Iola Brubeck, force behind the success of jazz star, dies at 90


Pianist and jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola, in 2008. (Craig Litten/Silver Image Photo Agency)
March 18, 2014

Iola Brubeck, who helped propel her husband, pianist Dave Brubeck, to jazz stardom in the 1950s by suggesting that he perform on college campuses and who wrote lyrics for many of his compositions, died March 12 at her home in Wilton, Conn. She was 90.

She had cancer, her son Chris Brubeck said.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dave Brubeck was the biggest star in jazz, with bestselling records, concerts around the world and an innovative way of bringing international rhythms into jazz.

None of that would have been possible, he was the first to admit, without the contributions of his wife, who was his first manager and his emotional anchor for the 70 years they were married.

In the early 1950s, when Mrs. Brubeck was managing her husband’s career, she suggested that his quartet, featuring saxophonist Paul Desmond, present concerts on college campuses.

“I sat down and wrote to every college up and down the West Coast that I thought was within driving distance of where we lived in San Francisco and offered our services,” she said in 2008 webcast from the Library of Congress.

The idea caught on and launched her husband’s career in earnest. The landmark 1953 album “Jazz at Oberlin,” from a performance at the college in Ohio, led to a series of similar recordings and helped propel Brubeck to stardom.

In 1958, Mrs. Brubeck accompanied her husband on a State Department-sponsored tour of Eastern Europe, marking the first time that jazz musicians had been used as semiofficial emissaries of the United States behind the Iron Curtain.

He introduced musical elements that he learned during those travels into his music, and his career continued to blossom. His quartet’s 1959 recording of “Take Five” became the top-selling jazz record of all time.

Through nearly all of it, Mrs. Brubeck stayed at home in Connecticut, raising their six children and acting as her husband’s anchor.

“There is absolutely no way,” Chris Brubeck said Tuesday in an interview, “Dave Brubeck would have become, quote unquote, Dave Brubeck, if it weren’t for my mom’s involvement and support.”

Iola Marie Whitlock was born Aug. 14, 1923, in Corning, Calif., and grew up throughout Northern California, where her father was a forest ranger. She was valedictorian of her high school class in Shasta, Calif., before enrolling at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

A plaque in the university’s concert hall marks the spot where she and Dave Brubeck first met in 1941. He proposed that night and they were married a year later.

Mrs. Brubeck completed her bachelor’s degree in 1945, when her husband was in the Army in Europe during World War II. Afterward, he struggled to make a name for himself in the postwar jazz scene of Northern California.

“We lived in a corrugated tin one-room shack with no windows,” Dave Brubeck said in 2008 interview with The Washington Post. “We were so broke, God almighty.”

They bought dented cans of food at discount stores and bathed their children in streams to save money in the days before the college concerts became a nationwide phenomenon.

In 1950, Mrs. Brubeck helped her husband teach one of the country’s first courses in jazz appreciation at the University of California at Berkeley and began to write lyrics for some of her husband’s tunes, including “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Strange Meadow Lark,” “Summer Song” and his large-scale religious and choral works.

Jazz star Louis Armstrong recorded “The Real Ambassadors,” a musical written by the husband-and-wife team, in the early 1960s. The musical is scheduled to have its New York premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center next month.

Dave Brubeck, who received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009, continued to perform with his quartet until shortly before his death on Dec. 5, 2012, one day before his 92nd birthday.

A son, Michael Brubeck, died in 2009. Survivors include five children, Catherine Yaghsizian of Wallingford, Conn., Darius Brubeck of London, Chris Brubeck of Wilton, Dan Brubeck of Vancouver, Canada, and Matthew Brubeck of Toronto; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

In later years, Mrs. Brubeck accompanied her husband on his concert tours and waited in the wings during every performance. Decades earlier, she captured the life of the itinerant musician in the road-weary lyrics of one of her husband’s tunes, “Travelin’ Blues,” first recorded in 1961 by singer Carmen McRae:

“I check into a hotel /And then forget its name /Yes, I could ask, but oh well /Aren’t all hotels just the same?”

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