Remembering The Vital Force Of Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck

Dec 5, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 6:34 pm

To listen to Neda Ulaby's appreciation of Dave Brubeck's life and career, as heard on All Things Considered, click the audio link.

For millions of Americans who came of age in the 1950s, Dave Brubeck was jazz. His performances on college campuses, Top 40 radio play, his role as a jazz ambassador for the U.S., his picture on the cover of Time magazine — all made him one of the most recognized and recognizable musicians of the era.

He died Wednesday morning, the day before his 92nd birthday, in Norwalk, Conn. The cause was heart failure.

Brubeck's start in music was like the jazz he played: unorthodox. He never learned to read sheet music growing up. And he developed his chops playing in a military band for Gen. George Patton's Third Army. In the '50s he formed a quartet with saxophone player Paul Desmond that broke into the Top 40 with "Take Five." It was released as a million-selling single with "Blue Rondo à la Turk" on the flip side.

That song is in 9/8 time — a radical departure from the 4/4 rhythm that Brubeck says Americans were comfortable with at the time. Audiences weren't the only ones taken aback by his music. In interviews that aired on NPR's Jazz Profiles series, Brubeck and Desmond said their musical styles often clashed.

"I was very wild harmonically in those days," said Brubeck. "And the first chord I hit scared Desmond to the point where he thought I was stark raving mad."

"Well," said Desmond, "I was trying to play some sort of melodic chorus, and he would be in 15 different keys on an out-of-tune piano, and there were occasions where I was totally desperate about the situation."

Nevertheless, the two collaborated for decades. In 1959, a song that Desmond wrote earned the quartet its greatest success.

"Take 5" was named after the song's 5/4 time signature.

It appeared on the album Time Out with other tunes that jumped back and forth between different rhythms. The president of Columbia Records was excited that the album was so different from anything else on his label.

But Brubeck said the marketing department was not. "They said, 'You've broken all the rules — the unwritten laws of Columbia Records. You have all originals on this album. Also, you want to use a painting on the cover, and people can't dance to this.' "

Radio stations in Chicago and Detroit disagreed, playing "Take 5" repeatedly.
Brubeck saw the fruits of that exposure firsthand. "In Detroit," he said, "that whole ballroom was dancing in 5/4 — you know, where they throw couples up in the air and between their legs and over their shoulders."

The song climbed to No. 25 on Billboard's Hot 100. College students across the country were dancing to it. In fact, Brubeck made his name playing colleges in the early '50s. One of his early successes was his recording Jazz Goes to College.

After the original Dave Brubeck quartet broke up in the '60s, he came out with an album composed of music he once thought was too structured. In 1968, Brubeck collaborated with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on a religious piece called The Light in the Wilderness.

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff says he was blown away by Brubeck's transformation from jazz player to classical composer. "He's a much underrated composer. I heard a concerto — it was a religious work, and it was so powerful that it brought me to tears."

Later, Brubeck joined the Catholic Church. He became fascinated with composing religious fugues, operas and symphonies. That's not to say Brubeck stopped touring with his jazz groups — some of which included his sons.

Even after bouts of serious illness that forced him into a wheelchair, Brubeck seemed transformed as he sat at the piano — striking the keys with an energy he never seemed to lose. He played hundreds of gigs around the world almost till the end of his life.

Hentoff says Brubeck's professional longevity will be his legacy. "Professional musicians eventually may say, 'OK, we figured out some changes in rhythms that influenced us to think about.' But the main point is the vitality that keeps going. I always called jazz the life force and, my goodness, Mr. Brubeck exemplifies that."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

One of the biggest names in the world of jazz died today: Dave Brubeck. He was a favorite among millions of mans, a master of difficult meters who brought jazz to the mainstream in the 1950s and '60s. Brubeck died of heart failure in Norwalk, Connecticut, while on his way to a standard appointment with his cardiologist. Tomorrow would have been Dave Brubeck's 92nd birthday. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: He was more than a jazz pianist and composer. He was a star at a moment when the big bands were fading and rock 'n' roll was on the rise, and his group had a Top 40 hit: "Take Five."


