Dave Brubeck, a pianist and composer whose distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility made him one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died Wednesday morning in Norwalk, Conn. He would have turned 92 today.
He died while on his way to a cardiology appointment, Russell Gloyd, his producer, conductor and manager for 36 years, said. Brubeck lived in Wilton, Conn.
In a long and successful career, Brubeck helped repopularize jazz at a time when younger listeners had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. His quartet’s 1959 recording of “Take Five" was the first jazz single to sell a million copies.
Brubeck experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, baroque compositional devices and foreign modes. But he did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic and — a word he particularly disliked — stolid.
His very stubbornness and strangeness — the polytonality, the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone — makes the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.
Outside of the group’s most famous originals, which had the charm and durability of pop songs (“Time Out," “Blue Rondo a la Turk," “It’s a Raggy Waltz"), some of its best work was in its overhauls of standards like “You Go to My Head," “All the Things You Are" and “Pennies From Heaven."
David Warren Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif., near San Francisco. Surrounded by farms, his family lived a bucolic life: His father, Pete, was a cattle buyer for a meat company, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a choir director at the nearby Presbyterian church. When Brubeck was 11, the family moved to Ione, Calif., where his father managed a 45,000-acre cattle ranch and owned his own 1,200 acres.
At the College of the Pacific, near Stockton, Calif., he first studied to be a veterinarian but switched to music after a year. It was there that he learned about 20th-century culture and read about Freud, Marx and serial music; it was also there that he met Iola Whitlock, a fellow student, who became his wife in 1942.
He graduated that year and was immediately drafted. For two years he played with the Army band at Camp Haan, in Southern California. In 1944, Pvt. Brubeck became a rifleman, entering basic training — first in Texas, then in Maryland — and was shortly sent to Metz, in eastern France, for further preparation for combat.
When his new commanding officer heard him accompany a Red Cross traveling show one day, Brubeck recalled, he told his aide-de-camp, “I don’t want that boy to go to the front." Thereafter, Brubeck led a band that was trucked into combat areas to play for the troops. He was near the front twice, during the Battle of the Bulge, but he never fought.
Finished with the Army at 25, Brubeck moved with his wife into an apartment in Oakland, Calif., and, on a GI Bill scholarship, studied at Mills College with the French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud asked the jazz musicians in his class to write fugues for jazz ensembles, and Brubeck played the results at a series of performances at Mills College. Brubeck had such admiration for his teacher that he named his first son, born in 1947, Darius.
Brubeck had met his most important musical colleague, Paul Desmond, in an Army band in 1943. Desmond was a perfect foil; his lovely, impassive tone was as ethereal as Brubeck’s style was densely chorded. In 1947, they met again and found instant musical rapport, fascinated by the challenge of using counterpoint in jazz.
Brubeck’s first group, an octet formed in 1946, contained five of Milhaud’s students and played pieces influenced by his teachings, using canonlike elements. The group’s earliest recorded work predated a much more famous set of similarly temperate jazz recordings, the 1948-50 Miles Davis Nonet work later packaged as “Birth of the Cool."
In the late 1940s and early ’50s Brubeck also led a trio with Ron Crotty on bass and Cal Tjader on drums. It was around this time that he started to develop an audience. He was given an initial boost by the San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons, later the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, who plugged the band on KNBC radio and helped secure it a record deal with the Coronet label.
In 1951 the trio expanded to a quartet, with Desmond returning.
Quickly the constitutionally different men — Brubeck open, ambitious and imposing; Desmond private, profligate and self-effacing — developed their lines of musical communication. By the time of an engagement in Boston in the fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations.
In 1958, as part of a State Department program that brought jazz as an offer of goodwill during the Cold War, his quartet traveled in the Middle East and India, and Brubeck became intrigued by musical languages that didn’t stick to 4/4 time — what he called “march-style jazz," the meter that had been the music’s bedrock. The result was the album “Time Out," recorded in 1959. With the hits “Take Five" (composed by Desmond in 5/4 meter) and “Blue Rondo a la Turk" (composed by Brubeck in 9/8), the album propelled Brubeck onto the pop charts.
Initially, Brubeck said, the album was released without high expectations from the record company. But when disc jockeys in the Midwest started playing “Take Five," the song became a national phenomenon. After the album had been out for 18 months, Columbia released “Take Five" as a 45 rpm single, edited for radio, with “Blue Rondo" on the B side. Both album and single became hits; “Time Out" has since sold close to 2 million copies.
In 1960, realizing that most of the quartet’s work centered on the East Coast, the Brubecks, with their children, Dan, Michael, Chris, Darius and Catherine, moved to Wilton. They stayed there permanently and later had one more child, Matthew.
In 1968 he formed a quartet with the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and later he began working with his musician sons Darius (a pianist), Chris (a bassist), Dan (a drummer) and Matthew (a cellist). He performed and recorded with them often, most definitively on “In Their Own Sweet Way," a Telarc album from 1997. The classic Brubeck quartet regrouped only once, in 1976, for a 25th-anniversary tour.
Brubeck once explained succinctly what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz," he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear."