In this Dec. 6, 2009, file photo, Kennedy Center honoree Dave Brubeck stands for the National Anthem at the Kennedy Center Honors. Brubeck, a pioneering jazz composer and pianist, died Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Updated: January 7, 2013 7:19AM
HARTFORD, Conn. — Jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, whose pioneering style in pieces such as “Take Five” caught listeners’ ears with exotic, challenging rhythms, has died. He was 91.
Mr. Brubeck, who lived in Wilton, died Wednesday morning at Norwalk Hospital of heart failure after being stricken while on his way to a cardiology appointment, said his manager Russell Gloyd. Mr. Brubeck would have turned 92 on Thursday.
He had a career that spanned almost all American jazz since World War II. He formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 and he helped define the swinging, smoky rhythms of 1950s and ’60s club jazz.
George Wein, a jazz pianist and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, had known Mr. Brubeck since he first worked in Wein’s club in Boston in 1952.
“No one else played like Dave Brubeck,” he said. “No one had the approach to the music that he did. That approach communicated.” Brubeck “represented the best that we can have in jazz,” he added. “The quality of his persona helped every other jazz musician.”
Mr. Brubeck played Chicago often on tour, and was the first jazz act at the opening of the remodeled Symphony Center in October 1997.
Symphony Center director of programming Jim Fahey, who booked that performance, recalled the musician’s crossover appeal.
“A big part of that would have been his personality on stage and off stage,” Fahey said.. “He always came across as being an enthusiastic and warm human being. Certainly that was the experience I had with him. But he brought that humanity to his performances along with a great deal of passion. He last played here in 2007 and his health had not been the best, but his performances were outstanding. He would get behind the piano and be revitalized.”
“We had him here once on a corporate night we do as a fund-raiser. So I got to hear some of his pieces arranged for orchestra as well as some of the pieces he wrote for orchestra, which was always great. He was such a prolific composer.”
The seminal album “Time Out,” released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959, was the first ever million-selling jazz LP, and is still among the best-selling jazz albums of all time. It opens with “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in 9/8 time — nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats. A piano-and-saxophone whirlwind based loosely on a Mozart piece, “Blue Rondo” eventually intercuts between piano and a more traditional 4/4 jazz rhythm.
The album also features “Take Five” — in 5/4 time — which became the quartet’s signature theme and even made the Billboard singles chart in 1961. It was composed by Mr. Brubeck’s longtime saxophonist, Paul Desmond.
“When you start out with goals — mine were to play polytonally and polyrhythmically — you never exhaust that,” Mr. Brubeck told the Associated Press in 1995. “I started doing that in the 1940s. It’s still a challenge to discover what can be done with just those two elements.”
In later years, Mr. Brubeck composed music for operas, ballet, even a contemporary mass.
In the late 1980s, he contributed music for one episode of an eight-part series of television specials, “This Is America, Charlie Brown.”
His music was for an episode involving NASA and the space station. He worked 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.”
“That’s the beauty of music,” he told the AP in 1992. “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 2006, the University of Notre Dame gave Mr. Brubeck its Laetare Medal, awarded each year to a Roman Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
In 1996, he won a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys and in 2009, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.
Numerous jazz musicians were scheduled to participate in a birthday concert in Mr. Brubeck’s honor that had been scheduled for Thursday in Waterbury, Conn. The show will go on as a tribute concert. His son Darius, an acclaimed pianist, was among those scheduled to perform along with saxophonist Richie Cannata, and Bernie Williams, former New York Yankees star and a jazz guitarist.
Born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6, 1920, Mr. Brubeck actually had planned to become a rancher like his father. He attended the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific) in 1938, intending to major in veterinary medicine and return to the family’s 45,000-acre spread.
But within a year, he was drawn to music. He graduated in 1942 and was drafted by the Army, where he served — mostly 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 mini-series “Jazz,” Mr. 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.
Mr. Brubeck and his wife, Iola, had five sons and a daughter.