armstrong).
Brubeck celebrated a milestone in 2009, when his seminal album Time Out, featuring the hits “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” celebrated its 50th anniversary. Brubeck marked the occasion with an outdoor concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. A month later, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that he would be a 2009 Kennedy Center Honoree.
In 1999, Brubeck talked to Terry Gross about his decades in the music industry. He explained that he grew up on a 45,000-acre ranch in California, the son of a music teacher and a cattle rancher.
Though Brubeck and his two older brothers studied piano with their mother, the future jazz pianist initially didn’t take lessons for very long. He quit when he was 11 to focus on his first love: rodeo roping. But his mother, who thought he was talented at the piano, wouldn’t allow him to rope anything larger than a yearling.
“She didn’t want my fingers to become hurt,” Brubeck said. “My uncle, who was also a rodeo roper, got his finger caught between the saddle horn and the rope, and it took his finger off. And he used to kid the other cowboys and say, ‘I would’ve been a great pianist like my nephew Dave, had I not lost this finger.’”
Brubeck returned to studying the piano after his first year of college, after his zoology teacher offered him some advice. The teacher noticed that Brubeck’s attention span seemed more focused on the music school across the street.
“He said, ‘Brubeck, your mind is not here with these frogs in the formaldehyde,’” Brubeck said. ” ‘Your mind is across the lawn, at the conservatory. Will you please go over there next year?’”
Brubeck agreed and started taking classes at the conservatory. But he had a secret: Despite his lessons as a child, he couldn’t read music. Once the dean of the conservatory found out, he threatened to not graduate Brubeck.
“But when some of the younger teachers heard this, they went to the dean and said, ‘You’re making a big mistake, because he writes the best counterpoint that I’ve ever heard,’” Brubeck said. “So they convinced the dean to let me graduate. And the dean said, ‘You can graduate if you promise never to teach and embarrass the conservatory.’ And that’s the way I’ve gotten through life, is having to substitute other things for not being able to read well. But I can write, which is something very few people understand.”