Dave Brubeck, worldwide ambassador of jazz, dies at 91

December 5, 2012

In his seven-decade career, Dave Brubeck was both an artistic and a commercial success, a pianist and composer who expanded the musical landscape and who crossed other borders as one of the world’s foremost ambassadors of jazz.

He had an inventive style that brought international music into the jazz mainstream, but he was more than a musical innovator: He was an American original.

Mr. Brubeck died Dec. 5 at a hospital in Norwalk, Conn., one day before his 92nd birthday. His manager, Russell Gloyd, said Mr. Brubeck was on his way to a regular medical checkup when his heart gave out.

Considered one of the greatest figures of a distinctively American art form, Mr. Brubeck was a modest man who left a monumental legacy. His 1959 recording “Time Out,” with its infectious hit “Take Five,” became the first jazz album to sell 1 million copies. He toured once-forbidden countries in the Middle East and in the old Soviet empire and was honored by presidents and foreign dignitaries.

He wrote hundreds of tunes, including the oft-recorded “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke.” His quartet, featuring alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, was one of the most popular jazz groups in history, and he kept up a busy performing schedule into his 90th year.

Jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, whose pioneering style in pieces like “Take Five” captivated listeners with exotic rhythms, has died. We take a look back at his music and his story. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

He also composed ambitious classical and choral works, released nearly 100 albums, and remained a charismatic and indefatigable performer into old age. In December 2010, the month Mr. Brubeck turned 90, his quartet won the readers’ poll of DownBeat magazine as the best group in jazz — 57 years after he first won the poll.

A bespectacled cowboy who grew up on a remote California ranch, Mr. Brubeck was known for his complex rhythmic patterns, which he said were inspired by riding his horse and listening to its syncopated hoofbeats striking the ground. He studied in the 1940s with the experimental French composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his interest in jazz. Mr. Brubeck was among the first jazz musicians to make wide use of polytonality, or playing in more than one musical key at a time. He was an early advocate of “world music,” adopting exotic sounds that he heard in his travels.

After Mr. Brubeck formed a quartet in the early 1950s, his wife, Iola, suggested that the quartet perform on college campuses, which produced a nationwide sensation, with record sales to match.

“We reached them musically,” he told the New York Times in 1967. “We had no singers, no beards, no jokes. All we presented was music.”

With their curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses, Desmond and Mr. Brubeck looked like professorial brothers and were unlikely jazz stars. The two had an instant musical bond and could anticipate each other’s bandstand improvisations, as Desmond’s ethereal, upper-register saxophone soared above Mr. Brubeck’s driving keyboard attack.

With the release of “Time Out” in 1959, Mr. Brubeck had an unexpected best seller. The album reached No. 2 on the pop charts, and its eternally catchy signature tune, “Take Five,” became a surprise hit. Written by Desmond but heavily arranged by Mr. Brubeck, “Take Five” — with its unusual time signature of 5/4 — helped make the Dave Brubeck Quartet a leading jazz attraction of the 1950s and ’60s.

“Every once in a while,” jazz historian and critic Ted Gioia wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Washington Post, “jazz is blessed by one of those great figures who can do it all. They give us a body of work that is full of musical riches . . . but the music also can appeal to the average listener. Dave Brubeck is one of those figures.”

West Coast sound

Mr. Brubeck’s position in musical history has often been debated. He was born the same year as Charlie Parker, the tortured genius of the bebop movement, but Mr. Brubeck was never a true bebopper himself. He defied the raffish image of the jazz musician by being a clean-living family man who lived with his wife and six children.

He was considered a seminal force in the West Coast’s understated jazz of the 1950s, but he disdained the “Cool Jazz” label and preferred to forge an original musical path of his own.

After early struggles, Mr. Brubeck was reportedly earning more than $100,000 a year by 1954, the year he became the second jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time magazine (after Louis Armstrong in 1949).

Some musicians and critics openly resented his success, and others questioned his prominence in a form of music that was created primarily by black musicians.

But Mr. Brubeck was an outspoken advocate of racial harmony and often used his music as a platform for cross-cultural understanding. He once canceled 23 of 25 concerts in the South when local officials would not allow his African American bass player, Eugene Wright, to appear with the rest of the group.

On a tour in the Netherlands in the 1950s, the African American pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith was asked, in Mr. Brubeck’s presence, “Isn’t it true that no white man can play jazz?”

Without answering at first, Smith gestured toward Mr. Brubeck and said to the reporter, “I’d like you to meet my son.”

In 1958, Mr. Brubeck and his quartet undertook an arduous international tour for the State Department, spreading the improvisatory spirit of jazz to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Sri Lanka, among other countries. In Poland, they were among the first U.S. jazz musicians to perform behind the Iron Curtain.

