Birthday of an Icon

Birthday of an Icon

It is a dream that many of us have had to meet, sit down and have a long heart-to-heart conversation with person of great fame and accomplishment. 

It might be Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or Gandhi; for baseball fans, it might be Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth or Cal Ripkin; for others in a religious context, it might be St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Anthony, Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa. 

All of these and many others we could think of would be fascinating to spend an afternoon just talking about what made them what they became and express some appreciation for their contributions to our lives and the world. 

I had that opportunity last year. As a jazz aficionado for the four decades of my adult life, I was given the assignment of interviewing Dave Brubeck by St. Anthony Messenger magazine. That article, which appeared in the October 2009 issue, was awarded first prize as the best interview by the Catholic Press Association this year. 

And not only did I get that chance to come face to face with greatness, so did my wife, Mary Carty, photographer for that piece. 

As he turned 90 years old Dec. 6 and as the retrospective spotlight of coverage turned back on him last week, we are still amazed by the impact of that conversation on our lives (listen to the interview at Franciscan Radio). 

We have attended about half dozen performances of his over the years, including three concerts in preparing the article. 

And while I have had the chance to interview others in the spotlight, including Poland’s charismatic co-founder of Solidarity (Solidarność), Lech Walesa, I somehow felt ill prepared to meet, nervous, less than the moment required when we entered his Wilton, Conn., home on a warm, sunny late July 2009 afternoon. 

Dressed in a white shirt and suspenders, he greeted us warmly, offered the hospitality of his home and seemed eager to put us at ease. That should not have surprised me as it did, as greatness seems to require an understanding of people, their needs and need to connect to them. He knew that. 

We spent a couple of hours together, talking about his life beginning on a ranch in California, and his changing the world of jazz, being featured on the cover of Time magazine, writing a Catholic Mass, playing for a pope, presidents and world leaders on both sides of the Cold War and becoming a Catholic 30 years ago after dreaming of a composition of the Our Father. 

In that interview in an open, oriental-feeling living space that uniquely integrated the musicality of a brook outside the large bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, the then 88-year-old (never “Dave” to me, but rather “Mr. Brubeck”) moved slowly, talked deliberately and seemed to gaze upward at times pondering answers. 

Leaning back in his chair when talking to us about everything from international and interfaith relations to interior spirituality, Brubeck struck a sagacious pose of someone who has built, with his wife, Iola, a beautiful home, a strong (and musical) family and a life of connecting his craft to the art of listening and responding to a world of unique sounds and emotions. 

Dave Brubeck sits at the piano in his home in Wilton, Conn. (Photos by Mary Carty)

In the half-century since the Dave Brubeck Quartet released their signature song, “Take Five,” his hair has gone from black to gray to white. His voice has also changed, weakened with age. But, as we noticed in his concerts and in his home, when he sits at the keyboard and plays or talks about the power of music to change hearts, there seems to be an empowering energy taking hold of him, and a joy of a man who has tapped into a talent vein that has become a life force.

At the end of the interview, as Mary took some photos of him at the black grand piano, he began to play a Polish song, “Thank You” [“Dziekuje”]. I was struck by the generosity of a man of just thanked us for taking an afternoon out of his life and opening his home, his heart and his mind for complete strangers and the thousands of readers of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. 

As we were preparing to leave, he guided us into his home studio and pointed to us to the prayer he had just that morning rediscovered on his piano and prayed – “The Prayer of St. Francis.” 

St. Anthony, what a find for him and for us.


About the Author

Mark Lombard, director of the product development division, has worked throughout his career in Catholic publishing. He is married, a father of two and a grandfather of two. Mark is an avid jazz lover, traveling with his wife to catch jazz performances throughout the East Coast.
  • sandy digman

    Great stories both here and in the magazine, Mark!

  • Matt Wielgos

    Awesome article and interview Mark. This is one for the archives for sure!