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ONE SATURDAY NIGHT near the end of my first semester as a freshman at UCLA the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed at Kirkhoff Hall and, for students, admission was free. The band consisted of its four original members, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Brubeck on piano, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums.
They played tunes from their albums and ended with Take Five. The hall had two or three hundred seats and the acoustics were mediocre at best; the rectangular room had vinyl flooring, big picture windows along one wall, and almost no non-reflective surface except for the audience.
The performance was clean and polished and professional. It lacked sparkle or much excitement. The band must have played the same program hundreds of times before. The audience was appreciative but less than enthusiastic. Desmond’s solo on Take Five may have been his most inspired of the night but it went on too long. And then the concert was over. Everybody dispersed.
I had gone alone and decided to hang around for awhile outside. It occurred to me I might have a chance to see the musicians after the show and maybe talk to one of them so I wandered to the rear of the building and waited out in the cold, autumn night near a loading area. A few minutes later three men came out of a back door and walked toward me. Two kept going but one noticed me and said, “Hi, I’m Dave Brubeck. Were you at the concert?”
I was seventeen. I had no idea what to say to him so I just said, “Yes. It was pretty good.”
He asked, “Are you a musician?” and I answered, “Yeah. I play clarinet.”
Brubeck then wanted to know if I played jazz. Yes, I did. And then the key question: “Are you thinking about playing professionally?”
I told him the simple truth. “Well, I want to but my parents think it’s a bad idea.”
Dave Brubeck then spoke words of wisdom I have never forgotten: “Listen to your parents. They’re right. Jazz is great and you should keep playing it. But don’t do it as a profession. It’s a terrible life. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Well, Russ, good luck; nice to meet you.” And off he went.
Wow. I had just had a conversation with Dave Brubeck! I headed out of the courtyard, down the hill past Pauley Pavillion, and then up the half-mile climb to the residence hall where I lived. I wondered why a big star like Brubeck would have discouraged me from trying to make a living from jazz.
Then I realized I’d never seen Paul Desmond. Maybe, if I’d had a chance to talk to him, his opinion might have been different.
No fool like a musician.