DAVE BRUBECK 1920-2012

Dave Brubeck: A jazz icon who reached a massive audience

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Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis remembers Dave Brubeck.

"All this for a guy who has earned his living working dying dances, strip joints, every kind of bar, sometimes for no doubt all,” he said in the 1990 Tribune interview.

He certainly began life with an unlikely profile for a future jazz icon. Born Dec. 6, 1920, in Concord, Calif., David Warren Brubeck grew up under the wide-open skies on a cattle ranch that was the antithesis of urban jazz centers like Chicago and New York.

But it was outdoors that he first heard the unlikely rhythms that eventually would help define his music.

"I spent most of my time alone as a kid lying under a tank listening to an engine pumping water and being mesmerized by its fascinating, arrhythmic sounds,” he said in the 1990 Tribune interview. “Or if I wasn’t doing that, I was riding horseback and singing songs against the gait of the horse.

"And that’s the way I spent endless hours – just letting these crazy cross-rhythms play in my head over and over.”

When he started his first band in high school, he had mastered rhythms that would have confounded many college music professors. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the College of the Pacific, in Stockton, Calif., he learned that jazz was a four-letter word.

"The people running the school wouldn’t even let you call it jazz,” Brubeck said in the 1990 Tribune interview. “So to get around the administrators, the younger teachers who were in to the new music simply called it ‘radio writing.’

"But you still weren’t allowed to play or practice jazz in the practice rooms.”

So Brubeck led his band in dives around town, and after a “terrifying” stint working as a musician near the front during World War II, he returned to California to study music at Mills CollegeÖ with the man who altered the course of his life, French classical master Darius Milhaud.Ö Brubeck’s ability to “hear” a score at sight was limited, but Milhaud encouraged him.

"He always said: ‘You will succeed, but you will do it in your own way,’” recalled Brubeck.

Instead, Brubeck worked in a self-styled, classically tinged jazz idiom with the Dave Brubeck Octet in the late 1940s (recording for Fantasy in 1951), then joined with drummer-vibist Cal Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty in a trio that recorded in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

The arrival of alto saxophonist Desmond made the ensemble a quartet in 1951, with the nimble Joe Morello becoming drummer in 1956 and Wright the bassist in 1958. This was the classic quartet, Desmond’s liquid tone on alto enhancing the ensemble’s “cool,” West Coast style.

The band’s landmark “Time Out” album helped make 1959 a galvanic year in jazz history (Ornette Coleman also was redefining the music at this time). The aptly named recording cast a spotlight on Brubeck’s strange-but-attractive experiments in odd time signatures, while the pianist’s ongoing interest in Stravinsky-like polytonality (playing in more than one key at once) made him a jazz outlier as well as a pop phenomenon.

Though the Brubeck Quartet disbanded up in 1967, Desmond played periodically with the pianist until the saxophonist’s death, in 1977. By then, Brubeck was a legend in his own right – a global champion of a deeply personal brand of jazz.

Brubeck dealt with cardiac problems for decades but refused to stop touring. After being hospitalized with a virus and pulmonary infection in 2009, his doctors wouldn’t allow him to fly, so “now we’re driving 350 miles every day in an RV I’ve rented,” he said in a 2009 Tribune interview.

Yet he was characteristically undaunted.

"I can’t say my philosophy of life has changed very much over the years,” Brubeck said in the 1990 interview.

"When you’ve gone through something like World War II as a young man, you face the idea that life is very precious.

"So I feel about life as I always have: Under any circumstances, go for it.”

He is survived by his wife, Iola; four sons; a daughter, Catherine Yaghsizian; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Twitter @howardreich

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