RIP Dave Brubeck: 5 Things You Might Not Know About the Jazz Legend

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Legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck passed away this morning in Connecticut, one day short of his 92nd birthday. Here are five things you might not have known about the Kennedy Center Honoree, jazz standards composer, and leader of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

1. His College Degree Came With a Catch

Brubeck enrolled at what's now University of the Pacific in 1938 with plans to study veterinary medicine. He eventually switched his major to music, though, and he tore through his classes until he had to enroll in keyboard instruction his senior year. At that point, Brubeck had to admit to his professor that he couldn't read a single note of music, even though he played jazz as well as anyone.

Brubeck's professor and dean informed him that they couldn't let a student graduate with a music degree if he couldn't read music. Brubeck shrugged off their worries by saying he didn't care about reading music; he just wanted to play jazz. Brubeck's other teachers protested that he was a very gifted musician even if he couldn't read music, so the dean cut a deal with the jazz man: Brubeck could graduate, but only if he promised never to teach music and embarrass the school by revealing his shortcoming. Brubeck later laughingly told the website JazzWax, "I kept that promise ever since, even when I was starving." He did learn to read music later in life.

2. He Narrowly Avoided the Battle of the Bulge

Brubeck served under General George Patton during World War II, and he nearly fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Before his unit was sent to the front lines, though, Brubeck and his fellow soldiers got a visit from a Red Cross show. The show needed volunteer pianists, and Brubeck signed up. He tickled the keys so dazzlingly that the Army pulled him out of his unit so he could form a jazz band to entertain the troops. He spent the rest of the war touring various camps with no fewer than three liberated pianos and an integrated band known as the Wolfpack.

3. He Was a Jazzy Diplomat

From the 1950s on, the Dave Brubeck Quartet toured the world on behalf of the State Department. Brubeck and his bandmates cultivated jazz fans in unlikely places such as Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan. Brubeck became such an ambassador for Western life that the New Yorker later ran the joke, "Whenever (Secretary of State) John Foster Dulles visits a country, the State Department sends the Brubeck quartet in a few weeks later to repair the damage."

Brubeck's tunes may even have helped end the Cold War. When Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev found themselves at an impasse during 1988 disarmament talks in Moscow, the Gipper called in the big guns: the Dave Brubeck Quartet. By the time Brubeck and his boys closed their set with "Take Five," even Gorbachev was drumming his fingers on the table in time with the tune. Brubeck quipped to the press, "I can't understand Russian, but I can understand body language." A breakthrough in the talks finally came the next day. Coincidence? Well, the song is pretty catchy.

4. He Could Pull Off a Whirlwind Courtship

When Brubeck went to college, he promised his mother that he'd go to at least one dance with a young lady. Since he didn't have much interest in going, he got a buddy to set him up with the smartest girl they could find. As Brubeck later reminisced, his reasoning was, "[I]f I've got to go to this dance, I'd at least want it to be interesting." They found a whip-smart coed named Iola Whitlock who agreed to be Brubeck's date.

You'd think a jazzman would be crazy about dancing, but Brubeck and Iola spent most of the evening chatting in his car. By the time the dance was over, the couple had decided to get engaged. Smart move by Brubeck: he and Iola have been married since 1942 and have six children. Iola serves as Brubeck's manager, lyricist, and occasional writing partner.

5. He Upstaged Duke Ellington on the Cover of Time

In 1954, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Duke Ellington were touring the country and helping to turn jazz into a national phenomenon. The media paid attention, and Time dispatched a reporter to write a story about the tour. It was never quite clear which musician was going to be pictured on the cover, though. In the end, the editors gave Brubeck the nod, and he saw the first copy during the tour's stop in Denver.

Brubeck later told PBS that seeing himself on the cover rather than Ellington was a bit disturbing. He had long idolized Ellington, so he felt a little conflicted about stealing the spotlight from his hero. Brubeck modestly explained, "He was so much more important than I was...he deserved to be first."

This article originally appeared in 2010.

December 5, 2012 - 6:52am
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