Jazz Master Dave Brubeck Dies at 91

PHOTO: Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck poses for a portrait in New York City, New York.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck poses for a portrait in New York City, New York.

Dave Brubeck, a jazz performer responsible for popular standards such as "Take Five" and "Time Out," has died. He was 91.

The Associated Press, quoting his long-time manger and producer, Russell Gloyd, says Brubeck died of heart failure Wednesday at Norwalk Hospital, in Norwalk, Conn.

Brubeck emerged as one of America's best-known jazz musicians in the 1950s and later became one of the profession's best-paid, most widely travelled musicians in the world. One of the first jazz performers to employ and integrate jazz and classical elements, he reached pop-star status in the 1960s and is still widely considered one of the most acclaimed jazz musicians ever.

Despite his age, Brubeck still performed, including concerts as late as 2011. A 2010 performance at the Blue Note in New York City came just a month after he received a pacemaker.

In 1999 Brubeck was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2009 he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his contribution to American culture.

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Brubeck was the second jazz musician featured on the cover of Time magazine, in 1954. "Take Five," written by saxophonist Paul Desmond and performed by The Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959, became the first jazz single to sell a million copies. The now iconic piece, famous for its distinctive catchy saxophone melody, is still one of Brubeck's best-known records, showing off the artist's distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility.

"He led one of the most successful quartets in the history of jazz without pandering to either popular or critical dictates," the Jazz Journal wrote of Brubeck in 1958. "Far from being a born jazz man, Brubeck is a creative artist, an artist who uses jazz as his means of self-impression and as a source of unbounded inspiration," the magazine wrote.

Brubeck's first jazz recordings date back to 1949, but it was in the late 1950s and the 1960s that critics and jazz fans began to take notice. Along with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, he composed and performed pieces that took him well outside the accepted boundaries of jazz. As a pianist, he applied the classical influences of his teacher, the French master Darius Milhaud, to jazz, playing with an elegance of tone and phrase that supposedly were the antithesis of the American sound.

David Warren Brubeck grew up near San Francisco and began playing piano from the age of four. His mother was a piano teacher and choir director at a nearby church and introduced her son to various styles of classical music. After college and a stint in the Army, Brubeck began recording music full-time, although with little commercial success.

His break came in 1949 when San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons began broadcasting recordings by Brubeck's group, then called the Dave Brubeck Trio. After heavy rotation on jazz radio and acclaimed performances in the Bay Area, fans polled in "Down Beat" and "Metronome" magazines in 1949 voted the Dave Brubeck Trio the best new instrumental group of the year.

The group added alto saxophonist Paul Desmond to the mix in 1954 and the new Dave Brubeck Quartet's first album on Columbia, "Jazz Goes to College," became one of the 10 top-selling albums of 1954, and later that year Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Brubeck was also at the forefront of racial integration, playing black jazz clubs throughout the deep South in the '50s, a point of pride for him.

"For as long as I've been playing jazz, people have been trying to pigeonhole me," he once told the Chicago Tribune. "Frankly, labels bore me."

Brubeck is survived by his wife, Iola; four sons and a daughter.