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Dave Brubeck, famed jazz composer and pianist, dies

Dave Brubeck stood for the National Anthem at the Kennedy Center Honors gala in Washington in 2009.

Alex Brandon/AP/file

Dave Brubeck stood for the National Anthem at the Kennedy Center Honors gala in Washington in 2009.

Dave Brubeck, whose more cerebral approach as a pianist and composer helped elevate jazz in the 1950s and made him one of the music’s best-known figures, died Wednesday in Norwalk, Conn. He was one day shy of turning 92. The cause of death was heart failure, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. Brubeck’s 1960 recording “Time Out” became the first million-selling jazz album. Its most celebrated track, “Take Five,” was the first jazz single to attain gold-record status. It almost immediately became Mr. Brubeck’s signature tune, one of the most recognizable pieces in jazz.An anthem of dawn-of-the-New-Frontier cool, “Take Five” epitomizes what one might call JFK jazz: laidback yet intense, aloof yet engaging. It also epitomizes Mr. Brubeck’s music in its use of an unusual time signature (5/4) and lucid, abstract feel. By Mr. Brubeck’s standards, 5/4 was reasonably mainstream. He also recorded music in 7/4, 9/8, 11/4, and even 13/4.

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Although Mr. Brubeck composed a number of jazz standards, including “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “The Duke,” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” the composer of “Take Five” was the alto player Paul Desmond. Desmond’s unmistakable tone — dry, floating, incisive — was central to the sound of Mr. Brubeck’s quartet, which from its formation in 1951 to its disbanding in 1967, dominated both reader polls and sales charts. Desmond’s lyricism and understatement ideally complemented Mr. Brubeck’s more earthbound pianism.

American composer, pianist and jazz musician Dave Brubeck in August, 1956.

AP/file

American composer, pianist and jazz musician Dave Brubeck in August, 1956.

Mr. Brubeck played a crucial role in the transformation of jazz from a broadly popular, if little respected, genre that was viewed mainly as dance music to one accorded greater intellectual respectability and listened to for its own sake, albeit by a markedly smaller audience. “Dave’s contribution lies in the dignity he’s given jazz,” music promoter George Wein said in 1955.

Certainly, no one would ever accuse the Brubeck Quartet of being a dance band. “I wanted to play against the rhythm sections rather than with them, just as a modern choreographer does in ballet,” Mr. Brubeck once said. “It was very hard to get a rhythm section to do what I wanted it to do.”

It was apt that one of Mr. Brubeck’s most successful albums was called “Jazz Goes to College.” “Brubeck and his quartet galvanized an entire college generation’s interest in jazz,” the critic Doug Ramsey has written. His cool, intellectual approach made the music seem part of the undergraduate climate, giving rise to a new breed of BMOC: Brubeck men on campus. As much as his growing popularity, it was Mr. Brubeck’s ostensibly academic bent that led Time magazine to make him just the second jazz musician to grace its cover, in 1954, after Louis Armstrong, in 1949.

Mr. Brubeck’s fondness for exotic time signatures contributed to his music’s brainy reputation. Also, there was his use of polytonal harmonies and classical devices, such as fugue and counterpoint. Mr. Brubeck liked to say he was “a composer who played the piano” and he had spent three years in the late ‘40s studying with the classical composer Darius Milhaud. The foremost influences on his music, Mr. Brubeck often said, were Milhaud, Duke Ellington, and the virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum. There was also a visual aspect to Mr. Brubeck’s intellectual image.

His quartet looked like a Phi Beta Kappa chapter meeting on the bandstand. Three-fourths of its members wore horn-rimmed glasses: Desmond, drummer Joe Morello, and Mr. Brubeck. In addition, all three were white (bassist Eugene Wright was black). This led to a widely held view among critics that the group didn’t really swing, further enhancing the quartet’s reputation for intellectuality. Yet for all the accusations about the quartet’s music being rarefied — and Mr. Brubeck’s playing being somewhat stiff — no less an authority on swing than the great blues shouter Jimmy Rushing asked the quartet to back him on what would prove one of Mr. Brubeck’s most engaging recordings, the 1960 album “Brubeck & Rushing.”

