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DAVE BRUBECK, 1920 - 2012

Pianist pushed jazz boundaries

One of the genre's most popular artists, the composer married unorthodox rhythms with classical forms.

December 06, 2012|Don Heckman

In the strait-laced Eisenhower 1950s, Dave Brubeck seemed, on one hand, deeply conventional. He didn't drink, smoke or take drugs. He favored expressions like "baloney!" and "you bet" over ruder alternatives. He had a prodigious work ethic that had been ground into him by his cowboy father on the family's California cattle ranch.

But rebellion was in Brubeck's soul. Schooled in piano by his musically gifted mother, he became a jazzman -- outwardly square but quintessentially cool -- whose genius at marrying spontaneity and unorthodox rhythms with classical forms became an enduring legacy.

Brubeck, the pianist and composer who pushed the boundaries of jazz for six decades and became one of the genre's most popular artists, died Wednesday, a day before his 92nd birthday.

The jazz maestro, who had a history of heart trouble, became unresponsive on his way to a medical appointment, said his longtime manager and producer Russell Gloyd. Brubeck's son, who was in the car with him, rushed him to a hospital in Norwalk, Conn., where he was pronounced dead.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 09, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Dave Brubeck: In the Dec. 6 Section A, the obituary of jazz artist Dave Brubeck quoted a 1961 New Yorker profile that described an example of the musical interplay between Brubeck and Paul Desmond during a performance of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" in which Desmond inserted a quote from "Try a Little Tenderness." It was Brubeck, not Desmond, who responded with a loud burst from "You're Driving Me Crazy! - What Did I Do?"
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, December 10, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Dave Brubeck: In the Dec. 6 Section A, the obituary of jazz artist Dave Brubeck said the album "Time Out" had reached No. 2 on the pop music album charts by the end of the 1950s. The album reached No. 2 in 1961.

Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell called Brubeck "a true musical giant. He helped to keep jazz at a truly high level and he was very consistent in both his performance and composition."

He was best known for his work with his classic Dave Brubeck Quartet, which included longtime musical partner Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. Brubeck's innovative ideas generated an enthusiastic response from a new audience of young listeners -- as well as the players most directly connected with his music.

"When Dave is playing his best, it's a profoundly moving thing to experience, emotionally and intellectually," Desmond said in 1952 in the jazz publication Down Beat. "It's completely free, live improvisation ... the vigor and force of simple jazz, the harmonic complexities of Bartok and Milhaud, the form [and much of the dignity] of Bach and, at times, the lyrical romanticism of Rachmaninoff."

In the late 1950s, the group began exploring unusual rhythmic meters. By the end of the decade, the album "Time Out" had reached No. 2 on the pop music album charts, and a single off the album -- with "Take Five" on one side and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" on the other -- became the first jazz recording to sell more than a million copies.

Written by Desmond, "Take Five" became a universally recognized jazz classic despite the offbeat 5/4 meter.

Popularity grows

The group's popularity began to climb in the mid-1950s when a series of live college recordings -- "Jazz Goes to College," "Jazz Goes to Junior College" and "Jazz Goes to Oberlin" -- was released. Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, only the second such honor for a jazz artist. (Louis Armstrong was first.)

The New Yorker described the quartet as "the world's best-paid, most widely traveled, most highly publicized, and most popular small group now playing improvised syncopated music."

But Brubeck's fascination with groundbreaking elements not generally included in the jazz styles of the '50s also made his music a target of widespread disparagement from jazz critics, who often referred to a "heavy-handed, bombastic approach" to piano improvising. The words directly contradicted another critical view, which identified the music of Brubeck and Desmond as another example of the "effete, laid-back, West Coast cool jazz" style."

Most of the criticism failed to recognize the complex range of elements -- from stride piano to a Bach canon -- that could course through a single piece. Brubeck often cited the positive response his music received from legendary jazz figures including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, among others.

David Warren Brubeck was born Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, northeast of Oakland. His father, Howard "Pete" Brubeck, was a cattle rancher, his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a pianist and music teacher. When he was 11, the family moved to a 45,000-acre ranch near Ione, in the Sierra foothills.

His older brothers Howard and Henry became classical musicians, but Dave preferred ranching and improvising pop songs on the piano. As a teenager, he played at dances on weekends.

Brubeck started out studying veterinary medicine at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton but switched to music at the suggestion of his science advisor. He managed to earn a bachelor's degree without learning to properly read music.

He was drafted into the Army after graduation in 1942, marrying his college sweetheart, Iola Marie Whitlock, just before he was sent to France in 1944.

His wife, who frequently wrote lyrics for his projects, survives him along with his daughter Catherine, his sons Darius, Chris, Dan and Matthew, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Another son, Michael, died several years ago.

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