December 6, 2012

Jazz icon, composer Dave Brubeck dies at 91

Brubeck and his quartet brought jazz to the mainstream of American audiences.

The Associated Press

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Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., in this 1981 photo.

AP

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In this July 4, 2009, photo, Dave Brubeck performs at the 30th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

AP

 

The album opens with "Blue Rondo a la Turk," a piece inspired by Turkish street musicians Brubeck heard on a 1958 State Department tour. The piece was in 9/8 time -- nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats -- and blended folk rhythms with jazz and a Mozart piece.

The album also featured "Take Five," the cool and catchy odd-metered tune that became the Brubeck quartet's theme. The tune was derived from a pattern that Morello liked to play backstage. Brubeck asked Desmond to write a two-part melody over the rhythm, and Brubeck patched the pieces together.

"It was a song that people could relate to, and it influenced the future of the music," said George Wein, a jazz pianist and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Brubeck "proved that a song with five beats in it and one with nine beats in it could become popular," pianist Herbie Hancock said in an email.

The jazz master played a key role in popularizing the first jazz festivals in the 1950s, playing at the Newport festival at least 50 times and helping to found the Monterey Jazz Festival.

He was also the first modern jazz musician pictured on the cover of Time magazine -- on Nov. 8, 1954.

Brubeck always felt that his successful jazz career led fans to overlook the second career he launched as a jazz-inspired classical orchestral and choral composer in 1967 after disbanding his original quartet.

His experience in World War II led him to look beyond jazz to compose oratorios, cantatas and other extended works touching on themes involving religion, civil rights and peace.

His interest in classical music was inspired by his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist, who was initially disappointed by her youngest son's interest in jazz.

She later came to appreciate his music.

Born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6. 1920, Brubeck took piano lessons with his mother as a child. Then his father moved the family to a cattle ranch in the foothills of the Sierras.

When he enrolled at the College of the Pacific in 1938, Brubeck had intended to major in veterinary medicine and return to ranching.

But while working his way through college by playing piano in nightclubs, he became smitten with jazz and changed his major to music. In 1942, he married Iola Whitlock, a fellow student who became his lifelong partner, librettist, and sometime manager.

Brubeck joined the Army as an infantry man, but ended up leading the semi-official Wolf Pack band attached to Gen. George S. Patton's army.His band, which was one of the first integrated units in the then-segregated Army, reopened the Opera House in Nuremberg, the site of mass rallies organized by the Nazis, who had banned jazz.

Years later, the addition of Wright to Brubeck's quartet made the group one of the nation's best-known integrated music acts. A longtime champion of civil rights, Brubeck cancelled lucrative gigs at Southern universities and on television's Bell Telephone Hour when the organizers insisted that he replace Wright. He refused to play in South Africa under apartheid.

After his discharge, he enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. That's where he formed an octet, including Desmond on alto sax, Dave van Kreidt on tenor sax, Cal Tjader on drums and Bill Smith on clarinet. The group played Brubeck originals and standards by other composers. Their ground-breaking album "Dave Brubeck Octet" was recorded in 1946.

In 1949, Brubeck with Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty, both fellow octet members, formed a more commercially viable trio and cut their first records, which gained a national audience. After surviving a near-fatal diving accident in 1951, Brubeck formed a quartet by adding Desmond.

Brubeck continued performing with the latest version of his quartet until just past his 90th birthday, despite needing heart surgery and a pacemaker.

In a 2010 interview, Brubeck, who converted to Catholicism in 1980, envisioned an afterlife where he'd again see his family and jazz friends, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

"If there's a heaven," Brubeck said, "let it be a good place for all of us to jam together and have a wonderful, wonderful musical experience."

Brubeck is survived by his wife of 70 years, a daughter and four musician sons. Another son died in 2009.

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