Dave Brubeck, Who Helped Put Jazz Back in Vogue, Dies at 91
By BEN RATLIFF
Dave Brubeck, a pianist and composer whose distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility made him one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died Wednesday morning in Norwalk, Conn. He would have turned 92 on Thursday.
He died while on his way to a cardiology appointment, Russell Gloyd, his producer, conductor and manager for 36 years, said. Mr. Brubeck lived in Wilton, Conn.
In a long and successful career, Mr. Brubeck helped repopularize jazz at a time when younger listeners had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. His quartet’s 1959 recording of “Take Five” was the first jazz single to sell a million copies.
Mr. Brubeck experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, baroque compositional devices and foreign modes. But he did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic and — a word he particularly disliked — stolid. His very stubbornness and strangeness — the polytonality, the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone — makes the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.
Outside of the group’s most famous originals, which had the charm and durability of pop songs (“Take Five,” “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” “It’s a Raggy Waltz”), some of its best work was in its overhauls of standards like “You Go to My Head,” “All the Things You Are” and “Pennies From Heaven.”
David Warren Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif., near San Francisco. Surrounded by farms, his family lived a bucolic life: his father, Pete, was a cattle buyer for a meat company, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a choir director at the nearby Presbyterian church. When Mr. Brubeck was 11, the family moved to Ione, Calif., where his father managed a 45,000-acre cattle ranch and owned his own 1,200 acres.
Forbidden to listen to the radio — his mother believed that if you wanted to hear music you should play it — Mr. Brubeck and his two brothers all played various instruments and knew classical études, spirituals and cowboy songs. Dave learned most of this music by ear: because he was born cross-eyed, sight-reading was nearly impossible for him through his early development as a musician.
When he was 14, a laundryman who led a dance band encouraged him to perform in public, at Lions Club gatherings and Western-swing dances; he was paid $8 for playing from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., with a one-hour break. But until he went to college he was an aspiring rancher, not an aspiring musician.
At the College of the Pacific, near Stockton, he first studied to be a veterinarian but switched to music after a year. It was there that he learned about 20th-century culture and read about Freud, Marx and serial music; it was also there that he met Iola Whitlock, a fellow student, who became his wife in 1942.
He graduated that year and was immediately drafted. For two years he played with the Army band at Camp Haan, in Southern California. In 1944 Private Brubeck became a rifleman, entering basic training — first in Texas, then in Maryland — and was shortly sent to Metz, in eastern France, for further preparation for combat.
When his new commanding officer heard him accompany a Red Cross traveling show one day, Mr. Brubeck recalled, he told his aide-de-camp, “I don’t want that boy to go to the front.” Thereafter, Mr. Brubeck led a band that was trucked into combat areas to play for the troops. He was near the front twice, during the Battle of the Bulge, but he never fought.
Finished with the Army at 25, Mr. Brubeck moved with his wife into an apartment in Oakland, Calif., and, on a G.I. Bill scholarship, studied at Mills College with the French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud asked the jazz musicians in his class to write fugues for jazz ensembles, and Mr. Brubeck played the results at a series of performances at Mills College. Mr. Brubeck had such admiration for his teacher that he named his first son, born in 1947, Darius.
Mr. Brubeck had met his most important musical colleague, Paul Desmond, in an Army band in 1943. Mr. Desmond was a perfect foil; his lovely, impassive tone was as ethereal as Mr. Brubeck’s style was densely chorded. In 1947 they met again and found instant musical rapport, fascinated by the challenge of using counterpoint in jazz.
Mr. Brubeck’s first group, an octet formed in 1946, contained five of Milhaud’s students and played pieces influenced by his teachings, using canonlike elements. The group’s earliest recorded work predated a much more famous set of similarly temperate jazz recordings, the 1948-50 Miles Davis Nonet work later packaged as “Birth of the Cool.”
In the late 1940s and early ’50s Mr. Brubeck also led a trio with Ron Crotty on bass and Cal Tjader on drums. It was around this time that he started to develop an audience. He was given an initial boost by the San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons, later the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, who plugged the band on KNBC radio and helped secure it a record deal with the Coronet label.
In 1951 the trio expanded to a quartet, with Mr. Desmond returning. (The permanent lineup change was perhaps inevitable, as Mr. Desmond was desperate to join his old friend’s increasingly popular band, but it may also have had to do with physical necessity: Mr. Brubeck had suffered a serious neck injury while swimming in Hawaii, limiting his dexterity, and he needed another soloist to help carry the music.)
Quickly the constitutionally different men — Mr. Brubeck open, ambitious and imposing; Mr. Desmond private, profligate and self-effacing — developed their lines of musical communication. By the time of an engagement in Boston in the fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations.
The next part of the equation was a record label, and for that Mr. Brubeck had found another booster: Fantasy Records, just started by the brothers Max and Sol Weiss, who owned a record-pressing plant and had little interest in jazz apart from wanting to make a profit from it.
They did, eventually, with Mr. Brubeck. But Iola Brubeck also played a role in the growth of his audience. Before Mr. Brubeck became a client of the prominent manager Joe Glaser, she handled his business affairs. In 1953 she wrote to more than a hundred universities, suggesting that the quartet would be willing to play for student associations. The college circuit became the group’s bread and butter, and by the end of the 1950s it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies of its albums “Jazz at Oberlin” and “Jazz Goes to College.”
