Jazz icon topped charts with 'Take Five'

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Jazz musician Dave Brubeck. (Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images)

Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, whose rhythmically daring recordings made him one of jazz’s major commercial and artistic players of the ’50s and ’60s, has died. He was 91.

Brubeck’s manager Russell Gloyd told the Associated Press that Brubeck died Wednesday of heart failure on his way to a cardiology appointment with his son Darius.

Bred in Northern California’s cool school of the ’50s, and engaged by the convergence of classical and jazz known as “third stream,” Brubeck’s singular quartet reached the top of the charts with the novel outing “Take Five” and the album “Time Out,” which employed time signatures theretofore unexplored in the genre.

While Brubeck is best remembered for his storied group of that era — which featured alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello — he continued to strike out into fresh territory throughout his career, creating vibrant work for both small and large units.

He was born in Concord, Calif. His father was a former cowboy and cattle rancher; his mother had studied in Europe as a concert pianist and educated him in music as a boy.

Though Brubeck entered the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., as a pre-med student, he did not excel in that discipline and was encouraged to pursue his music studies by a zoology teacher. Though he struggled with the music curriculum — ironically, due to difficulty reading music — he graduated from the school in 1942.

After playing in an Armed Forces band — which also included future bandmate Desmond — during WWII Army service, Brubeck returned to music studies with the noted composer Darius Milhaud at Oakland’s Mills College. He also briefly took lessons from Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA.

Brubeck began his recording career at the fledgling Berkeley jazz label Fantasy Records, where he bowed with an octet set in 1949; he also organized a trio with drummer-vibraphonist Cal Tjader, himself later a star on Fantasy. Not long after he was seriously injured in a swimming accident in Hawaii, the keyboardist’s first quartet, with Desmond, bowed in 1951.

The mating of Brubeck’s lyrical yet aggressive playing and Desmond’s airy, economical, so-called dry martini sound made the quartet a popular draw on college campuses; Fantasy capitalized on the group’s rep with the 1953 albums “Jazz at Oberlin” and “Jazz at the College of the Pacific,” which buoyed the young label’s bottom line.

In 1954, the year he bowed on major Columbia Records with “Jazz Goes to College,” Brubeck was singled out as one of jazz’s top talents in a Time magazine cover story; to that point, Louis Armstrong had been the only jazzman vouchsafed similar coverage by the newsweekly.

Brubeck’s prominence as a domestic and international touring attraction lifted his albums “Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A.” and “Jazz Goes to Junior College” into the national top 30 in 1957. His classic unit coalesced with the addition of Morello in 1956 and Wright in 1959.

His ’59 set “Time Out” secured his reputation forever. The Columbia album featured “Take Five,” a Desmond composition penned in an offbeat 5/4 time signature. The album, which also included Brubeck’s rhythmically askew “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Three to Get Ready,” rose to No. 2 nationally in 1960, and an edited single version of “Take Five” became a jukebox hit and reached No. 25 in 1961. The LP became the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

At the height of his eminence in the early ’60s, Brubeck cut the bestsellers “Time Further Out” (No. 8, 1961) and “Bossa Nova U.S.A.” (No. 14, 1963). He also penned the enduring jazz standards “The Duke” (a homage to Duke Ellington, one of his key influences) and “In Your Own Sweet Way.” A 1966 greatest hits package went gold. Though Brubeck disbanded the classic quartet in ’67, a reunion with Desmond, “Duets,” reached the charts in 1975; the unit reunited in 1976, a year before the altoist’s death.

Brubeck continued to work in small groups throughout his career, most notably in a 1968-73 band that included cool baritonist Gerry Mulligan. For five years in the ’70s, he led Two Generations of Brubeck, a combo that included three of his sons. In later years he recorded prolifically for the independent label Telarc.

But he also applied himself to extended composition in such works as the oratorio “The Light in the Wilderness,” cantatas “The Gates of Justice” and “Truth is Fallen,” the mass “To Hope!” and, in 2006, “Cannery Row Suite,” an opera based on John Steinbeck’s works.

Brubeck’s many honors included the National Medal of the Arts (1994), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy (1996), designation as Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts (2000) and the Kennedy Center Honor (2009).

Onscreen, Brubeck appeared in the jazz-themed 1961 British pic “All Night Long” alongside bassist Charles Mingus. In 2010, “Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way,” a documentary by Bruce Ricker produced by Clint Eastwood, aired on TCM in celebration of the musician’s 90th birthday.

He is survived by his wife and six children.

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