Dave Brubeck, the U.S. pianist and composer whose quartet produced the first jazz album that sold more than 1 million copies and was best known for the melodic composition “Take Five,” has died. He was 91.
He died today of heart failure, the Associated Press reported, citing his manager Russell Gloyd.
Brubeck’s experimental recordings and unorthodox time signatures broke new ground in the 1950s, inspiring a generation of musicians and delivering jazz to a wider audience. His cool, West Coast sound defied traditional forms by playing in two keys at once, a harmonic approach that gave jazz a new angle.
The band stayed together for 16 years and was one of the most popular in jazz history, winning a cult following among students through regular performances on university campuses. Brubeck’s works such as “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way” became standards of the genre, while “Time Out” set a precedent for jazz music by selling more than 1 million records after it was released in 1959.
Brubeck performed for Pope John Paul II and for eight U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan, whose 1988 summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow included a concert by the jazz maestro. Brubeck also toured at the invitation of the U.S. State Department in a goodwill capacity, even performing behind the Iron Curtain in 1958 at a time of Cold War tension. In 1954, he became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
David Warren Brubeck was born Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, California, near San Francisco. His father was a cattleman and his mother taught music and played piano. At age 12, Brubeck moved with his family to a ranch that his father managed near the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There the young musician honed his piano skills in local bands before enrolling as a student of veterinary medicine at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He later changed his major to music after abandoning his plans to become a rancher.
After serving in the U.S. Army under General George Patton during World War II, Brubeck attended Mills College in Oakland, California, where he was taught by classical composer Darius Milhaud. He recorded with fellow students as an experimental jazz octet, which included Paul Desmond, whose partnership with Brubeck produced tunes for about two decades. Alto saxophonist Desmond was the composer of “Take Five,” which was named after its unusual 5/4 time signature.
Brubeck said in a Public Broadcasting Service interview in 2001 that he almost gave up jazz as a career because of the hardships his lifestyle inflicted on his young family. To avoid the cost of a motel room at $8 a night, they once rented a place in the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, where the house had a dirt floor and the children had to be washed in a stream.
In 1951, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was formed with Desmond on alto saxophone, Joe Dodge on drums and Bob Bates on bass. The latter two were then replaced by Eugene Wright and Joe Morello. Wright, a black American, was the subject of discrimination by club owners, prompting Brubeck to cancel several concerts in protest. He and his wife, Iola, a lyricist, also composed an anti-racism piece called “The Real Ambassadors,” which featured jazz great Louis Armstrong.
After the quartet’s break-up in 1967, Brubeck appeared in a band with Gerry Mulligan and later formed a group with three of his own sons: Darius, Chris and Danny. He continued to tour the world in later years, playing concerts across Europe. His 80th birthday was celebrated by a joint performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Brubeck received the National Medal of the Arts, presented at the White House, and he won a Grammy in 1996 for lifetime achievements. The Brubeck Institute, whose honorary chairman is actor Clint Eastwood, was created by the University of the Pacific to support jazz students and promote Brubeck’s music.
“Once when asked how I would like to be remembered, I answered, ‘As someone who opened doors,’” Brubeck said.