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Happy Birthday, Dave Brubeck, American Jazz Pianist

December 06, 2009
by Christopher Coats
One of America’s most revered and respected jazz and classical pianists and composers, Dave Brubeck has remained prolific throughout his six decades of performing on stages across the world.

Dave Brubeck's Early Days

Born in Concord, California, on December 6, 1920, David Warren Brubeck seems to have entered the world with music in his blood. The Brubeck family also produced two more professional musicians, Brubeck’s two elder brothers. Young Dave took to the keys at an early age, taught by his mother who had studied classical piano in England.

Almost abandoning music when his family moved to a sprawling cattle ranch, Brubeck ventured off to The University of the Pacific to pursue a career as a veterinarian, never intending to travel beyond the Stockton, California campus.

However, a side job as a performer in a dance group proved too great to pass up and Brubeck soon let the piano decide his path; however, during his initial music classes, he revealed that he had never learned to read sheet music, instead relying on intuition and natural ability.

After graduation, he served in World War II, where he ended up leading the Army’s first integrated band—a stint that would profoundly influence his future collaborations.

Brubeck's Notable Accomplishments

Returning home to join new wife Iona Whitlock, Brubeck began studying at Mills College under Darius Milhaud, who helped direct the young pianist toward incorporating jazz into his compositions.

This push led to Brubeck forming what would become the first of many jazz combos, The Dave Brubeck Octet, made up of fellow students. A trio was next, and then a quartet including saxophonist Paul Desmond, an association that would last for years to come.

While years of notoriety and fame would follow, thanks in part to relentless touring and performances with jazz greats from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker, Brubeck’s lasting place in jazz history came from his collaboration with Desmond.

In 1959, the saxophonist composed a collection of catchy tunes set in 5/4 time—a rarity at the time—that were released as the album “Time Out.” It would be two years before the album reached the Billboard Top 100, but since then, the LP has become a jazz staple and been rerecorded countless times. At the time of its release, it helped to spur a resurgence of jazz in America.

Although written by Desmond, the collection has become synonymous with Brubeck and his varied jazz combos ever since.

Featured on the cover of Time as the face of new jazz, Brubeck was also a voice of integration in music, which began with his involvement in the military band. For years after, the pianist resisted pressure to remove African-American members of his group for concerts across the American South and abroad, going so far as to turn down a planned tour in South Africa when notified that one of his fellow performers would not be allowed to perform.

“I wasn’t allowed to play in some universities in the United States and out of twenty-five concerts, twenty-three were cancelled unless I would substitute my black bass player for my old white bass player, which I wouldn’t do,” he told PBS years later.

The Rest of the Story

In the years that followed the eventual breakup of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the legendary pianist continued to perform and compose with a host of other musicians, often reuniting with Desmond before the saxophonist passed away in 1977, willing all future royalties of his seminal piece “Take Five” to the Red Cross.

Continuing to add elements of jazz to classical and operatic compositions, Brubeck traveled the world well into his 80s and still performs the occasional show in jazz clubs around the United States.

Brubeck released his latest album in 2007; a solo piano effort called “Indian Summer.”

Meanwhile, his alma mater, the University of the Pacific, has become a home to the Brubeck Institute, a place to study and enjoy all things Dave Brubeck. The center was established in 2000 to “build on Dave Brubeck's legacy and his lifelong dedication to music, creativity, education, and the advancement of important social issues including civil rights, environmental concerns, international relations, and social justice” through concert series, scholarships and academic programs to study jazz.

Brubeck’s sons, too, carry on the family torch, performing a host of instruments as solo artists, together as combos and occasionally alongside their father.

Just days after his 88th birthday, Brubeck joined Quincy Jones as an inductee into the California Hall of Fame.

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