World War II began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland without warning. By the evening of September 3rd, Britain and France were at war with Germany and within a week, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa had also joined the war. It wasn’t until 1941 that the United States became an active participant, although the U.S. supported the war effort even before Pearl Harbor. World War II lasted for six long years, involving every major power in the world. It cost the lives of 60 million people.
For those who fought and served, and to those who survived the largest and most costly war in history, it may well be that World War II is a part of history they will never forget. In musical terms, songs of that period reflected the emotions of a world at war. "The titles of the tunes are almost an autobiography of my war years," says Brubeck about the 14 tracks of music on his new album. "I think every person who has ever worn a military uniform can relate to my story."
In 1942, Dave Brubeck was the perfect age to be drafted while attending the College of the Pacific in Northern California. As was sometimes the case, the U.S. draft board allowed college students in their last year of study to graduate before going into the service. "I promised my draft board that as soon as I graduated, I’d join the Army or the Navy," says Brubeck. "At first I tried to join the Navy, but they said my eyes were too bad. I knew one of my classmates was in an Army band in Riverside, California," says Brubeck, "and they needed a piano player." Brubeck went to Los Angeles to audition for the army band and was accepted. They sent him to Fort McArthur where he joined up so he could play in the Army band, but his feet were too big 12 ½ AAA! "They said it would take 6 weeks to make shoes for me and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to miss getting in that band.’"
Strapped with an Army pack and two extra pair of size 12 ½ boots around his neck, the 23-year old Brubeck found himself a passenger on one of the largest troops ships, the George Washington, in a convoy on his way to Omaha Beach. "That night it was raining like crazy, and mud we had to march to a place where we could board these cattle cars and go to the front," says Brubeck. "We saw lights in the distance and I thought, ‘Oh boy, we’re going to Paris,’ but we turned left and went to Verdun."
Brubeck began his musical career at the age of 14, playing with a band throughout all the mining towns in Amador County, California’s Mother Lode gold rush area. The third son of a cattleman father and classical pianist mother, Brubeck knew he wanted to play jazz from a very early age after hearing Art Tatum on the radio. Despite years of performing with his own band throughout his college years, it would seem a queer twist of fate that his shoe size would land him smack-dab on the way to the front, instead of playing in that Army band. But as fate would have it, Brubeck’s destiny would be decided shortly after arriving in Verdun, France, the ancient fortress town of the Muese River and the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.
"When we got there, [Verdun] there was one soldier in the station," says Brubeck, "and we said, ‘Now what’s going on here, why are we stopped?" ‘If you turn left, you’ll be with Omar Bradley’s army and that’s good,’ said the soldier, ‘if you turn right, you’ll be with Patton and you’ll be at the front tonight!’ The train turned right," says Brubeck, "and away we went to the front to a place called the Mud Hole."
Brubeck said that while waiting at the Mud Hole, a truck pulled up that contained a large box attached to the back. The side of the box lowered down into a stage with a small piano inside. Some Red Cross girls had come to entertain the troops before they were sent into battle. After the girls told a few jokes, they asked if there was a piano player out there among the troops, as they wanted to sing a few songs. Brubeck volunteered.
The next morning, Brubeck was lined up with his company to be sent into battle, when something remarkable happened. A colonel, who had heard Brubeck play the night before, insisted that he stay behind and form a band. "Three names were called out two musician friends of mine and my name. I couldn’t believe it," says Brubeck, "I was so lucky." Brubeck said that the colonel in charge of the 17th Replacement Depot had heard Brubeck play the piano the night before and said he never wanted him to be sent to the front. He wanted Brubeck to form a band to entertain the troops. As a result, Brubeck remained almost totally behind the front lines for the remainder of the war.
The 17th Replacement Depot was where troops were sent to re-cooperate after being wounded. If the Colonel noted that any of those troops were musicians when looking through the soldier’s records, they would be sent to Brubeck for his band.
