Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday at age 91, is being remembered as a pioneering jazz pianist and bandleader but also a composer whose large-scale symphonic and choral works expanded music's possibilities.
In the mid 1950s, Brubeck started working on parallel career tracks. He achieved pop-star acclaim with jazz hits like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and also began symphony orchestra collaborations that prefigured today's "crossover" projects. One of the first efforts came in 1956, when the Dave Brubeck Quartet shared a "Jazz Jamboree" event with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium in Manhattan. The program drew 21,000 fans.
In 1959, Brubeck, Bernstein and the Philharmonic took their collaboration a step further. In a program at Carnegie Hall, the Brubeck Quartet joined the orchestra in Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, a composition by Dave’s brother Howard Brubeck. They recorded the piece the next year for CBS; it presaged a steady stream of Dave Brubeck’s own symphonic and choral compositions.
In a 1984 interview on WQXR, Brubeck told host Bob Sherman that his early interest in classical music came from his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a piano teacher who once studied with Dame Myra Hess. After service in World War II, Brubeck studied composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. Milhaud helped to shape Brubeck's penchant for classical structures (unusual time signatures, polytonality) and critics would later identify a classical elegance in the pianist's tone and phrasing.
Among Brubeck's most successful "jazz-meets-symphony" projects was Elementals (1962), a kaleidoscopic suite that grew out of an arranger's workshop at the Eastman School of Music. He later recorded it with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Brubeck also wrote for chorus. His 1969 cantata, Gates of Justice contemplated the historic struggles of Jews and blacks. The texts include a mixture of traditional Hebrew and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was recently assassinated. In 2004, he told WNYC's Sara Fishko: "I think people are aware enough of how bad off the world is if we don't behave, and a piece like the 'Gates of Justice' is full of what they should be doing."
Brubeck continued to fuse classical music and jazz throughout his career, occasionally appearing as a soloist with orchestras. In 2002, the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices released a double CD featuring several of his works.
"Composition is selective improvisation," Brubeck told WQXR's Sherman, paraphrasing Igor Stravinsky. He added his own provocative twist that emphasized jazz's stature. "The true jazz musicians are the true [composers] – and the people who say they play classical usually don’t because they don’t improvise."
Below: Brubeck performed with the London Symphony and several of his musician sons in a 2000 birthday tribute.