Dave Brubeck was 91 when he died of heart failure Wednesday morning, but for many friends and colleagues, it came as a surprise -- after all, the legendary jazz man and longtime Wilton resident never stopped playing.
Brubeck's dedication was on striking display in 2010 after he underwent pacemaker surgery at Bridgeport Hospital. Doctors remembered that in the midst of his recovery, Brubeck asked that a keyboard be brought to his hospital room.
"He said, 'I have to keep practicing. I have concerts to do,' " David Antignani, chief and senior administrative physician assistant in cardiac surgery at Bridgeport Hospital recalled.
After being discharged, he was on his way out when he spotted a piano in the hospital lobby. Elated at the sight, Brubeck gave an impromptu concert, performing "Thank You," one of his originals, and "Home, Sweet Home," as employees sang along.
"I thought he was a very humble man -- very down to earth," Antignani said. "You could tell he was dedicated to his craft and to his music."
In the wake of Brubeck's death just one day short of his 92nd birthday, friends and colleagues remembered the jazz titan for his boundless warmth and energy, a man just as dedicated to his craft as he was to his family, friends and community.
"He was dynamic and compassionate; he cared so much," said Elissa Getto, who became friends with Brubeck during his time teaching the Wilton High School Madrigal Singers, whom she directed in the late 1970s and 1980s. "It's such a huge loss."
Brubeck's manager, Russell Gloyd, announced on Wednesday morning the pianist had died en route to a cardiology appointment with his son, Darius.
In a career that spanned almost all of American jazz since World War II, Brubeck achieved mainstream success with his exotic, classical-inspired rhythms that broke the boundaries of jazz.
In 1954, he became the first contemporary jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Five years later, his group, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, scored a massive hit with "Time Out." The album, which featured the instantly-recognizable "Take Five," became the first platinum-selling jazz record.
Brubeck was at the forefront of integration, forming one of the U.S. military's first racially mixed bands. His tours have taken him all over the planet, from college campuses to the U.S.S.R.
Brubeck continued to perform and compose into his 80s, saying in 2010 his schedule was so packed he often wrote music on the treadmill.
"I'm so busy, I'm just trying to keep up with the mail," he joked. "The only way I have the time to practice and exercise is to have an electric piano at shoulder level. Otherwise, I wouldn't get any exercise."
Sally White, owner of Sally's Place record store in Westport, said his influence is unmistakable.
"We're talking about a jazz giant," said White, who has known Brubeck for 40 years. "To this day, kids who come into the store -- 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds -- will see Dave's albums and pick them up."
Brubek's friends and neighbors cherish him for his contributions to his community. After moving from California with his family in 1960, Brubeck collaborated with local groups, performed benefits for educational causes and wrote original works for music curriculums across Connecticut.
He went so far as to build a concert venue, the Wilton Library's Brubeck Room, six years ago.
His attachment to his community began in the late 1970s, when he taught the Wilton High School Madrigal Singers some of his works, including "Variations on Pange Lingua" and "How Does Your Garden Grow." Brubeck urged students to rise above their expectations. He inspired Getto as well.
"He's the reason why I stayed in teaching for as long as I did," said Getto, who went onto to become executive director of the Stamford Center for the Arts from 2009 to 2012. "Here I was, just this little choral conductor, but Dave was so encouraging. What a tremendous, creative, loving presence he was."
In 2010, he worked with the Ridgefield High School Orchestra on the U.S. premier of "Regret," a classical piece. Mitch Farber, the orchestra director at the time, remembered him as a "great human being as well as a great musician."
"They say no man is a hero to his valet, but Dave was an exception because he was a hero to everyone he worked with," he said.
In addition, Brubeck has performed at benefits for organizations such as Jazz'd 4 Life, a jazz education organization founded by his daughter, Catherine.
Brubeck was recognized for his service two years ago when the nonprofit Stamford Center for the Arts honored him with its first-ever Arts Legacy Award. Though he had previously been given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the local honor carried special significance.
"When I'm playing for friends and neighbors, it's when I get the most nervous," Brubeck said at the time. "You hate to get egg on your face when you're playing for people you know."
Born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6, 1920, Brubeck had planned to become a rancher like his father. He attended the College of the Pacific in 1938, intending to major in veterinary medicine and return to the family's 45,000-acre farm.
But his mother, an aspiring concert pianist, had already planted the music seed by giving her son several piano lessons. Brubeck graduated in 1942 and was drafted by the Army, where he served as a musician under Gen. George S. Patton in Europe. At the time, his Wolfpack Band was the only racially integrated unit in the military.
In an interview for Ken Burns' PBS miniseries "Jazz," Brubeck talked about playing for troops with his integrated band, only to return to the U.S. to see his black bandmates refused service in a restaurant in Texas.
Brubeck and his wife, Iola, had five sons and a daughter. Four of his sons -- Chris on trombone and electric bass, Dan on drums, Darius on keyboards and Matthew on cello -- played with the London Symphony Orchestra in a birthday tribute to Brubeck in December 2000 and later, at a surprise performance for their father when he was recognized at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors.
For Brubeck's sons, playing for their father was a fitting tribute.
"The best education that I had from my dad was not through a traditional, active way of teaching -- it was playing on stage with him and hearing him play in great concert hall all over the world," Chris Brubeck said.
After service in World War II, Brubeck formed an octet with alto saxaphonist Paul Desmond, his longtime collaborator, which later evolved into the Quartet.
In later years, Brubeck composed music for operas, ballet, even a contemporary Mass. In 1988, he played for Mikhail Gorbachev, at a dinner in Moscow that 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.
Even after his death, there's a chance the jazz giant is still hot on the keys. In a 2010 interview, he envisioned an afterlife where he'd again see his family and musician friends, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
"If there's a heaven," Brubeck said, "let it be a good place for all of us to jam together and have a wonderful, wonderful musical experience."
Staff writer Amanda Cuda, correspondent Harold Davis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.