In 1954 Mr. Brubeck was only the second jazz musician (after Louis Armstrong) to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. That same year he signed with Columbia Records, promising to deliver two albums a year, and built a house in Oakland.
For all his conceptualizing, Mr. Brubeck often seemed more guileless and stubborn country boy than intellectual. It is often noted that his piece “The Duke” — famously recorded by Miles Davis and Gil Evans in 1959 on their collaborative album “Miles Ahead” — runs through all 12 keys in the first eight bars. But Mr. Brubeck contended that he never realized that until a music professor told him.
Mr. Brubeck’s very personal musical language situated him far from the Bud Powell school of bebop rhythm and harmony; he relied much more on chords, lots and lots of them, than on sizzling, hornlike right-hand lines. (He may have come by this outsiderness naturally, as a function of his background: jazz by way of rural isolation and modernist academia. He was, Ted Gioia wrote in his book “West Coast Jazz,” “inspired by the process of improvisation rather than by its history.”)
It took a little while for Mr. Brubeck to capitalize on the greater visibility his deal with Columbia gave him, and as he accommodated success a certain segment of the jazz audience began to turn against him. (The 1957 album “Dave Digs Disney,” on which he played songs from Walt Disney movies, didn’t help his credibility among critics and connoisseurs.) Still, by the end of the decade he had broken through with mainstream audiences in a bigger way than almost any jazz musician since World War II.
In 1958, as part of a State Department program that brought jazz as an offer of good will during the cold war, his quartet traveled in the Middle East and India, and Mr. Brubeck became intrigued by musical languages that didn’t stick to 4/4 time — what he called “march-style jazz,” the meter that had been the music’s bedrock. The result was the album “Time Out,” recorded in 1959. With the hits “Take Five” (composed by Mr. Desmond in 5/4 meter and prominently featuring the quartet’s gifted drummer, Joe Morello) and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” (composed by Mr. Brubeck in 9/8), the album propelled Mr. Brubeck onto the pop charts.
Initially, Mr. Brubeck said, the album was released without high expectations from the record company. But when disc jockeys in the Midwest started playing “Take Five,” the song became a national phenomenon. After the album had been out for 18 months, Columbia released “Take Five” as a 45 r.p.m. single, edited for radio, with “Blue Rondo” on the B side. Both album and single became hits; “Time Out” has since sold close to two million copies.
In 1960, realizing that most of the quartet’s work centered on the East Coast, the Brubecks, with their children, Dan, Micharl, Chris, Darius and Catherine, moved to Wilton. They stayed there permanently and later had one more child, Matthew.
Genial as Mr. Brubeck could seem, he had strong convictions. In the 1950s he had to stand up to college deans who asked him not to perform with a racially mixed band (his bassist, Gene Wright, was black). He also refused to tour in South Africa in 1958 when asked to sign a contract stipulating that his band would be all white. With his wife as lyricist, he wrote “The Real Ambassadors,” a jazz musical that dealt with race relations. With a cast that included Louis Armstrong, it was released on LP in 1962 but staged only once, at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.
When Mr. Brubeck’s quartet broke up in 1967, after 17 years, he spent more time with his family and followed new paths. In 1969 he composed “Elemental” (subtitled “Concerto for Anyone Who Can Afford an Orchestra”), a concerto grosso for 45-piece ensemble. He later wrote an oratorio and four cantatas, a mass, two ballets and works for jazz combo with orchestra. Most of his commissioned pieces from the late ’60s on were classical works, many had religious or social themes, and many were collaborations with his wife.
As a composer, Mr. Brubeck used jazz to address religious themes and to bridge social and political divides. His cantata “The Gates of Justice,” from 1969, dealt with blacks and Jews in America; another cantata, “Truth Is Fallen” (1972), lamented the killing of student protesters at Kent State University in 1970, with a score including orchestra, electric guitars and police sirens. He played during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in 1988; he composed entrance music for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1987; he performed for eight presidents, from Kennedy to Clinton.
In 1968 he formed a quartet with the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and later he began working with his musician sons Darius (a pianist), Chris (a bassist), Dan (a drummer) and Matthew (a cellist). He performed and recorded with them often, most definitively on “In Their Own Sweet Way,” a Telarc album from 1997. The classic Brubeck quartet regrouped only once, in 1976, for a 25th-anniversary tour.
Mr. Brubeck’s son Michael died a few years ago. In addition to his other sons, Mr. Brubeck is survived by his wife, Iola; a daughter, Catherine Yaghsizian; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Brubeck resumed working with a quartet in the late 1970s — finally settling into a long-term touring group featuring the saxophonist Bobby Militello — and thereafter never stopped writing, touring and performing his hits. To the end he was a major draw at festivals.
In 1999 Mr. Brubeck was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ten years later he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his contribution to American culture. He gave his archives to his alma mater, now renamed the University of the Pacific.
Despite health problems, Mr. Brubeck was still working as recently as 2011. In November 2010, just a month after undergoing heart surgery and receiving a pacemaker, he performed at the Blue Note in Manhattan. Nate Chinen of The Times, noting that Mr. Brubeck had already “softened his pianism, replacing the old hammer-and-anvil attack with something almost airy,” wrote that his playing at the Blue Note “was the picture of judicious clarity, its well-placed chordal accents suggesting a riffing horn section.”
Mr. Brubeck once explained succinctly what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.