Dave Brubeck, a giant of modern jazz, died Wednesday at the Norwalk Hospital, near his longtime home in Wilton, Conn.
Mr. Brubeck died of heart failure while on his way to a regular doctor's appointment, according to Russell Gloyd, his longtime manager. Mr. Brubeck would have been 92 today.
Born in Concord and raised on a ranch in the Central Valley Mr. Brubeck became a San Francisco bandleader and pianist credited with one of the major innovations in popular music. Working with the San Francisco saxophonist Paul Desmond, Mr. Brubeck was the first pianist to break 4/4 time in jazz, by adding a fifth beat to the measure, according to jazz historian Ted Gioia.
"Take Five," written by Desmond and released in 1959 on the album "Time Out" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, popularized this 5/4 time signature and became a pop hit, a rarity for a jazz instrumental. In 1961, "Time Out" reached No. 2 among popular albums on the Billboard chart, and "Take Five" topped out at No. 5 on the adult contemporary chart. "That meter later showed up in everything from the theme to "Mission Impossible" to the Jethro Tull song "Living in the Past," said Gioia. "Dave was an innovator who started out as a leading light of San Francisco jazz but soon brought his artistry to the whole world."
Mr. Brubeck recorded more than 100 albums for large orchestras, choruses and even wrote two ballets, but his main forum was the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which formed in 1951 in San Francisco. Introduced at the Geary Cellar, underneath the Geary Theater, the Quartet was the house band for six years at the now defunct Blackhawk jazz club. During that time, modern jazz became dominant over the traditional, Dixieland sound.
"He was not totally accepted by the jazz community early on. People thought his piano playing didn't swing," said Dick Conte, pianist and Bay Area jazz disc jockey who interviewed Brubeck many times over the years. "Gradually he was able to win people over because he was of great substance. Over the years people gravitated toward him - even the ones who had put him down,"
|Dave Brubeck, 85 years old|
"Eisenhower wanted to take the best of America and do a peripheral tour of the Soviet Union," said Gloyd. Brubeck's plan was to take jazz out of the smoky clubs and "make jazz accessible to the general market, for people who just loved music." "By then Brubeck transcended jazz," Gloyd said. There is no way Dave could have been as popular as he was, in just the jazz market."
David Warren Brubeck was born Dec. 6, 1920. His dad, Pete, was a cowboy and rancher who ended up running a 45,000 acre spread in Ione in California's Centra Valley, where Mr. Brubeck grew up the youngest of three brothers. His mother, Elizabeth Ivey, was a classically-trained pianist who had studied in London.
"When Dave was four or five he would position himself under the piano while she was playing Chopin," Gloyd said. Because of poor eyesight, Mr. Brubeck had trouble reading (music) and "his mother gave up on trying to teach him."
Mr. Brubeck learned by listening and by the time he was a teenager he was playing with adults in a local dance band. He'd come home, change into his working clothes and go out with his dad to run cattle. He never learned to read sheet music.
In 1938, Mr. Brubeck entered College of the Pacific to study veterinary medicine at the insistence of his father. At the end of the first year he was banished to the music conservatory where he managed to sneak through three years without letting on that he could not read sheet music.
His graduation hinged on a handshake agreement. "There were two conditions," Gloyd said. "One, he promised to never teach music, and two he promised never to return to College of the Pacific."
"He's been back a couple of times, Once was to pick up his honorary doctorate. The other was when the university established the Brubeck Institute."
While at Pacific Mr. Brubeck met Iola Whitlock, and they married soon after his graduation, Mr. Brubeck had already enlisted in the Army and been sent to Europe as an infantry soldier. Brubeck was one day from being sent to the front when a Red Cross troupe came through camp and asked if anyone played piano.
"Dave was sitting on his helmet and raised his hand," said Gloyd. "They decided to give him a try and the base commander heard him play and that was the end of him going to the front." Brubeck was reassigned to form a band, which he did, calling it the Wolfpack Band. Allowed to recruit his own sidemen, Brubeck formed a band of 18 pieces, black and white musicians playing together.
"That is how Dave Brubeck integrated the United States Army, because he brought in black players."
At the end of the war the Wolfpack disbanded and Brubeck came home to pursue his master's degree in music at Mills College, under the G.I. Bill. He didn't last, but was there long enough to come under the influence of composer and faculty member Darius Milhaud.
Unable to support that many members, the Octet downsized to a trio, minus Desmond, who had gone to New York. There had been bad blood between them and when he returned he came to the Brubeck home in San Francisco, hat in hand.
As Brubeck later told it: "I was out in the back, hanging up diapers on a clothesline and I turned around and there was Paul Desmond. My first inclination was to throttle him, and then the good things about Paul came back and he said how much he wanted to be with the Quartet and he'd babysit, he'd wash the car, he'd run errands, he'd do anything I asked him to do if he could only be in the group."
Brubeck relented and it was their chemistry that made the quartet.
"It was the immediacy and the improvisational quality of it, and the counterpoint between Brubeck and Paul Desmond that was so interesting," said Conte, who first saw the Quartet during a college tour in 1955, when it played the University of Connecticut, where Conte was a freshman.
Eventually there would be five Brubeck sons and one daughter for Desmond to babysit, with the oldest named Darius after his father's mentor. Brubeck built a big home in the Oakland Hills, where they lived until decamping for Connecticut in the 1960s.
Throughout his touring career, Brubeck worked with black musicians, as he'd done in the Army.
"He fought for civil rights," said the historian Gioia, author of "West Coast Jazz." "At the peak of his fame he had an integrated band. If concert promoters pushed back on it he threatened to cancel the concert."
In 1973, Mr. Brubeck came home from Connecticut to play a farewell concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. But it wasn't his farewell. He played concerts for another 40 years. His last performance was in Montreal last July. His closing number was "Take Five." "He was a class act in every sense of the word," said Gioia. "He had a marriage that lasted 70 years. I don't any celebrity has had a marriage that lasted 70 years."
Survivors include wife Iola, and sons Darius, Chris, Dan, Matthew, and Michael, and a daughter Catherine Yaghsizian. Services are pending.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.