Dave Brubeck, leader of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, passed away from a heart attack yesterday at the age of 91. Born in 1920, he would have turned 92 today. A jazz piano player and composer, Brubeck was best known for his group’s performance of saxophonist Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” from the seminal album Time Out (1959). The song (backed by “Blue Rondo a la Turk” on the flip side) has been hailed as the best-selling jazz single of all time, was the first million-selling jazz recording, and remains a frequently performed jazz standard. With “Take Five,” Brubeck managed to cross over to listeners outside of jazz fans — even those who know little about jazz recognize the tune. Ironically, Columbia Records originally refused to release Time Out for almost a year after it was recorded because the music wasn’t danceable and because Brubeck wanted a Miro painting on the cover rather than a photograph of the group.
Brubeck was the son of a California cattle rancher. He had two older brothers who went on to become classical musicians. He studied piano with his classical pianist/music teacher mother, and began playing in pop groups at dances during his teens. He initially went to college to study veterinary medicine though he ended up switching to a music major during his sophomore year. It is said that he managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree without learning to read music. He worked his way through college playing in nightclubs, which is where he discovered jazz.
He formed groups — including the Wolf Pack, which was a semi-official group under General George S. Patton — while serving in the Army during World War II. The Wolf Pack was one of the first racially integrated groups in the Army. The band gave the first performance at the reopened Opera House of Nuremberg, a significant event due to the Nazis views on race and their banning of jazz music. Brubeck remained a lifelong civil rights supporter.
Brubeck was inspired by his experiences at the Battle of the Bulge and the violence he saw during the war to begin composing classical music, including oratorios, cantatas, and other forms for orchestra and choir. After the war, while at Mills College, he formed the Dave Brubeck Octet in 1946 (which included Paul Desmond on saxophone). The group released a self-titled album the same year. He released albums that received national exposure throughout the ’40s with a trio derived from the Octet.
In 1951, he founded the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright, and drummer Joe Morello. By 1954, the Quartet had gained substantial popularity based on a series of live recordings, and in 1954 Brubeck became the second jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time magazine (following Louis Armstrong in 1949). Though there was backlash from critics to his growing popularity, Brubeck and the Quartet were well respected among their peers and among the jazz audience for constantly pushing the boundaries of jazz by incorporating new musical elements, including odd time signatures, polyrhythms, classical influences, stride piano, and more.
Dave Brubeck continued to perform with his Quartet until age 90 despite ongoing heart issues. In an interview in 2010 he mused that he hoped to jam with friends such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Art Tatum in the afterlife.