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Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

December 7, 2012

Dave Brubeck

Pioneering jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck died on December 5 in Norwalk, Connecticut, just one day short of his 92th birthday. He will be remembered for popularising jazz in the 1950s and ’60s with recordings like “Time Out,” the first jazz album to sell a million copies. The album’s centre piece “Take Five” is still instantly recognizable, more than fifty years after its release.

In a career that has spanned more than six decades, Dave Brubeck experiments with odd time signatures, improvised counterpoint, and distinctive harmonies remain hallmarks of a unique musical style unfazed by fad and fashion.

Born in 1920 into a musical family his two older brothers were professional musicians at the age of 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 the piano with a local dance band. He entered the College of the Pacific, 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 the 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 honours in trade magazine critics’ and readers’ 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 Magazine. In 2005 his CD London Flat, London Sharp was also charted by Billboard, making Dave Brubeck the artist who has 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 US 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 Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, based on a Turkish folk rhythm, and Paul Desmond’s Take Five began to appear on jukeboxes throughout the world.

In 1959 Brubeck first performed and then 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 first performed and recorded in 1962.

The “classic” Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright (who joined in 1958) and Joe Morello (1956) was dissolved in December 1967; and The Light in the Wilderness, the first of many works combining classical and improvised elements, was first performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in February 1968 with conductor Erich Kunzel. Brubeck’s second major work The Gates of Justice (Naxos 8.559414), a cantata based on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Old Testament, was also first performed by Kunzel in Cincinnati in 1969.

The 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-1970s Brubeck performed with three of his musical sons, Darius, Chris and Dan. He later led a quartet that featured former Octet member clarinettist Bill Smith with son Chris on electric bass and Randy Jones, drums. In 1988 this group, along with former bassist, Eugene Wright, had the honour of accompanying President 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 has performed at The White House on many special occasions.

Through the decades that followed the dissolution of the “classic” quartet Dave Brubeck composed many fully notated compositions. These include ballet suites, a string quartet, chamber works, 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 Russell Gloyd, who since 1976 has been associated with Brubeck as conductor, producer and manager. Throughout his career Brubeck has continued to experiment with interweaving jazz and classical music. He has 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 has remained a leading figure in the jazz mainstream, appearing at jazz festivals (Newport with Wynton Marsalis in 2005), recording (for Telarc) and touring internationally with today’s version of the Dave Brubeck Quartet - Bobby Militello, sax and flute, Randy Jones, drums, Michael Moore, bass.

Dave Brubeck is a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University and holds numerous honorary degrees from American, Canadian, English and German universities, including an Honorary Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Fribourg University, Switzerland. He has 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 the year 2000 the National Endowment for the Arts declared him a Jazz Master. His international honours include Austria’s highest award for the Arts, a citation from the French government, and the Bocconi Medal from Italy. The Library of Congress has declared Dave Brubeck a Living Legend. He serves as chairman of The Brubeck Institute established in his honour by his alma mater, the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.

Dave Brubeck Biography & Discography

Albums featuring David Brubeck:


Chromatic Fantasy Sonata, Rising Sun


The Gates of Justice

Brubeck & American Poets

Songs of Praise

Jazz Icons: Dave Brubeck Live in ’64 & ’66


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