Jazz Legend Dave Brubeck Dies At 91

For millions of Americans who came of age in the 1950s, Dave Brubeck was jazz. He died Wednesday morning, the day before his 92nd birthday, in Norwalk, Conn. The cause was heart failure.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning we are also remembering another influential visionary. For more than half a century, Dave Brubeck connected with jazz fans and casual listeners all around the world. Brubeck died yesterday of heart failure in Connecticut, where he lived.

Now, as popular as Brubeck's performances and recordings are, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports that Brubeck always considered himself a composer who just happened to play the piano.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The story goes that Dave Brubeck started playing piano when he was four, which is maybe not surprising considering his mom was a classically trained pianist and teacher.

DAVE BRUBECK: She practiced most of the day or taught music, so before you were born, all you were hearing was the piano.

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BARCO: Dave Brubeck grew up on a cattle ranch, served in the Army during World War II, and returned to study music at Mills College in California. It was challenging contemporary classical music, and as he told NPR's Jazz Profiles in 1996, Brubeck enlisted a former Army buddy to help play his compositions, saxophonist Paul Desmond.

BRUBECK: I was very wild, harmonically, in those days and often played in two keys at the same time. And the first chord I hit scared Desmond to the point where he thought I was stark raving mad.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL DESMOND: That was our only difficulty for the first couple of years that we worked together.

BARCO: The late Paul Desmond from a archival interview in the Brubeck Jazz profile.

DESMOND: Well, I was trying to play some sort of melodic chorus, he would be doing clusters or elbows on the piano. They were occasions when I was totally desperate about the whole situation.

BARCO: And yet, their personal and musical counterpoint worked - Brubeck's percussive chords playing off of Desmond's ethereal saxophone.

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BARCO: Brubeck's composition "The Duke" goes through 12 keys in the first eight bars. Desmond later said Brubeck's music combined jazz with the harmonic complexities of Bartok, the form of Bach and the lyrical romanticism of Rachmaninoff.

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BARCO: An international tour for the U.S. State Department in 1958 helped take Brubeck's compositions in a new direction. In Europe and the Middle East, the pianist absorbed new rhythms, one's not usually associated with jazz.

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BARCO: After scoring a top 40 hit with "Take Five" and playing around the world - sometimes as many as 250 shows a year - the quartet broke up in 1967, and Brubeck focused on composing. He wrote a jazz musical dealing with race relations, to ballets and a number of religious works inspired by his beliefs that music was the heartbeat that could bring people together.

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BARCO: Brubeck composed music in honor of Pope John Paul II and performed for U.S. presidents, from Kennedy to Clinton. The popularity of his music sometimes overshadowed the extent to which he was pushing musical boundaries in his compositions.

BRUBECK: The acceptance of it showed that you could go in and do something avant-garde, experimental and still have the public follow you.

BARCO: And it did, for more than 50 years. Dave Brubeck would've celebrated his 92nd birthday today.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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