Brubeck wrote music for his band, not an easy thing as paper was at a minimum. "Once in awhile I’d find an old music store in some town--get all the manuscript paper I could, and write music for the band," said Brubeck. One of the first songs Brubeck wrote was We Crossed the Rhine, a song that he said was inspired by the rhythm the tanks and trucks would make crossing the pontoon bridges at Remagen. "We crossed the Rhine, the time was winter, the ground was frozen, why oh why we’re we chosen, to take this ground," recalls Brubeck of the lyrics. Importantly, his musical version of We Crossed the Rhine is included as one of the tracks on Private Brubeck Remembers.
Brubeck’s band traveled, for the most part, behind enemy lines as they watched history unfold. From Normandy to Nuremberg, Brubeck’s band raised the spirits of fighting men as his band braved dangerous routes, that in one case could have been an unfortunate end to his life and legendary musical career.
As the German General von Rondstedt began the assault that would become the infamous Battle of the Bulge, his troops came across the German border into Belgium and France to try to cut the allies in two. Brubeck was entertaining troops in a castle near the marginal line. "The reason this place would empty out of doctors and nurses [is] they would go attend to the wounded. It was a strange atmosphere because we didn’t know exactly what was going on. But we knew a lot of people were being attended to in other parts of this castle that was turned into a hospital," says Brubeck. "We found out through Axis Sally. That was about the only [radio] station we could get. She would say, ‘Our army has cut you off, there is no way out for you,’" recalls Brubeck.
That evening, as Brubeck’s band was entertaining troops who were in a chow line, a enemy plane swooped low above them. "One guy said, ‘Hey, that’s a German fighter and he’s gonna come back GET OUT OF HERE,’" recalls Brubeck. Brubeck’s band jumped into a truck and drove as fast as they could go into the woods, driving in the dark with no headlights, until they came to a crossroad. "There was a guy like an MP waving us through," says Brubeck. "When we went by the guy I said to the driver, ‘That guy has on a German helmet. Go over the hill where he can’t see us, turn around and roar this truck as fast as it can go because he’s gonna call in a tank or something.’"
The German waved their truck through once again and they drove several miles until they came to a roadblock. "This was one of the scariest moments of my life," says Brubeck. "An American soldier came up to us and said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing?’" Brubeck answered, "We’re American soldiers--this is a band and we are just going back, trying to get behind our own lines again." The soldier said to Brubeck, "All my friends were killed here not long ago, right at this very spot by Germans in American uniforms, in American trucks. I don’t know whether to believe you or not because that’s the same kind of answers we got from them." The soldier asked Brubeck and his band questions and asked for the password. Finally, the soldier let them through. "As we left, Patton was coming up the same road," he says.
When the seasonal ground fog finally lifted and the weather cleared, the 9th Air Force roared in to lend needed bomb support to ground troops. "The whole tide turned," says Brubeck, "That general [General Anthony McAuliffe] would not give up and let the Germans through, which was one of the things that saved us, I think," says Brubeck, "His answer when they told him to give up was ‘nuts!’ Wasn’t that a strange answer?"
After Germany surrendered, Brubeck continued to entertain troops in Europe with his unauthorized Wolf Pack Band until he was finally shipped home. "I headed for home as fast as I could [January 31, 1946]," says Brubeck, "I started a new life in San Francisco, going to school, having a wife and starting a family. It was during 1946 that Brubeck began playing locally in San Francisco, where notables such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and other traveling musicians thought Brubeck had something to say musically. "It really began as word of mouth," says Brubeck. Fifty-eight years later, now at the age of 83, Brubeck continues to amaze listeners with his musical creativity, inspiring works and tales of a life worth living.
Private Brubeck Remembers (2004) CD-83605
Telarc International Corporation
Biblo - Limited Edition Brubeck/Walter Cronkite
For All We Know, Something To Remember You By, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, Don’t Worry ‘bout Me, For You, Where or When, Lili Marlene, It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie, When I grow Too Old to Dream, We Crossed the Rhine, Please Be Kind, Weep No More, The Last Time I Saw Paris, You’d Be so Nice To Come Home To. Total Playing Time 61.37