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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