The pioneering jazz pianist, famous for Take Five, made classical music swing.

(December 6, 1920 — December 5, 2012)

Pioneering American jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck has passed away. The jazz legend, who had a hit with Take Five, died from heart failure on December 5, just one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Born in Concord, California, Brubeck had his first introduction to classical music with his piano teacher mother, and went on to study at Mills College with French composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck became one of the leading exponents of progressive jazz, achieving the first million-selling jazz album in 1959 with the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out. Still counted among one of the essential, best-loved jazz records ever released, the LP opens with Blue Rondo à la Turk, a play on Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. The track was revolutionary in jazz for its 9/8 flowing rhythm (nine beats to the measure instead of the usual two, three or four in most standards).

The album also features Take Five (in 5/4 time), which became the Quartet’s signature theme. Composed by Brubeck’s saxophonist partner Paul Desmond, Take Five made the Billboard singles chart in 1961. The breakout release, full of unorthodox time signatures and exotic rhythms, was a sensation. Many of Brubeck’s jazz peers criticised the tune, claiming the music didn’t swing, but the public didn’t mind. “You never know what’s going to work,” said Brubeck. “You just go with what you believe in, whether it’s a success or not. I knew Time Out was going to work. I knew it worked musically, and the audience liked it.” His music found a huge audience, winning millions of new jazz fans.

Brubeck was an iconic figure, the first jazz musician to be depicted on the cover of Time magazine in 1954. He was always up for a new challenge, whether composing a jazz-opera version of the John Steinbeck novel Cannery Row, collaborating with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma or writing a score for Pope John Paul II’s visit to San Francisco in 1987. He often imbued jazz structures with an overall arching classical form or incorporated fugues into his playing, calling himself “a composer who plays the piano”. Brubeck was the subject of a documentary film by Clint Eastwood called Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way, in 2010.