In each new country, Mr. Brubeck mingled with musicians, absorbing local rhythms and melodies. Long before the term “world music” gained currency, he was writing compositions that borrowed elements he had heard from other countries.

In 1988, Mr. Brubeck and his quartet performed at a gala dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow during a summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. During “Take Five,” observers noticed that Gorbachev was tapping his fingers along with the music. “I can’t understand Russian,” Mr. Brubeck said at the time, “but I can understand body language.”

A diplomatic stalemate soon dissolved, and the two leaders signed a historic treaty to dismantle nuclear weapons.

“The next day,” Gloyd recalled to The Post 20 years later, Secretary of State George P. Shultz “broke through the ranks, gave Dave a big hug and said, ‘Dave, you made the summit. No one was talking after three days. You made the breakthrough.’ ”

A cowboy childhood

David Warren Brubeck was born Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif. He and his family lived on a 45,000-acre ranch near Ione, Calif.

His father was a champion rodeo roper, and his mother was a conservatory-trained pianist who had studied in London with Dame Myra Hess, a concert star. She gave her three sons an advanced musical education, and Mr. Brubeck’s two older brothers, Henry and Howard, became music teachers and composers.

Because of early eyesight problems, Mr. Brubeck always had difficulty reading musical notation. He compensated by learning to improvise and to play by ear, which served him well in jazz.

At the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Mr. Brubeck had planned to study veterinary medicine. But a zoology professor saw how much time he spent in the music department and suggested that he change majors.

Mr. Brubeck played in nightclubs through college, developing a powerful boogie-woogie style, but his sight reading remained rudimentary. A dean called him a disgrace but allowed Mr. Brubeck to graduate after a professor pleaded on his behalf, calling him a budding genius.

In college, Mr. Brubeck proposed on his first date with Iola Whitlock, and the two were married in 1942. She sometimes wrote lyrics for his music and managed their growing household.

During World War II, Mr. Brubeck was pulled from the infantry by an Army colonel, who asked him to start a jazz band to entertain troops on the front lines. The group was perhaps the only integrated military musical unit during the war.

After the war, Mr. Brubeck did graduate work at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., with Milhaud and performed avant-garde jazz. Based in San Francisco early in his career, he worked for low pay and scrounged for dented cans of food that he could buy at a discount.

“We lived in a tin, corrugated one-room shack with no windows,” he told The Post in 2008. “We were so broke, God almighty.”

Just when Mr. Brubeck began to develop a following, he damaged his spinal cord and several vertebrae while diving in the surf in Hawaii in 1951. He said emergency workers in the ambulance described him as a “DOA” — dead on arrival.

After a few months, he recovered, although he had residual nerve pain in his hands for years.

Realizing he couldn’t handle the burden of being the sole leader of a group, he reached out to Desmond, whose dry, lyrical style on alto saxophone was a bracing contrast to Mr. Brubeck’s vigorous approach on the piano.

Drummer Joe Morello joined the quartet in 1956, followed by Wright in 1958, forming a group that recorded dozens of records and found international acclaim. Despite the challenging nature of Mr. Brubeck’s music, with its unusual rhythmic patterns and sometimes unfamiliar tunes, his quartet had a huge following until it split up in 1967.

“You could hardly find a less likely formula for popularity,” Gioia, the author of “West Coast Jazz,” wrote in an e-mail. “Brubeck, by all definitions, was a fringe within a fringe. Despite all this, he managed to achieve a rare degree of fame and popularity. How did he pull this off? Mostly through the sheer brilliance and audacity of his musical vision.”

Mr. Brubeck began to write more symphonic and sacred music, then toured with a quartet that included baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The original quartet had occasional reunions before Desmond’s death in 1977, and Mr. Brubeck often performed with his sons, four of whom — Dan, Darius, Chris and Matthew — became musicians. Another son, Michael Brubeck, died in 2009.

Besides his wife, of Wilton, Conn., survivors include his four sons and a daughter, Catherine Brubeck Yaghsizian; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Brubeck formed a new quartet, with which he toured until he was 90. Even in his final years, when he was physically frail, he exuded energy at the keyboard. A solo piano recording from 2007, “Indian Summer,” won many awards and was considered one of his finest albums.

In 1996, Mr. Brubeck received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, and he was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2009.

When he reached his 80s, Mr. Brubeck stopped traveling overseas. But if his jazz diplomacy could help unite superpowers, it could also bring families together.

In 1971, Mr. Brubeck gave a concert in Honolulu that marked, President Obama wrote in one of his books, the last time Obama ever saw his father.

When Mr. Brubeck received his Kennedy Center award at the White House in 2009, Obama recalled that concert and said, “You can’t understand America without understanding jazz, and you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.