Dave Brubeck, a pianist and composer whose distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility made him one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, died Wednesday morning in Norwalk, Conn. He would have turned 92 today.
He died while on his way to a cardiology appointment, Russell Gloyd, his producer, conductor and manager for 36 years, said. Brubeck lived in Wilton, Conn.
In a long and successful career, Brubeck helped repopularize jazz at a time when younger listeners had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. His quartet’s 1959 recording of Take Five was the first jazz single to sell a million copies.
Brubeck experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio. But he did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic and — a word he particularly disliked — stolid.
Outside of the group’s most famous originals, which had the charm and durability of pop songs (Time Out, Blue Rondo a la Turk, It’s a Raggy Waltz), some of its best work was in its overhauls of standards like You Go to My Head, All the Things You Are and Pennies From Heaven.
David Warren Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif., near San Francisco.
Forbidden to listen to the radio — his mother believed that if you wanted to hear music you should play it — Brubeck and his two brothers all played various instruments and knew classical etudes, spirituals and cowboy songs. Brubeck learned most of this music by ear: because he was born cross-eyed, sight-reading was nearly impossible for him through his early development as a musician.
At the College of the Pacific, near Stockton, Calif., Brubeck first studied to be a veterinarian but switched to music after a year. It was there that he met Iola Whitlock, a fellow student, who became his wife in 1942.
He graduated that year and was immediately drafted. For two years he played with the Army band at Camp Haan, in Southern California.
In 1944, Pvt. Brubeck became a rifleman and was shortly sent to Metz, in eastern France, during World War II.
When his new commanding officer heard him accompany a Red Cross traveling show one day, Brubeck recalled, he told his aide-de-camp, “I don’t want that boy to go to the front.”
Thereafter, Brubeck led a band that was trucked into combat areas to play for the troops. He was near the front twice, during the Battle of the Bulge, but he never fought.
Finished with the Army at 25, Brubeck moved with his wife into an apartment in Oakland, Calif., and, on a G.I. Bill scholarship, studied at Mills College with the French composer Darius Milhaud.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Brubeck led a trio with Ron Crotty on bass and Cal Tjader on drums. In 1951, the trio expanded to a quartet with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone.
The college circuit became the group’s bread and butter, and by the end of the 1950s it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies of its albums Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz Goes to College.
In 1954, Brubeck was the first jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Genial as Brubeck could seem, he had strong convictions. In the 1950s, he had to stand up to college deans who asked him not to perform with a racially mixed band.
When Brubeck’s quartet broke up in 1967 after 17 years, he spent more time with his family and followed new paths. Brubeck resumed working with a quartet in the late 1970s and thereafter never stopped writing, touring and performing his hits.
To the end, he was a major draw at festivals.
In 1999, Brubeck was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ten years later he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his contribution to American culture.
Despite health problems, Brubeck was still working as recently as 2011.
Brubeck once explained succinctly what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”