When the World Was ‘Mad About Brubeck’: Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

Dave Brubeck—recently called "the reigning elder statesman of jazz" by the Washington Post—died Wednesday in Connecticut on his way to a cardiology appointment, one day shy of his 92nd birthday. But he'll really outlast the apocalypse. Donald Fagen assured us so, in his classic song "New Frontier," where the Steely Dan singer, projecting himself back to the bop-crazed 1950s, sounded positively giddy about surviving a nuclear disaster in a fallout shelter. The end of the world as we knew it would feel fine, as long as a guy had his girl—and the jazzman—to weather the ultimate storm:

"I hear you're mad about Brubeck/ I like your eyes, I like him too/ He's an artist, a pioneer /We've got to have some music on the new frontier..."

Talk about pioneering: Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, as only the second jazz figure to earn such a pop-culture honor. The first had been Louis Armstrong, but the fact that Brubeck was able to do it without also being a vocalist or even a particularly outsized personality (although Time called him "a wigging cat with a far-out wail") spoke volumes about the revolution he was helping engineer. No longer was jazz just bar music; with Brubeck at the modest spiritual helm of the "cool jazz" phenomenon, it would be the stuff of highbrow suburban living rooms and classical concert halls… and boyhood beatnik fantasies, too.

Some of his highest honors came five decades or more after the Time magazine cover, like the Kennedy Center honor he received from President Obama in 2009—coincidentally, on his 89th birthday. He'd been the recipient of the National Medal of the Arts in 1994, followed by lifetime achievement awards from the Grammys and the National Endowment for the Arts.

But maybe the most telling honor for the pianist/bandleader was this: His 1959 album Time Out, after rising to No. 2 on the charts, became the first jazz long-player to sell a million copies.

That was thanks to "Take Five"—composed by Dave Brubeck Quartet member Paul Desmond—which achieved a rare, if not downright oxymoronic, success: "hit jazz single." Never mind that it was in 5/4 time: The instrumental was, from its first piano riff to Desmond's eventual alto saxophone "lead vocal," an undeniable smash. "Take Five" reached No. 25 on the pop charts in America and crossed over to the top 10 on the easy listening charts; in Britain, it went to No. 6. The tune eventually became the theme of NBC's Today show in the mid-'60s, as well as a future staple of commercials and movies.

Brubeck experienced heart failure on his way to a cardiology appointment Wednesday morning with his son Darius, announced Russell Gloyd, his longtime manager, producer, and conductor. Though Brubeck had his share of health problems, he'd been doing around 50 shows a year as recently as 2010, and about 80 a year circa 2008.

Darius, also a pianist, will perform Thursday night at a tribute concert in Waterbury, Connecticut—a show that will go on despite its change in status from the originally intended birthday celebration.

The son of a rancher, Brubeck was born in Concord, California on Dec. 6, 1920 and intended to ranch the homestead after college. But by the time he entered the Army in 1942, he was devoting himself to the piano instead, and he served as a musician in Patton's army, playing in the military's only racially integrated band. "There's not a day goes by when I don't think about what I saw then," he said in 1998. "When I got back home I began to play a much more aggressive, dissonant form of jazz"—a style that eventually turned back to the melodiousness a nation came to know and love, after some post-war decamping.

His mother, a classically trained piano teacher, initially disapproved of her son's interest in seemingly low-brow jazz, though she came to appreciate the error of her ways. It certainly didn't hurt, in her eyes, that he went on to compose and adapt music for operas and ballet, as jazz's image shifted to the stuff of high art. "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the opening track on Time Out and a jazz standard in its own right, even subtly riffed on Mozart. "That's the beauty of music," Brubeck told the Associated Press. "You can take a theme from a Bach sacred chorale and improvise. It doesn't make any difference where the theme comes from; the treatment of it can be jazz."

His recording career began at Fantasy Records in the late '40s, and it was the Dave Brubeck Quartet's first album as a combo, Jazz at Oberlin in 1953 that proved to be his real breakout. At that time, the Quartet was largely touring college campuses, helping give jazz an academic image well removed from its prior perception as strictly nightclub music. He moved on to even greater success after switching to the Columbia label the following year and issued bestsellers like Time Further Out (another top 10 seller) and a mid-'60s greatest-hits set.

His predilection for unusual time signatures didn't stand in the way of what could nearly be qualified as pop success. His key recordings were as much about the song as the performance or improvisation, which made his albums easily digestible for mass audiences, even if "Blue Rondo a la Turk" was in 9/8.

Brubeck felt bashful about being on the cover of Time. "I wanted Duke Ellington to have the cover before me," he told the London Independent in 1998. "We were on tour together in Denver, Colorado and there was a knock on the door at 7am. It was Duke and he was holding a copy of Time. 'Look!' he said. 'You're on the cover.' He was genuinely pleased for me, even though it should have been him. He had been the first person to get me a job in New York and later he insisted that I become a fellow at Yale."

Brubeck picked up the nickname "the Ambassador of Cool." And he really did have the resume and visa stamps of a designated cultural statesman. ""There is no American alive who has done more extensive and effective cultural diplomacy than Dave Brubeck," Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told the Washington Post in 2008—on the eve of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice betstowing upon him the inaugural Benjamin Franklin Award, "for civilian service to international cooperation." "Dave is not only one of the greatest living American artists," said Gioia, "he's also one of the greatest living American diplomats."

Brubeck played for President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow during a series of summit meetings in 1988. The tension was noticeably loosened up by Brubeck's set, and his manager liked to half-jokingly credit him for helping end the Cold War. ""The next day," Gloyd told the Post, "[Secretary of State] George Shultz broke through the ranks, gave Dave a big hug and said, 'Dave, you made the summit. No one was talking after three days. You made the breakthrough.' "

There was a knock against Brubeck: that "throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was the acceptable face of jazz for America's white middle classes," as the Independent put it. "Some people still haven't forgiven him for it." But holdouts on the real jazz scene were few and far between. "Generally, the guys who were on the cutting edge liked me," Brubeck told the paper. "Mingus, Parker, Kenton, Benny Carter, Miles Davis, Ellington; they were always very favourable. Cecil Taylor said I filled a gap, but he didn't say between what and what."

Fagen has said that the first jazz LP he ever bought was "probably the first jazz record a lot of people got, a Dave Brubeck record, Dave Brubeck at Newport, 1958—a great album, which I still have."

The Steely Dan frontman was far from the only celebrity mega-fan. In honor of Brubeck's 90th birthday, Clint Eastwood produced a documentary, Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way, broadcast on TCM in December 2010, featuring narration by Alec Baldwin and testimonials by figures from Sting to George Lucas. ""Clint has always had a particular fondness for Dave because they both come from Northern California," the director, Bruce Ricker, told Jazz Times. "And Dave was one of the people that Clint used to listen to all the time. I figured we could profile Dave through Clint's eyes as a storyteller and make Clint Johnny Appleseed or something."

The 90th birthday celebration two years ago resulted in a round of reappraisals and reissues, including the release of two more best-ofs, Sony Legacy's 21-track double CD Dave Brubeck: Legacy of a Legend (which could boast of song selection by Brubeck himself, and liner notes by Darius) and Concord Music's The Definitive Dave Brubeck on Fantasy, Concord Jazz and Telarc (with songs selected by Gloyd, Brubeck's manager/conductor ).

The documentary included footage from an interview Brubeck with the BBC in 1989, "dealing with this religious stuff," said Ricker, "when he starts talking about going to heaven and who's going to be there from jazz."

If there is a jazz heaven, as the saying goes, you know they've got one hell of a band... and they're surely vamping in 5/8 as we speak.