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Obit: Jazz legend Dave Brubeck, dead at 91

Published December 6, 2012 9:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Seeing pianist Dave Brubeck in recent years — up on stage, say, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, striding with his band through "Take Five," his most famous tune — one might have thought he would play forever. That thick shock of white hair. That electric smile. Those sturdy fingers on the keys.

But Brubeck, one of the legends of jazz and modern American music, generally, died Wednesday in Norwalk, Conn., one day short of his 92nd birthday. He was on his way to a doctor's appointment with his son, Darius, also a musician. And so ended the life of this musical voyager, who was born in Concord, Calif., grew up the son of an East Bay cattle rancher, took piano lessons from his mother, and went on to become the composer of jazz standards, ballet music and cantatas, active until a fine old age. He landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, and was the recipient of many honors, including the National Medal of Arts in 1994.

A born communicator, he famously said, "One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It's the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat."

Brubeck studied at the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific) in Stockton. He originally planned to be a veterinarian — he couldn't read music at the time — but eventually followed his heart to conservatory studies. He graduated in 1942, played with the Army band at Camp Haan in Southern California, briefly served overseas in George Patton's Third Army and was steered away from the front by a commanding officer who appreciated his piano skills. Instead, he played for the troops and later wound up at Mills College in Oakland. There, he studied under the jazz-infatuated French composer Darius Milhaud.

Over the years, Brubeck became famous for incorporating complex rhythms and harmonies into his tunes. His goals were to were "to play polytonally and polyrhythmically," he once said. After founding his Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, an Army buddy, he followed through with hits that achieved that goal: "Take Five" (composed by Desmond) is in 5/4 rhythm, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (penned by Brubeck and loosely based on a Mozart theme) is in 9/8.

But that makes his music sound academic. Truth is, it was accessible. His tunes were played on jukeboxes around the country; "Take Five" was the first jazz single to sell a million copies. Brubeck believed in jazz that worked on a variety of levels. Musicians could argue about poly this and poly that; listeners — and Brubeck himself — would be busy tapping their feet to the rhythm of his hit tunes.

In 1949, when Max and Sol Weiss founded Fantasy Records in San Francisco, the label's first disc was an octet and trio recording by Brubeck. Before long they were issuing 40,000 to 50,000 copies of the pianist's records regularly, and Brubeck was instrumental in getting Gerry Muligan, Chet Baker and Red Norvo signed to Fantasy, now based in Berkeley, Calif.

In an age of experimentation, he did something rare: "He made the avant-garde into something fun and lighthearted," wrote jazz historian and former Stanford University lecturer Ted Gioia upon the 50th anniversary, in 2009, of Brubeck's landmark album "Time Out."

For all his mainstream success, Brubeck was often taken to task by critics, some of whom thought his playing "bombastic," a favorite skewering term. Yet musicians as universally regarded as Miles Davis helped turn his tunes into standards: the lilting "In Your Own Sweet Way," as well as "The Duke," which runs through 12 keys in its first eight measures, but is easy to whistle.

The Brubeck Quartet's "Jazz at Oberlin," recorded live at Oberlin College in 1953, climbed the charts, and the group toured the globe. When Brubeck was honored by Time with that cover story, he wondered why the honor hadn't gone to Duke Ellington, whom he considered a far greater musician than himself. He was said to believe that the honor was due to his being white.

Honors often seemed to embarrass him. In 2007, asked how he felt about being given the formal title of "Living Legend" by the Smithsonian Institution, he said, "I'm always surprised, because I don't think of myself like that. You know, there are so many other people who would be more deserving."

With brothers Henry and Howard, Brubeck spent his early years in a house on Colfax Avenue, near Willow Pass, in Concord, listening to his mother play classical piano. The family moved to a ranch in Ione, where Dave heard cowboy tunes, which he remembered into old age. He had many inspirations, but none more important than Iola Whitlock, the co-ed he met at University of the Pacific. In a 2007 interview with the Mercury News, he remembered their first meeting: a dance at a fraternity house. "We danced once around the floor, and both of us agreed, 'Let's get out of here.' And we went to my old car, a '37 Chevy, and we went and parked by the levee — and decided to get married after three hours.

