Dave Brubeck, pioneering jazz pianist-composer, dies aged 91

Pianist-composer who took genre to millions suffers heart failure on eve of his 92nd birthday

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2012, 5:33am


Jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, who tinkered masterfully with rhythm and style and won millions of new fans around the world for the genre, has died of heart failure.

Brubeck died on Wednesday, a day shy of his 92nd birthday, at a hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut, manager Russell Gloyd said.

The musician won a slew of awards in a career that spanned more than six decades and was still playing last year. He played at the White House and was designated a Living Legend by the US Congress' research library.

Brubeck's 1959 album Time Out became the first million-selling jazz record of the modern era, as songs Take Five and Blue Rondo à la Turk defied the indifference of critics to become classics.

A party had been planned for Sunday to celebrate his birthday, but he fell ill on Wednesday and was taken by ambulance to an emergency room. "They came up later and said we just can't keep this heart going," Gloyd said.

Brubeck's success cemented his reputation as one of the great popularisers of jazz, after years of nudging the music into mainstream culture by relentlessly performing at universities.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet also toured the world on behalf of the US government, becoming so popular in Europe and Asia that it was said when Washington needed to fix something, they sent in Brubeck. He described his style by saying: "There's a way of playing safe, there's a way of using tricks, and there's the way I like to play … dangerously."

He also experimented with integrating jazz into classical forms. In 1959, his quartet played and recorded with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, and a year later he composed Points on Jazz for the American Ballet Theatre.

Born in Concord, California, Brubeck was at age four improvising tunes from the classical pieces he was taught by his mother, a piano teacher. At university, his raw skill concealed the fact he had not learned to read music, and he was allowed to graduate in 1942 only after promising never to become a music teacher.

He began his career in earnest in 1947, playing in San Francisco with Paul Desmond, whose alto sax would later help make the quartet famous. Jazz Goes to College sold more than 100,000 copies in 1954 and led to Brubeck becoming the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time.