Dave Brubeck changed the sound of jazz in profound ways, unexpectedly becoming something of a pop star in the process.
Starting in the mid-1950s, in fact, he emerged as a symbol of jazz in America, and well beyond, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and selling more than a million copies of “Take Five” in 1960. To this day, the puckishly syncopated tune remains one of the most recognizable in jazz, though Brubeck didn’t write it – his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, did.
Beneath the popular acclaim stood a brilliant, uncompromising composer-pianist who challenged conventional jazz techniques, brought the music to American college campuses and helped break down racial barriers through a music uniquely suited to that task.
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Brubeck was en route to an appointment with his cardiologist when he was stricken Wednesday morning, said his longtime manager-producer-conductor, Russell Gloyd. The pianist died of heart failure at Norwalk Hospital, in Norwalk, Conn., near his home in Wilton, Conn.
Brubeck was anticipating a birthday concert Thursday, when he would have turned 92. The performance will go on, but in the form of a tribute, in Waterbury, Conn.
"Dave Brubeck was one of the giants in the music – he changed the way people listened to the music,” said David Baker, distinguished professor of music at Indiana University and a friend of the Brubeck family.
"He could swing in any time signature – it seemed like forward motion was born in his blood,” said pianist Ramsey Lewis, who played four-hand piano with Brubeck at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park in 2010. Though the Ravinia Festival does not release attendance figures, a huge audience turned out for that concert, a celebration of Lewis’ 75th birthday.
"Playing with Dave at Ravinia was one of the most exciting moments in my life,” added Lewis.
Brubeck’s last performance in the Chicago area was a 2011 Father’s Day show at Ravinia, where the 90-year-old pianist shared the stage with four sons: pianist Darius, trombonist Chris, cellist Matt and drummer Dan. The elder Brubeck also consistently drew large audiences to Symphony Center, where he last played in 2009.
"Dave Brubeck was one of few jazz headliners who was guaranteed to bring in a large crowd,” said Nick Pullia, Ravinia Festival communications director.
Though widely beloved as an elder statesman in jazz during recent decades, Brubeck’s initial burst of immense popularity, more than half a century ago, caused a backlash. When “Take Five” made him a household name, some critics and deejays accused him of selling out, he said in a 1990 Tribune interview.
"But I had a lot of fun with them,” recalled Brubeck. “One of the most internationally known disc jockeys accused me, right on the air, of going commercial.
"So I said to him, on the air: ‘OK, let’s play the (‘Take Five’) record, and you follow along and count it,’” said Brubeck, referring to its underlying rhythmic pattern, which defied the two-, three- and four-beats-to-the-bar techniques of the day.
"And there was this huge blank – he didn’t say anything.
"So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’
"And he just didn’t answer.
"At that time, hardly any musicians could play ‘Take Five.’ Now a grammar school kid can play it.
"But those were breakthroughs.”
Brubeck ventured even further afield in another piece that, to his surprise, became a popular hit, his “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Its lush harmonies sounded exotic in the late ’50s, while its switches between offbeat rhythms and bona fide swing were like nothing yet encountered in American music.
For “Blue Rondo,” Brubeck drew inspiration from a characteristically unlikely source: “I heard street musicians playing in Istanbul,” he said in the 2010 documentary film “In His Own Sweet Way.” By transforming Eastern harmonies and regional rhythms through jazz, Brubeck hit upon an alluring sound and a signature hit.