(MCT) — Dave Brubeck changed the sound of jazz in profound ways, unexpectedly becoming something of a pop star in the process.
Starting in the mid-1950s, in fact, he emerged as a symbol of jazz in America, and well beyond, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and selling more than 1 million copies of “Take Five” in 1960. To this day, the puckishly syncopated tune remains one of the most recognizable in jazz, though Brubeck didn’t write it—his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, did.
Beneath the popular acclaim stood a brilliant, uncompromising composer-pianist who challenged conventional jazz techniques, brought the music to American college campuses and helped break down racial barriers through a music uniquely suited to that task.
Brubeck was en route to an appointment with his cardiologist when he was stricken Wednesday morning, said his longtime manager-producer-conductor, Russell Gloyd. The pianist died of heart failure at Norwalk Hospital, in Norwalk, Conn., near his home in Wilton, Conn.
Brubeck was anticipating a birthday concert Thursday, when he would have turned 92. The performance will go on, but in the form of a tribute, in Waterbury, Conn.
“Dave Brubeck was one of the giants in the music—he changed the way people listened to the music,” said David Baker, distinguished professor of music at Indiana University and a friend of the Brubeck family.
“He could swing in any time signature—it seemed like forward motion was born in his blood,” said pianist Ramsey Lewis, who played four-hand piano with Brubeck at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park in 2010. Although the Ravinia Festival does not release attendance figures, a huge audience turned out for that concert, a celebration of Lewis’ 75th birthday.
“Playing with Dave at Ravinia was one of the most exciting moments in my life,” added Lewis.
Brubeck’s last performance in the Chicago area was a 2011 Father’s Day show at Ravinia, where the 90-year-old pianist shared the stage with four sons: pianist Darius, trombonist Chris, cellist Matt and drummer Dan. The elder Brubeck also consistently drew large audiences to Symphony Center, where he last played in 2009.
Although widely beloved as an elder statesman in jazz during recent decades, Brubeck’s initial burst of immense popularity, more than half a century ago, caused a backlash. When “Take Five” made him a household name, some critics and deejays accused him of selling out, he said in a 1990 Tribune interview.
“But I had a lot of fun with them,” recalled Brubeck. “One of the most internationally known disc jockeys accused me, right on the air, of going commercial.
”So I said to him, on the air: ‘OK, let’s play the (‘Take Five’) record, and you follow along and count it,’“ said Brubeck, referring to its underlying rhythmic pattern, which defied the two-, three- and four-beats-to-the-bar techniques of the day.
”And there was this huge blank—he didn’t say anything.
“So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’
”And he just didn’t answer.
“At that time, hardly any musicians could play ‘Take Five.’ Now a grammar school kid can play it.
”But those were breakthroughs.“
Brubeck ventured even further afield in another piece that, to his surprise, became a popular hit, his ”Blue Rondo a la Turk.“ Its lush harmonies sounded exotic in the late ’50s, while its switches between offbeat rhythms and bona fide swing were like nothing yet encountered in American music.
But Brubeck’s inventions in jazz represent just part of his achievement. He also penned full-fledged ballets and epic choral/symphonic works. The latter took on religious themes and ranked alongside works such as Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts for their ingenious synthesis of classical, jazz and other idioms.
Brubeck’s sprawling oratorio ”The Gates of Justice,“ performed at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago in 1993, fearlessly merged blues melody, Hebraic cantorial singing and chord progressions right out of the African-American spiritual.
To Brubeck, this cross-cultural score had specific political and sociological purposes.
A rabbi ”came over to the house with two other rabbis, and he suggested I write a piece of music to show the similarities between black people and Jewish people,“ said Brubeck, in a 1993 Chicago Tribune interview.
”The idea would be to show how both groups have been enslaved and dispersed, slandered and harmed, to show that they had more in common than not. …
“For me,” Brubeck continued, “the center of the piece is a particular line that was written by Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘If we don’t live together as brothers, we will die together as fools.’ That’s what this piece is about, when you boil it down.”
That sentiment drove a great deal of Brubeck’s efforts in music and in life. He challenged racial barriers by hiring the black bassist Eugene Wright as part of his quartet in 1958 and proceeding to tour the South, a region of the country that did not welcome mixed-race bands. Brubeck and his wife, Iola, in the 1960s created “The Real Ambassadors,” a musical that addressed racism head-on and featured Louis Armstrong at a time when the trumpeter was wrongly considered out-of-step with the civil rights era.
Moreover, Brubeck used his increasing clout in the ’50s to storm the academy, which had been ferociously resistant to jazz. What started out as a few concerts that he and his wife booked themselves quickly morphed into tours and recordings.
Brubeck always was astonished by the popularity and accolades that came his way, including a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 1996; a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1999; and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009.
“All this for a guy who has earned his living working dances, strip joints, every kind of bar, sometimes for no doubt all,” he said in the 1990 Tribune interview.
He certainly began life with an unusual background for a future jazz icon.
Born Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif., David Warren Brubeck grew up under the wide-open skies on a cattle ranch that was the antithesis of urban jazz centers like Chicago and New York.
But it was outdoors that he first heard the unlikely rhythms that eventually would help define his music.
“I spent most of my time alone as a kid lying under a tank listening to an engine pumping water and being mesmerized by its fascinating, arrhythmic sounds,” he said in the 1990 Tribune interview. “Or if I wasn’t doing that, I was riding horseback and singing songs against the gait of the horse.”
When he started his first band in high school, he had mastered rhythms that would have confounded many college music professors. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the College of the Pacific, in Stockton, Calif., he learned that jazz was a four-letter word.
“The people running the school wouldn’t even let you call it jazz,” Brubeck said in the 1990 Tribune interview.
“You … weren’t allowed to play or practice jazz in the practice rooms.”
So Brubeck led his band in dives around town, and after a “terrifying” stint working as a musician near the front during World War II, he returned to California to study music with the man who altered the course of his life, French classical master Darius Milhaud. Brubeck’s ability to “hear” a score at sight was limited, but Milhaud encouraged him.
“He always said: ‘You will succeed, but you will do it in your own way,’” recalled Brubeck.
Instead, Brubeck worked in a self-styled, classically tinged jazz idiom with the Dave Brubeck Octet in the late 1940s (recording for Fantasy in 1951), then joined with drummer-vibist Cal Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty in a trio that recorded in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
The arrival of alto saxophonist Desmond made the ensemble a quartet in 1951, with the nimble Joe Morello becoming drummer in 1956 and Wright the bassist in 1958. This was the classic quartet, Desmond’s liquid tone on alto enhancing the ensemble’s “cool,” West Coast style.
The band’s landmark “Time Out” album helped make 1959 a galvanic year in jazz history (Ornette Coleman also was redefining the music at this time). The aptly named recording cast a spotlight on Brubeck’s strange-but-attractive experiments in odd time signatures.
Although the Brubeck Quartet disbanded up in 1967, Desmond played periodically with the pianist until the saxophonist’s death, in 1977. By then, Brubeck was a legend in his own right—a global champion of a deeply personal brand of jazz.
Brubeck dealt with cardiac problems for decades but refused to stop touring. After being hospitalized with a virus and pulmonary infection in 2009, his doctors wouldn’t allow him to fly, so “now we’re driving 350 miles every day in an RV I’ve rented,” he said in a 2009 Tribune interview.
Yet he was characteristically undaunted.
“I feel about life as I always have,” Brubeck said in the 1990 interview. “Under any circumstances, go for it.”
He is survived by his wife, Iola; four sons; a daughter, Catherine; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.