Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), designated a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, was one of the most active and popular musicians in both the jazz and classical worlds. With a career that spanned over six decades, his experiments in odd time signatures, improvised counterpoint, polyrhythm and polytonality remain hallmarks of innovation.
Born in Concord, California, he began piano lessons with his mother at age four. In 1946, he enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, California to study composition with French composer, Darius Milhaud who encouraged him to incorporate jazz elements into his compositions. In 1949, Brubeck with Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty, cut their first award-winning Dave Brubeck Trio recordings. In 1951, Dave formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and the legendary Brubeck-Desmond collaboration lasted seventeen years and beyond.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s recordings and concert appearances on college campuses in the ‘50s and early ‘60s introduced jazz to thousands of young people. The group also played in jazz clubs in every major city and toured with such artists as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz. In 1954 Dave Brubeck’s portrait appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with a story about the jazz renaissance and Brubeck’s phenomenal ascendancy.
The 1959 recording “Time Out” experimented in time signatures beyond the usual jazz 4/4. “Time Out” became the first jazz album to sell over a million copies and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Take Five” (now in the Grammy Hall of Fame) began to appear on jukeboxes throughout the world.
His first orchestral composition, “Elementals“, written for an improvising jazz combo and symphony orchestra was premiered and recorded in 1962. Choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, “Elemental Brubeck” is currently in the repertoire of the San Francisco Ballet and several other dance companies.
Throughout his career Brubeck experimented with integrating jazz into classical forms. In 1959 his Quartet premiered and recorded his brother Howard’s “Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra” with the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting. In 1960 he composed “Points on Jazz” for the American Ballet Theatre, and in later decades composed for and toured with the Murray Louis Dance Company. His musical theater piece “The Real Ambassadors” starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae was recorded and performed to great acclaim at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.
Since the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s first appearance at a State Dinner for King Hussein of Jordan during the Johnson administration, Brubeck performed at The White House on several occasions and for many different Presidents.
Throughout his career Brubeck continued to experiment with interweaving jazz and classical music. He performed as composer-performer with most of the major orchestras in the United States and with prestigious choral groups and orchestras in Europe and America.
Brubeck has received many national and international honors, including the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Medal, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Brubeck received the Distinguished Arts Award from the Ford Honors program of the University of Michigan and in 2006 received from Notre Dame their highest honor, the Laetare Medal. He was a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University, and was presented with the Sanford Medal by the Yale School of Music.
In the year 2000 the National Endowment for the Arts declared Dave Brubeck a Jazz Master. He was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2009, Dave was honored to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Award, which President Barack Obama bestowed on him on his 89th birthday.