Pianist Dave Brubeck, most famous for his Quartet’s hit single ‘Take Five’, died yesterday of heart failure, a day short of his 92nd birthday.
At the helm of The Dave Brubeck Quartet – along with Paul Desmond (alto sax), Joe Morello (drums) and Gene Wright (bass) – pianist Dave Brubeck is responsible for one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time, the 1959 release Time Out. With its clever mix of pieces derived from different time signatures, this album featured his most famous track, ‘Take Five’, with its distinctive 5/4 rhythm and melody written by Desmond. The piece became an international hit when it was subsequently released as a single in 1961, becoming the biggest-selling jazz single of all time.
Although widely considered one of the most popular jazz pianists of the 20th century, Brubeck often divided jazz critics. Some saw him as too populist, while others saw his classical leanings (he studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud in 1946) as too academic for jazz. Brubeck countered this, pointing out how he had opened the doors for many great jazz players. He told Downbeat magazine in 2008: ‘At the same time the critics are saying I’m not playing jazz, I’m influencing a whole bunch of guys who play so great.’
Brubeck received piano lessons early on, from his mother, a classical pianist, but by 15 he was also playing professionally in jazz bands. After the war he rose to fame leading various-sized groups, touring around US college campuses. This led to his landmark appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1954. And with his Quartet he became part of a US State-sponsored trip to Europe and the Middle East, where he absorbed the unusual time rhythms he heard in different cultures. This inspired his well-known 9/4 piece ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’.
He took part in countless musical projects, from a collaboration with Leonard Bernstein on Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein (1961), to an early ballet (which he performed with the Monterey Symphony Orchestra), to recent work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on Songs of Joy and Peace (2008). And he also performed regularly with his sons, who have become jazz musicians in their own right.
Brubeck’s Catholic faith was an important part of his life. He composed a chorale for Pope John Paul II when he visited the US in 1987. And he composed a Mass, To Hope! A Celebration, as well as other choral works. On a BBC documentary, When I get to Heaven, broadcast in 1989, Brubeck was asked if there was anyone he would particularly like to meet in heaven, to which he replied: ‘Oh yeah. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Paul Desmond – we were together for so many years.’
Reacting to the news, Alyn Shipton, presenter of Jazz Record Requests on Radio 3, said: ‘Dave Brubeck proved to the world that jazz could swing as effectively with five beats to the bar as with four, and the range of different time signatures on his album Time Out in 1959 revolutionised the music. I met Brubeck several times and interviewed him for BBC Radio 3. He was always most generous with his time and comments, and he also helped me greatly on the research for several of my books, writing long and informative letters. He was truly one of the most influential musical figures not only in jazz but in music in the 20th century.’