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One of the biggest names in the world of jazz died today: Dave Brubeck. He was a favorite among millions of mans, a master of difficult meters who brought jazz to the mainstream in the 1950s and '60s. Brubeck died of heart failure in Norwalk, Connecticut, while on his way to a standard appointment with his cardiologist. Tomorrow would have been Dave Brubeck's 92nd birthday. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: He was more than a jazz pianist and composer. He was a star at a moment when the big bands were fading and rock 'n' roll was on the rise, and his group had a Top 40 hit: "Take Five."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET SONG "TAKE FIVE")

ULABY: But Dave Brubeck did not want to be a musician as a child in California. He hated to practice. He wanted to be a cowboy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DAVE BRUBECK: I wanted to be like my father who was a cattleman and a rodeo roper. He was my hero. And we moved to a 45,000-acre cattle ranch, and all summer I worked with my father.

ULABY: That's Brubeck in 1999 on WHYY's FRESH AIR. It was Brubeck's mother who was a musician, and she urged her son to go to college. His love of cows led him to enroll in a pre-veterinary program. He moved to music on the advice of the zoology professor. But Brubeck never bother to learn how to read the notes. His senior year, he got caught.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BRUBECK: The piano teacher, in five minutes, ran downstairs to the dean and said Brubeck can't read at all. So the dean said you're a disgrace to the conservatory and we can't graduate you. And when some of the younger teachers heard this, they went to the dean and they said you're making a big mistake because he writes the best counterpoint I've ever had, said Dr. Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Before the Dave Brubeck Quartet became an international sensation, he played with Army bands during World War II and found himself behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge. When he came back, he planned to become a classical musician and enrolled at Mills College with a famous teacher: composer Darius Milhaud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BRUBECK: And he would tell me don' give up jazz. He said, you can do that so well, why do you want to give it up and become a classical composer?

ULABY: But Brubeck saw himself, as he once said, as a composer who happened to play the piano. Although he loved experimentation, Brubeck decided with his first trio to stop performing original compositions and focus on applying his style to standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Dave Brubeck's elegant, modern approach found a following. The group added and lost members and toured the world under the auspices of the State Department. Brubeck appreciated the irregular meters he heard on tour and fought with Columbia Records over incorporating them into his group's 1959 album "Time Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BRUBECK: I was starting to do different time signatures, but the record companies were kind of leery of getting out of the usual dance tempos that were mostly 4/4 and an occasional waltz. So eventually, against their wishes, I forced them to put "Time Out" out, and it became the biggest seller they ever had in jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: "Time Out" became the first jazz record to sell a million copies. Dave Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine. His quartet - saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello - remained the most popular jazz group in the 1960s. It played as many as 250 shows a year and bucked conventions more meaningful than time signatures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BRUBECK: We had a huge following at black universities, Afro-American universities. We were really doing some work that people seemed to forget how hard it was to do, where you had to have a police escort to the concert. The president of the college refusing to let you go on and the students demanding you go on.

(APPLAUSE)

ULABY: And it wasn't just black universities. Dave Brubeck's integrated group brought jazz to young audiences. He was, for many Americans, their initiation into jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: In 1967, the Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up. Brubeck focused on composition. His work was inspired by religion, the civil rights movement, the students killed at Kent State. His popularity never waned, and he started performing with three of his sons - Darius, Danny and Chris - who spoke with NPR three years ago about his father's influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DARIUS BRUBECK: He just keeps performing, he keeps recording. You know, it's been an amazing life, and I'm so grateful to him that he bucked the ranch and became a musician, you know, at least when I wanted to become a musician, unlike his father who wanted him to become a cowboy and was disappointed he became a musician. I don't think Dave's disappointed in me becoming a musician at all. And, you know, there can't be anything too much more rewarding for a father and son to be working on a composition like this.

ULABY: The composition was a piece inspired by Dave Brubeck's western roots and the photographs of Ansel Adams. It was premiered by his hometown symphony in Stockton, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Over the course of his long life, Brubeck composed well over 500 pieces of music. Towards the end, he admitted to slowing down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BRUBECK: A few things about getting old that you have to adjust to. If I hold a pencil for hours like I used to making a score, my hands cramp up and I can't play the piano so well.

ULABY: So his son Chris, he told NPR, pitched in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

BRUBECK: He's got such a great musical imagination. As soon as I get home, he'll say, Dad, come over and listen to what I've just done or he'll play it to me when I'm on the road. He'll play it on the phone. He always seems to do something better than I would've done it.

ULABY: Dave Brubeck is survived by five of his children and his wife Iola, who he married in 1942. When asked once what jazz was all about, Brubeck said dialogue. It's answering one another. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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