Take Five Jazz Great Dave Brubeck Dead at 91

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Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck

Jazz pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, whose record­ing of “Take Five” sold over a mil­lion copies in 1960, died Wednes­day of heart fail­ure at Nor­walk Hos­pi­tal in Nor­walk, Con­necti­cut, near his home in Wilton, Con­necti­cut. He would have turned 92 on Thursday.

Brubeck was on his way to an appoint­ment with his car­di­ol­o­gist when he was stricken Wednes­day morn­ing, said long­time manager-producer-conductor Rus­sell Gloyd.

His “Take Five” was heard on the sound­track of the 1973 Ralph Bak­shi adult car­toon movie Heavy Traf­fic. As well, he com­posed for — and per­formed with his ensem­ble on — “The NASA Space Sta­tion,” a 1988 episode of the CBS TV series This Is Amer­ica, Char­lie Brown.

David War­ren Brubeck was born in Con­cord, Cal­i­for­nia on Decem­ber 6, 1920.

Des­ig­nated a “Liv­ing Leg­end” by the Library of Con­gress, he con­tin­ued to be one of the most active and pop­u­lar musi­cians in the world up until his death. In a career that has spanned more than six decades, his exper­i­ments with odd time sig­na­tures, impro­vised coun­ter­point, and dis­tinc­tive har­monies remain hall­marks of a unique musi­cal style unfazed by fad and fashion.

Born into a musi­cal fam­ily — his two older broth­ers were pro­fes­sional musi­cians — at age four he began piano lessons from his mother, a clas­si­cal pianist. When his fam­ily moved to a 45,000 acre cat­tle ranch in the foothills of the Sier­ras, his life changed dra­mat­i­cally. He stopped music lessons and began to work with his father as a cow­boy. On week­ends, he played piano with a local dance band.

He entered the Col­lege of the Pacific in Stock­ton, Cal­i­for­nia as a pre-med stu­dent with the idea of becom­ing a vet­eri­nar­ian and return­ing to ranch life. Work­ing his way through school as a pianist in local clubs, he became increas­ingly involved in jazz, and decided to switch his major to music.

After grad­u­at­ing with a bach­e­lor of music degree in 1942, he mar­ried Iola Whit­lock, who was a fel­low stu­dent at Pacific, and enlisted in the Army. While serv­ing in Europe under Gen­eral Pat­ton, he led an inte­grated GI jazz band. After his dis­charge in 1946, he began his stud­ies at Mills Col­lege with French com­poser, Dar­ius Mil­haud, who encour­aged him to intro­duce jazz ele­ments into his clas­si­cal com­po­si­tions. This exper­i­men­ta­tion of mixed gen­res led to the for­ma­tion of the Dave Brubeck Octet that included Paul Desmond, Cal Tjader and Bill Smith. In 1949, Brubeck formed an award-winning trio with Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty, and in 1951 estab­lished the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet with alto sax­o­phon­ist Paul Desmond. This his­toric col­lab­o­ra­tion lasted sev­en­teen years, and even after the dis­so­lu­tion of the “clas­sic” Quar­tet, Brubeck and Desmond fre­quently per­formed together.

The Quartet’s record­ings and con­cert appear­ances on col­lege cam­puses in the 1950s intro­duced their indi­vid­ual style to thou­sands of stu­dents, many of whom became life­long “fans.” Their audi­ences were not lim­ited to cam­puses, how­ever. The Dave Brubeck Quar­tet with Paul Desmond played in jazz clubs in major cities and toured in pack­age shows with such jazz artists as Duke Elling­ton, Ella Fitzger­ald, Char­lie Parker, Dizzy Gille­spie, Stan Getz and Gerry Mul­li­gan. They repeat­edly won top hon­ors in trade mag­a­zine critic’s and reader’s polls, includ­ing the Black news­pa­per The Pitts­burgh Courier.

In 1954, Time mag­a­zine ran a cover story about Brubeck’s remark­able ascen­dancy in the jazz world. Also in 1954, the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet “break­through” album, Jazz at Ober­lin, made the charts in Bill­board. In 2005, his CD Lon­don Flat, Lon­don Sharp was also charted by Bill­board, mak­ing Brubeck the artist who appeared on Bill­board charts over the longest period of time.

In 1958, the Quar­tet per­formed in Europe for the first time and toured Poland and the Mid­dle East for the U.S. State Depart­ment. This led to the intro­duc­tion of music from other cul­tures into the Quartet’s reper­toire. Then, in 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet recorded an exper­i­ment in time sig­na­tures, Time Out. To everyone’s sur­prise, the album sold over a mil­lion copies, and Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, based on a Turk­ish folk rhythm, and “Take Five,” com­posed by Paul Desmond, began to appear on juke­boxes through­out the world.

In 1959, Brubeck pre­miered and recorded his brother Howard’s Dia­logues for Jazz Combo and Orches­tra with the New York Phil­har­monic under Leonard Bern­stein. In 1960, he com­posed “Points on Jazz” for the Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre, and in later decades com­posed for and per­formed with the Mur­ray Louis Dance Co. His musi­cal the­ater piece, The Real Ambas­sadors, star­ring Louis Arm­strong and Car­men McRae, was recorded in 1960 and per­formed to great acclaim at the 1962 Mon­terey Jazz Festival.

