Jazz giant Dave Brubeck dead, just shy of 92

In recent years, the pianist and composer championed music education in schools. Photo: AP/Kevin Wolfe

WASHINGTON, December 5, 2012 – Jazz giant Dave Brubeck died today from heart failure at Norwalk Hospital, not far from his home in Wilton, Connecticut, just a day short of what would have been his 92nd birthday. He was reportedly on his way to a routine doctor’s appointment when he suffered the fatal attack.

Born in Concord, California in the San Francisco Bay area, Brubeck and his famous Quartet became one of the most popular exemplars of progressive jazz. They were known for stretching musical limits while still writing popular hits that transcended the genre in many ways. Perhaps the greatest of these was his collaboration with saxophonist Paul Desmond that resulted in the Quartet’s most enduring and unusual hit, “Take Five,” first included in the Quartet’s 1959 album, “Time Out.”

Transcending the world of jazz, “Take Five’s” appealing tune and oddball 5/4 time signature, scored Number 5 on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart in 1961. Previously, this time signature had only shown up occasionally in eccentric classical music compositions like the “Promenade” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or the barbaric opening “Mars” movement in Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets. Since “Take Five’s” debut, however, 5/4 time has shown up with more frequency in popular music, perhaps most famously in the catchy theme to “Mission Impossible.”

David “Dave” Brubeck was born Dec. 6, 1920, the son of Pete and Elizabeth Brubeck. His father was a rancher while his mother just happened to be a classically trained pianist.

Legendary jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012. (Credit: AP/Kevin Wolfe)

In a 2001 magazine interview* with Brubeck, when author and former MENC Publications Editor Frances S. Ponick (this writer’s wife) asked Brubeck about his family’s musical lineage, he replied that “I got it from my mother, who was a piano teacher, and my sons got it from me. My mother was a big believer in the prenatal influence of music, and she continued to give lessons during her pregnancies. After you were born, you were put in a crib next to the piano while she taught her students. Music was there most of the day. One of my earliest memories is falling asleep many nights while she played Chopin on the piano.”

Not surprisingly, he immediately took to that instrument, working for a time with his mother. But, struggling with poor eyesight, found it difficult to read sheet music, and eventually learned to play by ear. He soon became good enough to perform in a local band.

Pushed by his father to study something practical in college, young Dave enrolled at theCollege of the Pacific to pursue training in veterinary medicine. When that didn’t work out, he switched to music and did well even while hiding the fact that he still couldn’t read music.

According to his longtime manager, Russell Gloyd, he was only allowed to graduate if he fulfilled two conditions: “One, he promised to never teach music, and two he promised never to return to College of the Pacific.” Ironically, he did eventually return to his alma mater years later both to receive an honorary doctorate from the college and to be present when the school established its Brubeck Institute.

Brubeck’s life picked up considerably after his graduation. In short order, he married Iola Whitlock and enlisted in the Army, which promptly sent him to Europe as an infantryman but ended up being drafted as a pianist-conductor of the unit’s band.

Dave Brubeck performs at the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., August 8, 2010. (AP/Joe Giblin, File)

Returning stateside after the Second World War, Brubeck decided to continue to pursue his musical education, using funds available under the G.I. Bill to enroll for an advanced degree at Mills College where he chanced to study composition with Darius Milhaud, once a member of the famous French “Les Six,” and one of several European classical composers whose music had been strongly influenced by American jazz.

Milhaud’s Wikipedia entry duly notes that “jazz pianist Dave Brubeck became one of Milhaud’s most famous students when Brubeck furthered his music studies at Mills College in the late 1940s). In a February 2010 interview with Jazzwax, Brubeck said he attended Mills, a women’s college (men were allowed in graduate programs) specifically to study with Milhaud, saying, ‘Milhaud was an enormously gifted classical composer and teacher who loved jazz and incorporated it into his work. My older brother Howard was his assistant and had taken all of his classes.’ Brubeck named his first son Darius.”

French composer Darius Milhaud.

Although Brubeck never graduated from Mills, he did encounter several like-minded musicians there and in the Bay Area. After a couple of false starts, he and three other musicians eventually got on the same page. As a result, “The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, was formed in 1951,” wrote Frances Ponick in her 2001 article on Brubeck. She noted that the Quartet’s “distinctive harmonic approach and improvised contrapuntal choruses caused a stir in the jazz world, launching what later became known as “West Coast” or “Cool” jazz.”

As Brubeck and his Quartet’s popularity and influence grew, Brubeck chose to relocate to Connecticut in the 1960s. Their home there became family headquarters for the rest of Brubeck’s life.

As the years progressed, Brubeck branched out, extending his musical approach to other genres including religious and classical music. He also became a leader and advocate for music education in the schools.

Frances Ponick’s 2001 article notes that by the turn of this century, Brubeck was “increasingly recognized as a composer of orchestral works, oratorios, cantatas, ballets, and chamber music. A pioneer in combining jazz with symphony orchestras, Brubeck has appeared as composer-performer with most of the major orchestras in the United States and with prestigious choral groups performing his compositions. He has become a goodwill ambassador of music around the world.”

Accordingly, Brubeck “received the National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1994, and he was named a Jazz Master by the NEA in 1999.” In addition, “On March 7, 2000, just prior to the MENC National Conference in Washington, D.C., Brubeck received MENC’s Fund for the Advancement of Music Education (FAME) award for his continued support and advocacy of music education.”

As part of that MENC 2000 National Conference, “Brubeck performed a suite from his composition ‘Hold Fast to Dreams’ (based on poetry by Langston Hughes) on Friday, March 10, 2000, at the Washington National Cathedral. The concert also featured other Brubeck works, including a Mass, ‘To Hope! A Celebration,’ conducted by Russell Gloyd,” according to Frances Ponick.

(Below: YouTube video taken from the famous initial cut—”Blue Rondo à la Turk”—of the Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 breakout album, “Time Out.” Like “Take Five,” it’s another metrical experiment, with the meter veering almost recklessly between 9/8 and 4/4 time. The tune and the rhythms were inspired by Turkish folk tunes Brubeck heard while on an international tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department.)

According to comments by West Coast Jazz historian Ted Gioia, brother of former NEA Director Dana Gioia, Brubeck’s last public performance “was in Montreal last July. His closing number was ‘Take Five’… [and] he was a class act in every sense of the word…. He had a marriage that lasted 70 years. I don’t any celebrity has had a marriage that lasted 70 years.”

Dave Brubeck’s survivors include his wife Iola, his four sons Darius, Chris, Dan, Matthew, and Michael, and his daughter, Catherine Yaghsizian. Funeral services had not been made public as of this writing. 

  * “Dave Brubeck on Music Education and Composing.”
Teaching Music, February 2001, Vol. 8 Issue 4, p. 48.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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