ULABY: But Dave Brubeck did not want to be a musician as a child in California. He hated to practice. He wanted to be a cowboy.


DAVE BRUBECK: I wanted to be like my father who was a cattleman and a rodeo roper. He was my hero. And we moved to a 45,000-acre cattle ranch, and all summer I worked with my father.

ULABY: That's Brubeck in 1999 on WHYY's FRESH AIR. It was Brubeck's mother who was a musician, and she urged her son to go to college. His love of cows led him to enroll in a pre-veterinary program. He moved to music on the advice of the zoology professor. But Brubeck never bother to learn how to read the notes. His senior year, he got caught.


BRUBECK: The piano teacher, in five minutes, ran downstairs to the dean and said Brubeck can't read at all. So the dean said you're a disgrace to the conservatory and we can't graduate you. And when some of the younger teachers heard this, they went to the dean and they said you're making a big mistake because he writes the best counterpoint I've ever had, said Dr. Brown.


ULABY: Before the Dave Brubeck Quartet became an international sensation, he played with Army bands during World War II and found himself behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge. When he came back, he planned to become a classical musician and enrolled at Mills College with a famous teacher: composer Darius Milhaud.


BRUBECK: And he would tell me don' give up jazz. He said, you can do that so well, why do you want to give it up and become a classical composer?

ULABY: But Brubeck saw himself, as he once said, as a composer who happened to play the piano. Although he loved experimentation, Brubeck decided with his first trio to stop performing original compositions and focus on applying his style to standards.


ULABY: Dave Brubeck's elegant, modern approach found a following. The group added and lost members and toured the world under the auspices of the State Department. Brubeck appreciated the irregular meters he heard on tour and fought with Columbia Records over incorporating them into his group's 1959 album "Time Out."


BRUBECK: I was starting to do different time signatures, but the record companies were kind of leery of getting out of the usual dance tempos that were mostly 4/4 and an occasional waltz. So eventually, against their wishes, I forced them to put "Time Out" out, and it became the biggest seller they ever had in jazz.


ULABY: "Time Out" became the first jazz record to sell a million copies. Dave Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine. His quartet - saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello - remained the most popular jazz group in the 1960s. It played as many as 250 shows a year and bucked conventions more meaningful than time signatures.


BRUBECK: We had a huge following at black universities, Afro-American universities. We were really doing some work that people seemed to forget how hard it was to do, where you had to have a police escort to the concert. The president of the college refusing to let you go on and the students demanding you go on.


ULABY: And it wasn't just black universities. Dave Brubeck's integrated group brought jazz to young audiences. He was, for many Americans, their initiation into jazz.


ULABY: In 1967, the Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up. Brubeck focused on composition. His work was inspired by religion, the civil rights movement, the students killed at Kent State. His popularity never waned, and he started performing with three of his sons - Darius, Danny and Chris - who spoke with NPR three years ago about his father's influence.


DARIUS BRUBECK: He just keeps performing, he keeps recording. You know, it's been an amazing life, and I'm so grateful to him that he bucked the ranch and became a musician, you know, at least when I wanted to become a musician, unlike his father who wanted him to become a cowboy and was disappointed he became a musician. I don't think Dave's disappointed in me becoming a musician at all. And, you know, there can't be anything too much more rewarding for a father and son to be working on a composition like this.

ULABY: The composition was a piece inspired by Dave Brubeck's western roots and the photographs of Ansel Adams. It was premiered by his hometown symphony in Stockton, California.


ULABY: Over the course of his long life, Brubeck composed well over 500 pieces of music. Towards the end, he admitted to slowing down.


BRUBECK: A few things about getting old that you have to adjust to. If I hold a pencil for hours like I used to making a score, my hands cramp up and I can't play the piano so well.

ULABY: So his son Chris, he told NPR, pitched in.


BRUBECK: He's got such a great musical imagination. As soon as I get home, he'll say, Dad, come over and listen to what I've just done or he'll play it to me when I'm on the road. He'll play it on the phone. He always seems to do something better than I would've done it.

ULABY: Dave Brubeck is survived by five of his children and his wife Iola, who he married in 1942. When asked once what jazz was all about, Brubeck said dialogue. It's answering one another. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.