Seeing pianist Dave Brubeck in recent years -- onstage, say, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, striding with his band through "Take Five," his most famous tune -- one might have thought he would play forever. That thick shock of white hair. That electric smile. Those sturdy fingers on the keys.
But Brubeck, one of the legends of jazz and modern American music, died Wednesday in Norwalk, Conn., a day short of his 92nd birthday. He was on his way to a doctor's appointment with his son Darius, also a musician. And so ended the life of this musical voyager, who was born in Concord, grew up the son of an East Bay cattle rancher, took piano lessons from his mother, and went on to become the composer of jazz standards, ballet music and cantatas, active until a fine old age. On the cover of Time magazine in 1954, he was the recipient of many honors, including the National Medal of Arts in 1994.
A born communicator, he famously said, "One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It's the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat."
Brubeck studied at the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific) in Stockton. He originally planned to be a veterinarian -- he couldn't read music at the time -- but eventually followed his heart to conservatory studies. He graduated in 1942, played with the Army band at Camp Haan in Southern California, briefly served overseas in George Patton's Third Army and was steered away from the front by a commanding officer who appreciated his piano skills. Instead, he played for the troops and later wound up at Mills College in Oakland. There he studied under the jazz-infatuated French composer Darius Milhaud.
Over the years, Brubeck became famous for incorporating complex rhythms and harmonies into his tunes. His goals were "to play polytonally and polyrhythmically," he once said. After founding the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, an Army buddy, he followed through with hits that achieved that goal: "Take Five" (composed by Desmond) is in 5/4 rhythm, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (penned by Brubeck and loosely based on a Mozart theme) is in 9/8.
But that makes his music sound academic. Truth is, it was accessible. His tunes were played on jukeboxes around the country; "Take Five" was the first jazz single to sell 1 million copies. Brubeck believed in jazz that worked on a variety of levels. Musicians could argue about "poly" this and "poly" that; listeners -- and Brubeck himself -- would be busy tapping their feet to the rhythm of the hits.
In an age of experimentation, he did something rare: "He made the avant-garde into something fun and lighthearted," wrote jazz historian and former Stanford University lecturer Ted Gioia upon the 50th anniversary, in 2009, of Brubeck's landmark album "Time Out."
For all his mainstream success, Brubeck was often taken to task by critics, some of whom thought his playing "bombastic." Yet musicians as universally regarded as Miles Davis helped turn his tunes into standards: the lilting "In Your Own Sweet Way," as well as "The Duke," which runs through 12 keys in its first eight measures, but is easy to whistle.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Jazz at Oberlin," recorded live at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1953, climbed the charts, and the group toured the globe. When Brubeck was honored by Time's cover story, he wondered why the honor hadn't gone to Duke Ellington, whom he considered a far greater musician than himself. He was said to believe the honor was due to his being white.
Honors often seemed to embarrass him. In 2007, asked how he felt about being given the title of "Living Legend" by the Smithsonian Institution, he said, "I'm always surprised, because I don't think of myself like that. You know, there are so many other people who would be more deserving."
Brubeck spent his early years in a house on Colfax Avenue, near Willow Pass Road, in Concord, listening to his mother play classical piano. The family moved to a ranch in Ione, where Dave heard cowboy tunes that he remembered into old age. He had many inspirations, but none more important than Iola Whitlock, the coed he met at College of the Pacific. In a 2007 interview with the San Jose Mercury News, he remembered their first meeting: "A dance at a fraternity house. We danced once around the floor, and both of us agreed, 'Let's get out of here.' And we went to my old car, a '37 Chevy, and we went and parked by the levee -- and decided to get married after three hours.
"She and I just agreed on what we wanted out of our lives. I had gone with other girls and never had a conversation that was so deep."
They married in 1942 and had six children, four of them musicians. In the early days, Iola Brubeck was his manager. Through their 70-year marriage, she was his collaborator, writing lyrics to many of his songs and works, including "The Real Ambassadors," a collaboration with Louis Armstrong that addressed race relations, and "Cannery Row Suite," based on the John Steinbeck novel and presented at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. "She was really his guiding light," said Tim Jackson, the festival's artistic director. "Oh, man, they were just so locked in. What an inspiration, to see them together."
The family moved in 1960 to Wilton, Conn., as Brubeck's career had become heavily East Coast-oriented. Often on the road, he played in 1988 for Mikhail Gorbachev at a dinner in Moscow that then-President Ronald Reagan hosted for the Soviet leader. "I can't understand Russian, but I can understand body language," said Brubeck, after seeing the general secretary tapping his foot.
In the late 1980s, Brubeck contributed music for one episode for the television special "This Is America, Charlie Brown," the episode involving NASA and the space station. He collaborated with three of his sons -- Chris on bass trombone and electric bass, Dan on drums and Matthew on cello -- and included excerpts from his Mass "To Hope! A Celebration," his oratorio "A Light in the Wilderness," and a piece he had composed but never recorded, "Quiet as the Moon."
In 1992 he told The Associated Press, "That's the beauty of music: 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."
In 2009 at age 88, Brubeck was still touring, despite a viral infection that threatened his heart and made him miss an April show at the University of the Pacific, to which he had donated his archives.
He remained a modest and open-minded man to the end. In 2007, when this writer asked him if he listened to hip-hop, he answered, "I don't think so, though my grandkids are always listening. But I learned from Duke Ellington; we were being interviewed, and they asked us what we thought of rock 'n' roll, and I was really kind of not a big fan of rock 'n' roll early on. But Duke's answer, I'll never forget, was, 'It must be good, or the American public wouldn't go for it so much.' "
Jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, 28, who grew up in Menlo Park and was mentored by Brubeck from age 12, recently visited "Uncle Dave," as he called him, at his Connecticut home: "He's my model for how to be a musician and live your life. Treat everyone equally. ... Spend time with your family. Have a good sense of humor. He was hilarious. And he just continued to make music. He was writing operas and choir music when he was 88 years old. I want to be like that."