Mr. Brubeck’s reputation for high-art intellectualism contrasted with his Wild West upbringing. He’d been a teenage cowboy, in northern California; and, minus the glasses, he had the look of a native American chief, thanks to his craggy nose and prominent cheekbones. Desmond said he had “the expression of a surly Sioux” and the critic Gene Lees entitled an essay on Mr. Brubeck “The Man on the Buffalo Nickel.” Mr. Brubeck was frequently classified as belonging to the “West Coast” or “cool” school of jazz. It’s true he grew up there and began as both performer and recording artist in the San Francisco Bay area. And West Coast musicians were predominantly white.

Yet in musical terms, Mr. Brubeck stood apart from the cool school. His music tended to be harmonically denser than anything found on the recordings of such West Coast stalwarts as Chet Baker or Shorty Rogers. Nor did they share his interest in polyrhythms and classical devices.Indeed, Mr. Brubeck helped point the way to third stream music, the blending of classical and jazz, in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. With his quartet, he performed on a recording of his brother Howard’s “Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Orchestra” with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1960. In the early ‘60s, Mr. Brubeck began to compose extended pieces of his own: a ballet, “Points on Jazz,” and a musical, “The Real Ambassadors,” with book and lyrics by his wife, Iola (both 1962); an oratorio, “The Light in the Wilderness” (1968); a Mass, “To Hope! A Celebration” (1980); and several cantatas, the most popular of which is “La Fiesta de la Posada” (1975). In 2005, he composed ‘The Commandments,’’ a choral work.

David Warren Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif. His father, Howard Brubeck, was a rancher. His mother, Elizabeth (Ivey) Brubeck, was a pianist and piano teacher who had studied with the celebrated English pianist Myra Hess.Encouraged by his mother, Mr. Brubeck began playing piano at 4. He had such an adept ear he didn’t learn to read music until he was an adult. Even when helping his father herd cattle, Mr. Brubeck was being musical. “The first polyrhythms I thought about were when I was riding horseback,” Mr. Brubeck recalled in an interview for the 1992 box set “Time Signatures.” “The gait was usually a fast walk, maybe a trot, and I would sing against that. . . There was nothing to do but think, and I’d improvise melodies and rhythm.”

Mr. Brubeck studied music at the College of the Pacific, in Stockton, Calif. After graduating, in 1942, he enlisted in the Army. Mr. Brubeck insisted that military regulations be breached and the service band he led be racially integrated. Using his GI Bill benefits, Mr. Brubeck studied with Milhaud. He had begun to lead his own big band before the war and now formed an octet, largely composed of fellow students. “The damnedest bunch of noise I’ve ever heard,” Mr. Brubeck’s father said after a concert.

In his biography of Mr. Brubeck, “It’s About Time,” Fred M. Hall quotes him as saying of this period, “I was trying not to listen to much jazz. . . I was trying to develop an individual style. I probably heard Miles Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ once, maybe. . . If any contemporary jazz player impressed me, it was [pianist] George Shearing.”

Mr. Brubeck had been introduced to Desmond during the war. In the late ‘40s they began playing together. “Paul and I seemed to have some kind of telepathic communication,” he told Hall. “We would even make the same mistake together and then correct it, in the same way, together. We seemed able to spin out our contrapuntal lines anticipating each other’s thoughts. If any two musicians were destined to play together, it was Desmond and I.”

Mr. Brubeck formed his quartet in 1951. Its classic configuration, with Morello and Wright joining Desmond and Mr. Brubeck, lasted from 1957-67. He then began playing in a trio format, with Jack Six on bass and Alan Dawson on drums, often joined by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.Billed as “Two Generations of Brubeck,” Mr. Brubeck also frequently performed with his sons: Darius, on keyboards; Danny, on drums; and Chris, on bass and trombone.

Two notable appearances by Mr. Brubeck came when he performed in San Francisco for John Paul II music he’d composed for the pope’s visit, in 1987; and, in 1988, when he performed for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the leaders’ Moscow summit. Among many other honors, Mr. Brubeck was a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, in 1994, and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1996.

He was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2009.

In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Brubeck leaves two other sons, Michael and Matthew; a daughter, Catherine; grandsons and one granddaughter.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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