Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck defied conventions
Posted December 5, 2012
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck made a career out of defying conventions. The explosive success of 1959's groundbreaking album Time Out, with hit singles Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk, owed much to his refusal to settle for playing what was expected. Critics didn't like the record, but it was loved by the public, which rejuvenated an interest in jazz.
Brubeck, 91, who died Wednesday in Norwalk, Conn., of heart failure, never stopped innovating over a half-century that saw him compose symphonies, classical and religious music, ballets and scores. He was on his way to a cardiologist appointment with his son Darius when he was stricken. He would have turned 92 on Thursday.
In the decade leading up to Time Out, the first million-selling jazz album, Brubeck and his quartet built a strong following playing and recording on college campuses. He became just the second jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time in 1954 (Louis Armstrong was the first in 1949). In the late 1950s, the band took U.S. State Department tours of Europe and Asia, which influenced them to experiment with the unusual time signatures that made Time Out unique. The album's success led to further experiments by the Brubeck Quartet and encouraged other artists to break constrictions put on jazz musicians.
In a 2009 interview with USA TODAY, Brubeck said he was more than willing to think outside the box.
"You never know what's going to work," he said. "You just go with what you believe in, whether it's a success or not. I knew Time Out was going to work. I knew it worked musically, and the audience liked it. Blue Rondo is a challenging piece, and many jazz pianists around the world still play that to learn. It still challenges me. Your hands have to be in great shape to play that. Hard for me still."
Brubeck's determination to do what he felt was right extended beyond just playing music. After bassist Eugene Wright, an African-American, joined the group, he canceled appearances at venues that were unwilling to hire an integrated band.
The pianist left the quartet in 1967 to pursue a variety of interests. He composed The Light In the Wilderness, which premiered with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1968, and The Gates of Justice, a cantata mixing biblical scriptures and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., in 1969. In 1980, he did the Mass To Hope! A Celebration.
He and his wife, Iola, founded the Dave Brubeck Institute at their alma mater, the University of the Pacific, in 2000. Brubeck collected numerous awards, including a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1996, and he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2009.
Brubeck, who was taught to play piano on his father's California ranch by his classically trained mother, never stopped performing. He often made concerts a family affair. Four of his six children are musicians, including keyboardist Darius, trombonist Chris, drummer Dan and cellist Matthew.
Contributing: Jerry Shriver
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