"She and I just agreed on what we wanted out of our lives. I had gone with other girls and never had a conversation that was so deep."

They married in 1942 and had six children, four of them musicians. In the early days, Iola Brubeck was his manager. Through their 70-year marriage, she was his collaborator, authoring lyrics to many of his songs and works, including "The Real Ambassadors," a collaboration with Louis Armstrong that addressed race relations, and "Cannery Row Suite," based on the John Steinbeck novel and presented at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. "She was really his guiding light," said Tim Jackson, the festival's artistic director. "Oh, man, they were just so locked in. What an inspiration, to see them together."

The family moved in 1960 to Wilton, Conn., as Brubeck's career had become heavily East Coast-oriented. Often on the road, he played in 1988 for Mikhail Gorbachev at a dinner in Moscow that then-President Ronald Reagan hosted for the Soviet leader. "I can't understand Russian, but I can understand body language," said Brubeck, after seeing the general secretary tapping his foot.

In the late 1980s, Brubeck contributed music for one episode of an eight-part series of television specials, "This Is America, Charlie Brown." His music was for the episode involving NASA and the space station. As he did for many years, he collaborated with three of his sons — Chris on bass trombone and electric bass, Dan on drums and Matthew on cello — and included excerpts from his Mass "To Hope! A Celebration," his oratorio "A Light in the Wilderness," and a piece he had composed but never recorded, "Quiet As the Moon."

In 1992, he told the AP, "That's the beauty of music: You can take a theme from a Bach sacred chorale and improvise. It doesn't make any difference where the theme comes from; the treatment of it can be jazz."

In 2006, the University of Notre Dame gave Brubeck its Laetare Medal, awarded each year to a Roman Catholic "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity."

In 2009, at age 88, Brubeck was still touring, despite a viral infection that threatened his heart and made him miss an April show at his alma mater, the University of the Pacific, where he had donated his archives (and where the Brubeck Institute, a prestigious training program for young jazz musicians, now operates).

He remained a modest and open-minded man to the end. In 2007, when this writer asked him if he listened to hip-hop, he answered, "I don't think so, though my grandkids are always listening. But I learned from Duke Ellington; we were being interviewed, and they asked us what we thought of rock 'n' roll, and I was really kind of not a big fan of rock 'n' roll early on. But Duke's answer, I'll never forget, was, 'It must be good, or the American public wouldn't go for it so much.'"

Jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, who grew up in Menlo Park, Calif., and was mentored by Brubeck from age 12, recently visited "Uncle Dave," as he called him, at his Connecticut home: "He was 91 and frail — and he had a Casio keyboard at the dinner table, had his right hand on it, working out ideas," said Eigsti, 28. "He's my model for how to be a musician and live your life. Treat everyone equally, raise a family, spend time with your family, have a good sense of humor. He was hilarious. And he just continued to make music. He was writing operas and choir music when he was 88 years old. I want to be like that." Utah jazz promoters remember jazz legendDave Brubeck

" I was very close to Dave. My wife and I spent a lot of dinner time whenever he played Salt Lake City for my [jazz concert] series, which was six times in the last 18 years. He was an incredibly talented and generous man. He told us once of how, after being drafted into WWII as a rifleman, his commanding officer asked his troop if anyone knew how to play music, because everyone wanted a jazz show before invading the coast of France. Dave raised his hand, and later performed so well he ended up not going to the front. This was just three or four weeks before the D-Day invasion of Normandy. You hate to think about what might have happened had he not raised his hand. The world might have missed out on his immense talent."

Gordon Hanks, founder of Jazz SLC

" At 17 years old in 1963, I was a huge Brubeck fan, even more than my parents. If you were a hip high school kid back then, you listened to Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Mose Allison. I credit Brubeck with making jazz music popular among college students because he toured so many colleges and universities. He loved playing Salt Lake City. I remember how during a conference hosted by Jazz Times magazine in New York City he invited me to have dinner with him and his family. He was just a beautiful individual — a loving, caring and honest gentleman. When my wife woke me up this morning to tell me he died, I had to stay in bed for a little while to let it sink in. It was as if I lost an uncle."

Steve Williams, KUER jazz host