The world of music lost one of its giants today, as jazz pianist, composer, and innovator Dave Brubeck died just one day short of his 92nd birthday.
Brubeck suffered a fatal heart attack (ironically, on the way to visit his cardiologist), and the jazz community lost a universally beloved, admired, and respected figure who had written a handful of classics and remained a relevant and gifted performer well into the 21st century. One of the most widely feted jazzmen in history and the recipient of nearly every award, decoration, and honor the music world has to offer, Brubeck was always shy about his fame; but in the days to come, the remembrances and memorials are only bound to increase it.
A talented pianist from a musical family, Brubeck served in Europe during the Secord World War, an experience that profoundly altered his spiritual outlook. Returning home, he studied music at UCLA under such luminaries as Arnold Schoenberg and Darius Milhaud; although he rejected orchestral music in favor of jazz, it was in this setting that he discovered his true genius for arranging and composition. While he wasn’t the best performer on the scene, he had an unmistakable brilliance for spotting talent and putting complementary sounds together. So it was in 1951, in the midst of the "cool jazz" movement then sweeping the West Coast, that he formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
It was this band and the recordings he made with it – especially 1959’s Time Out – that launched him into the jazz elite. Many music lovers, then and now, experienced jazz for the first time by listening to songs like the smooth, insinuating “Take Five,” the shuffling, electrifying “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and the percussive, clever “Unsquare Dance.” Brubeck’s memorable deployment of unusual time signatures made them stand out, and his close friend and collaborator Paul Desmond used the alto saxophone to give the band an instantly recognizable sound. The quartet toured incessantly, often at college campuses, giving Brubeck an intellectual cachet that boosted his career at a time when jazz was basking in hipness, and the recordings they put down during this period, especially the so-called “Time Quintet” of the 1960s, are still essential listening. Years of featured play have not dulled the excitement and uniqueness of Brubeck’s assured leadership, innovative composing, and fleet playing.
Brubeck was never one to rest on his laurels: after breaking up the Quartet in the 1960s, he began composing classical and religious music as well, bringing to them the same inventive tonal and metric qualities he featured in his jazz music. He endeared himself to kids – and won a whole new generation of fans – by scoring This is America, Charlie Brown, and continued to appear on college campuses. He also had a passion for civil rights, gay marriage equality, and social justice, and his constant championing of music in schools eventually led to the founding of the Brubeck Institute, which provides grants for jazz education. Brubeck was that rarest of things, a man whose character and personality was as impressive as his art. – Leonard Pierce