Chasing legends: Dave Brubeck's Lassen County roots
|Dave Brubeck's grandfather, Lewis, was once proprietor of the Amedee Hotel in the now non-existent Amedee settlement. Photo submitted|
Dec. 27, 2012 — Dave Brubeck might have been a cowboy in Lassen County rather than an internationally acclaimed jazz musician and founder of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, according to several online biographies, as well as a friend of Brubeck's sons, musician JR Johnston.
Even people who don't recognize the Brubeck name would, likely, find the tune of “Take Five,” one of the most widely recorded and re-recorded jazz numbers in the past 50 years, a familiar one. But many who listen to Brubeck's music are unaware he has roots in Lassen County.
The Brubecks are one of the area's earliest families, whose origins stretch back to the once thriving town of Amedee that long ago vanished into the desert. The family, too, has been gone for a while, so where does one begin looking for confirmation of a family who is no longer here?
Everett Heard, of Heard's Market in Litchfield, seemed like a good start. Yes, he said, of course, he knew who the Brubecks were, and on a scratch piece of paper sketched out a complicated genealogy that began with two sisters, Louisa and Mary Grass
Louisa married Lewis Brubeck, proprietor of the Amedee Hotel, and Mary married Andrew Litch, who later founded Litchfield. Lewis and Louisa eventually left the area with their family for Concord. There, son Pete, met and married Elizabeth Ivey, who once had aspirations to be a concert pianist, but instead contented herself with teaching piano and introducing all her children, including youngest son, Dave, to the world of music.
Pete, later, moved his family back to the homestead in the Honey Lake Valley, and Dave spent much of his youth here where he fell in love with the wrangling lifestyle and planned to make a living ranching. He entered College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. (now the University of the Pacific) and enrolled in veterinary studies, but soon discovered his real aptitude lay in music.
Johnston said he had heard some stories about Brubeck's childhood, including one about his mother teaching him piano. “She wouldn't let him wrangle more than a yearling because she didn't want him to damage his fingers,” he said.
With the passing last Dec. 5 of this iconic jazz legend from cardiac failure one day before his 92nd birthday, many of us in this part of the country have begun wondering about the early influences of the land on Brubeck, his music and the family that once lived here.
In the tangled web of Lassen County relations, it seems just about everyone who has been around for a while has some connection to the Brubecks. Local historian, Tim Purdy, said he had corresponded with Dave Brubeck, and especially his wife, Iola, as they searched out their family genealogy. Purdy's book, Sagebrush Reflections: The History of Amedee and Honey Lake,” talks about Dave's grandfather, Lewis, and his “small empire” in booming Amedee at the end of the 19th century.
He wrote, “Of all Amedee's landmarks none could compete with the grandeur of S.N. Griffith's Hotel Amedee.”
Recollections tended to be vague, but there were some commonalities, and those surrounding the vanished Amedee community were the most substantial. Yes, there were signs of the Brubecks, but you had to look where nothing now is. There's a Brubeck Spring out on the desert and a graveyard somewhere with a marker bearing the name of Brubeck's aunt.
Brubeck's album “Time Out” was my introduction to jazz and it left me with a love for the smoky, smooth sound of the sax and piano. The album contained the famous “Take Five,” composed by Brubeck's longtime saxophonist, Paul Desmond, and which became the signature song for the quartet. “Time Out,” first released in 1959, remains one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
When I learned of Brubeck's history in Lassen County, I decided, early one morning, to take a drive out toward the old Amedee site and see what evidence I might find of the Brubeck clan out there on that vast stretch of Smoke Creek Desert with the Skedaddle Mountains rising behind. I didn't find much. An old brick kiln, a sign for Brubeck Springs, roads leading off into nowhere were the main landmarks on that empty highway.
Still, a person can imagine memories linger and land holds some recollection of what has passed on it. The Brubeck family is a prolific and talented musical family. Brubeck's wife, Iola, was lyricist for many of his songs, and four of their six children are professional musicians who have performed and recorded jazz with their father.
Walking through the empty desert, a rattling sound comes from the ground, but it's too cold for snakes. It was the sound of frost breaking off the sage in the early morning, and one wonders if these sounds of frost and wind, in some form, made their way into Brubeck's improvisational jazz.
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