Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday morning, often played Seattle — most recently at Jazz Alley, in 2009 — but the great jazz pianist and composer also had a special relationship with the Emerald City. It is home to one of the pianist’s lifelong sidemen, clarinetist, composer and retired University of Washington music professor Bill Smith.
Smith met Brubeck in 1946 while they were graduate students at Mills College, in Oakland, California, where they formed a highly influential jazz octet that merged European classical forms with jazz improvisation.
“We were studying composition with Darius Milhaud,” recalled Smith Wednesday, after hearing of the death of his old friend and colleague. “We felt ourselves to be lucky to be studying with this great French composer and were all delighted that he encouraged us in our jazz.”
Smith remembered with a chuckle that their music was so unusual that the octet would regularly get fired from jobs.
“We’d play occasionally at a Chinese restaurant as the Dave Brubeck Octet and then we’d get fired and come back as the Bill Smith Octet,” he said.
Brubeck eventually found success with his music — which famously used unusual time signatures (such as 5/4, in his megahit “Take Five”) — on college campuses and was instrumental in popularizing jazz with a broad audience.
Because of his war experience, he was also passionately committed to promoting world peace.
“When he went to Germany they’d given him a gun,” said Smith, “but he’d sworn he’d never shoot it. Fortunately, they had enlightened officers who realized Dave’s great talent was directing a band.”
When Brubeck got back from the war, said Smith, “he wanted to do something to prevent there being more wars. All of his big works for orchestra and chorus are works that use the Bible to help the cause of peace.”
According to Smith, and practically anyone else who ever worked with Brubeck, he was a cheerful, pleasant, easy-going person.
“I don’t ever remember having an angry argument with Dave,” said Smith. “He was always upbeat. “I hope he went peacefully.”