Early in his career, Brubeck wrote pri­mar­ily for the Quar­tet, and some of those pieces, such as “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke,” became part of stan­dard jazz reper­toire. His first orches­tral com­po­si­tion, “Ele­men­tals,” writ­ten for an impro­vis­ing jazz combo and sym­phony orches­tra, was pre­miered and recorded in 1962.

The “clas­sic” Dave Brubeck Quar­tet with Desmond, Eugene Wright (who joined in 1958) and Joe Morello (1956) was dis­solved in Decem­ber 1967; “The Light in the Wilder­ness,” the first of many works com­bin­ing clas­si­cal and impro­vised ele­ments, was pre­miered by the Cincin­nati Sym­phony Orches­tra in Feb­ru­ary 1968 by con­duc­tor Erich Kun­zel. Brubeck’s sec­ond major work, “The Gates of Jus­tice,” a can­tata based on the words of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and the Old Tes­ta­ment, was also pre­miered by Kun­zel in Cincin­nati in 1969.

Bari­tone sax­o­phon­ist Gerry Mul­li­gan joined a newly formed Dave Brubeck Trio (with Jack Six, bass and Alan Daw­son, drums) in 1968, and they recorded and toured the world together for seven years. In the mid-1970’s, Brubeck per­formed with three of his musi­cal sons, Dar­ius, Chris and Dan. He later led a quar­tet that fea­tured for­mer Octet mem­ber clar­inetist Bill Smith with son Chris on elec­tric bass and Randy Jones, drums. In 1988, this group, along with for­mer bassist Eugene Wright, had the honor of accom­pa­ny­ing Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan to Moscow to per­form at the Reagan-Gorbachev Sum­mit. Since the Quartet’s first appear­ance at a State Din­ner for King Hus­sein of Jor­dan, dur­ing the John­son admin­is­tra­tion, Brubeck per­formed at The White House on many spe­cial occasions.

Through the decades that fol­lowed the dis­so­lu­tion of the “clas­sic” quar­tet, Brubeck com­posed many fully notated com­po­si­tions. These include bal­let suites, a string quar­tet, cham­ber ensem­bles, pieces for solo and duo-piano, vio­lin solos, orches­tral works and large-scale works for cho­rus and orches­tra, most notably a mass, “To Hope! A Cel­e­bra­tion”, that has been per­formed through­out the Eng­lish speak­ing world, Ger­many, Rus­sia and Aus­tria. In 2002, Clas­si­cal Brubeck was recorded with the Lon­don Sym­phony Orches­tra and Lon­don Voices. The dou­ble CD includes his Easter ora­to­rio “Beloved Son,” “Pange Lin­gua Vari­a­tions,” his excit­ing Pen­te­cost ora­to­rio, “The Voice of the Holy Spirit,” and a com­po­si­tion for string orches­tra, “Regret,” all under the baton of Gloyd, who, since 1976, was asso­ci­ated with Brubeck as con­duc­tor, pro­ducer and man­ager. Through­out his career, Brubeck con­tin­ued to exper­i­ment with inter­weav­ing jazz and clas­si­cal music. He per­formed as composer-performer with most of the major orches­tras in the United States, and with pres­ti­gious choral groups and orches­tras in Europe and America.

While increas­ingly active as a com­poser, Brubeck remained a lead­ing fig­ure in the jazz main­stream, appear­ing at jazz fes­ti­vals (recently at New­port with Wyn­ton Marsalis), record­ing (for Telarc) and tour­ing inter­na­tion­ally with today’s ver­sion of the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet — Bobby Militello, sax and flute; Randy Jones, drums; and Michael Moore, bass.

Brubeck was a Duke Elling­ton Fel­low at Yale Uni­ver­sity and held numer­ous hon­orary degrees from Amer­i­can, Cana­dian, Eng­lish and Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing an Hon­orary Doc­tor­ate in Sacred The­ol­ogy from Fri­bourg Uni­ver­sity, Switzerland.

He received national and inter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, includ­ing the National Medal of the Arts pre­sented by Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from National Acad­emy of Record­ing Arts and Sci­ences, the Smith­son­ian Medal, and a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame. In 2000, the National Endow­ment for the Arts declared him a Jazz Mas­ter. His inter­na­tional hon­ors include Austria’s high­est award for the Arts, a cita­tion from the French gov­ern­ment, and the Boc­coni Medal from Italy.

Brubeck served as chair­man of The Brubeck Insti­tute, estab­lished in his honor by his alma mater, the Uni­ver­sity of the Pacific in Stockton.

Dave Brubeck is sur­vived by his wife Iola; four sons; daugh­ter Cather­ine Yagh­siz­ian; and sev­eral grand­chil­dren and great-grandchildren.

He was antic­i­pat­ing a 92nd birth­day con­cert. The per­for­mance in Water­bury, Con­necti­cut will go on, but in the form of a tribute.

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