Dave Brubeck, Jazz Icon, Dies at 91
Renowned pianist and composer was best known for "Take Five," "Blue Rondo à la Turk"
Dave Brubeck, one of the most popular and important jazz artists of all time, died this morning, Dec. 5. The pianist and composer, who would have turned 92 tomorrow, suffered heart failure in Norwalk, Conn., on his way to an appointment with his cardiologist; his son Darius was with him at the time.
Brubeck, who lived in Wilton, Conn., is often credited with having brought jazz back to mainstream popularity at a time when the genre’s commercial prospects had begun to dim, with accessible music combining strong melodies, temporal innovation and the crisp, erudite temperament of West Coast jazz. Five of his albums reached the Billboard Top 10 in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and his 1959 recording of “Take Five,” written by the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and played in 5/4 time, was a hit on the pop charts. Appearing initially on the Quartet’s album Time Out—the other members of the classic Quartet were bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello—the song became Brubeck’s signature piece, performed at virtually every concert he played for the remainder of his life. The single’s B-side, the Brubeck-penned “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” in 9/8 time, also appeared initially on Time Out, and became another iconic Brubeck work.
Brubeck’s nonchalantly daring quartet was his most enduring contribution to jazz’s canon, but, with critics at least, it was Desmond’s playing that often earned more praise. The saxophonist’s sound was lyrical and light-footed; Brubeck was prone to leaden chordal improvisation that bordered on clangor and pushed awkwardly against the rhythm section. But he was usually more self-aware than his detractors argued. Underneath Desmond he exhibited grace as an accompanist, and his solos could skew classical or flaunt a svelte, nimble take on blues phrasing. As the band's curator he had a delightfully straightforward yet savvy ear for standards.
David Warren Brubeck was born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6, 1920, and grew up on a cattle ranch tended by his father. He began playing piano as a child and was performing publicly, at dances, by age 14. Brubeck initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps by going into cattle ranching, and when he attended the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., he studied veterinary medicine before deciding to make music his profession. He met his future wife, Iola Whitlock, in 1942 while both attended the college. She survives him, along with the couple’s musician sons Darius, Chris, Dan and Matthew. Another son, Michael, died in 2009. The Brubecks also have one daughter, Catherine Yaghsizian, as well as a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Brubeck was drafted into the Army upon graduation in 1942 and, while serving in France, was recruited to lead the local Army band. Following his discharge, Dave and Iola moved to Oakland, Calif., where he studied with French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College (the Brubecks’ first son was named after him). Brubeck formed his first group in 1946, and a year later he teamed for the first time with Paul Desmond, whom he’d met in the Army. Brubeck’s popularity grew steadily and by the early ’50s he’d begun to amass a sizable following in California. The first Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Desmond was formed in 1951, while Brubeck was recovering from a debilitating neck injury he incurred while swimming in Hawaii.
Brubeck signed his first recording contract, with Coronet Records, in 1949, but it wasn’t until he signed with the nascent Fantasy label that his recording career started to take off. The Quartet had built its audience through bookings at colleges—Iola Brubeck arranged the dates—and early albums such as Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz at the College of the Pacific and Jazz Goes to College (that one for Columbia Records) proved popular with record buyers. It was another set for Columbia, Dave Brubeck at Storyville: 1954, recorded at the same-named Boston nightclub, that put the Quartet on the national charts for the first time, reaching No. 8 in Billboard in early 1955. Brubeck’s profile also received a considerable boost when Time placed him on the cover of its Nov. 8, 1954 issue—Louis Armstrong was the only other jazzman previously to make the magazine’s cover.
Now a fixture on Columbia, the group placed two more albums in the Top 10 in 1955 alone, Brubeck Time and Jazz: Red Hot and Cool. But massive popularity was still a few years off, and it was the release of Time Out, recorded and released in 1959, that turned Dave Brubeck into an international jazz superstar. Building its reputation slowly, it entered the Billboard chart in late 1960 and ultimately reached No. 2, becoming the first million-selling jazz album. Columbia released “Take Five” as a single a year and a half later, and found to its surprise that jazz singles could still sell, when “Take Five,” backed with “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” reached No. 25 on Billboard’s singles chart. The odd time signatures of both songs, Brubeck said, were inspired by music the band heard while traveling in the Middle East and India as part of a State Department-sponsored program.
Brubeck often used his stature to take positions on issues. In 1958, he refused an offer to perform in South Africa when officials there insisted he perform with an all-white band—Wright was African-American. The incident inspired Dave and Iola to co-write a pro-civil rights musical, The Real Ambassadors. The soundtrack album featured Louis Armstrong; Lambert, Hendricks and Ross; and Carmen McRae, and the musical was performed at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.
There would be one more Top 10 album by the Quartet, Time Further Out, in 1962, and several other chart placements in subsequent years (1963’s Bossa Nova U.S.A. and At Carnegie Hall sold briskly), but even when his record sales died down, Brubeck remained a reliable draw at concerts and festivals. Even if critics didn’t always favor him or the Quartet, the public never tired of them. Long after the 1967 dissolution of the original Quartet (Desmond died in 1977, Morello in 2011; Wright is now 89), Brubeck continued to play sold-out shows all over the world.
In 1968, Brubeck formed a new group with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and later, as his sons became professional musicians, Brubeck worked often with them. He formed a new quartet in the 1970s and continued working within the four-piece format until the end of his career. Brubeck also continued to compose ambitiously, at times writing and performing with orchestras and choirs as well as his small groups. Brubeck’s work The Light in the Wilderness premiered with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1968, and the following year he introduced The Gates of Justice, a cantata mixing biblical scripture and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.
The classic Brubeck Quartet reunited in 1976 for a 25th-anniversary tour, the only time they performed together after the initial breakup.
Brubeck was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship; the National Medal of Arts; the BBC Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award; the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; and the Kennedy Center Honors. He performed for eight presidents and a pope, and toured until last year, when his failing health slowed him down.
He and Iola founded the Dave Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in 2000. Brubeck donated his archives to the school.
The Blue Note jazz club in New York issued the following statement: “A familiar face and sound at the club over the years, Brubeck helped establish the club in its early years, with his last appearance coming in June 2010. Brubeck was such an inspiration to us all, not only through his innovations in music but his personality. Always classy, Brubeck was known for his supportive and encouraging nature. Further, he was genuinely funny, friendly and clever—able to put a smile on anyone’s face. While we mourn his passing, we celebrate his outstanding accomplishments as a bandleader, composer and pianist. His path will serve as an example for years to come.”
Evan Haga contributed to this obituary.