Last week I reached out to jazz writer Marc Myers, who, in addition to publishing Jazz Wax, one of the jazz community’s most popular and respected blogs, wrote Why Jazz Happened, a book on jazz history that Creed Taylor says treats “jazz history like an epic saga.” I thought it would be an interesting experience to read Myers’ book and eventually interview him about it, which will happen in the next couple of weeks, with an anticipated publication date on Jerry Jazz Musician sometime in late October.
While preparing for this interview, in a chapter called “G.I. Bill and Cool” – in which Myers convincingly writes about how World War II and the ensuing G.I. Bill changed jazz ensembles, the returning veteran musicians’ access to education and therefore the sound of jazz itself — I came across this great story that Myers tells about Dave Brubeck. Check it out, and then check out Myers’ book.
After D-Day, in June, 1944, many musicians lost their privileged status on U.S. bases. With the invasion of Europe, the demand for troops escalated, and music took a back seat to the ever-increasing need for soldiers to fight in France. In some cases, musicians continued to perform for troops in Europe and the Pacific between battles. Overseas they were “like birds twittering in the mouth of a cannon,” wrote [musician Frank] Mathias. One of those “birds” was the pianist Dave Brubeck, who had enlisted in the army in 1942 to play in a military big band stationed at a base near Los Angeles. But after D-Day, the base was broken up, and the musicians were sent to Europe as members of the infantry. Brubeck arrived in France in September, 1944 and was immediately sent north by rail to Verdun.
“We were in a place called the Mud Hole,” Brubeck recalled. “One day, these girls with the Red Cross pulled up in a truck and asked if anyone could play the piano. They were singers and had a piano in the back of their truck. No one raised their hand. So I did and played for them. The next day I was in a lineup at the Mud Hole preparing to go into battle. Three names were called. One of them was mine. The Colonel had heard me play piano the night before and said, ‘I never want that soldier to go to the front.’ He hid my records so nobody would know where I was, including my wife. One of my letters eventually got through to one of my mother’s best friends, so they knew I was alive.” Brubeck soon found himself leading a big band just behind the front lines. “We didn’t have sheet music, and we played instruments we obtained by trading cigarettes,” he said. Brubeck remained in the service until 1946.
Soldier Dave Brubeck
Check out some great photos of Brubeck and bandmate Paul Desmond in Paul Desmond: A Life Told in Pictures, Music and Memories
The Brubeck Quartet plays “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” c. 1959