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An American Jazz Icon, Pianist Dave Brubeck, Dead at 91

By Dale Eisinger   |   Wednesday, 05 Dec 2012 01:15 PM

Dave Brubeck, the vastly influential jazz piano player who achieved international acclaim by challenging the musical genre’s conventions, died Wednesday of heart failure in Norwalk, Conn., his manager told the Chicago Tribune. Thursday would have been Brubeck’s 92nd birthday.

Brubeck was able to break rules of rhythm and composition in jazz music while remaining almost effortlessly palatable.

This was best exemplified by his most famous compositions, “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” songs that many critics say altered listeners’ sense of time by using unconventional musical meters and tones in fascinating ways for average listeners.

With his quartet, playing mainly in the West Coast and cool jazz styles, Brubeck took jazz music to a simultaneously intellectually elevated and marketable level. His simultaneously catchy and mind-bending tunes opened the jazz world to countless fans that otherwise would have never paid attention to the genre.

When he broke out of the quartet in 1967, Brubeck composed extended choral and symphonic works that took him beyond the boundaries of jazz. He was a champion of human rights and integration and played many jazz clubs throughout the South during deeply segregated times.

Brubeck was universally heralded for his contributions to culture. In 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bestowed Brubeck with a Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy. "We recognize Dave Brubeck for offering a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American," a statement released at the time said.

In 2009, he was among the annual recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., and was given an honorable doctorate from Berklee College of Music. He was named a University of Notre Dame Laureate in 2006. In 1999, the Smithsonian Institution cataloged an oral history of the musician as part of its Jazz Master program.

Brubeck was born in California and spent much of his life there. He is survived by his wife, Iola, his five children, and his grandchildren.

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