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Dave Brubeck, who thrilled record Ottawa audiences, dies at age 91

Dave Brubeck's music spilled out to a huge crowd at the 2007 Ottawa Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2007 Dave Brubeck, the renowned jazz pianist who enthralled huge Ottawa jazz audiences twice in the last five years, died Wednesday of heart failure, according to the New York Times. He was one day short of his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck was both a consistent innovator and popularizer of jazz. Starting in the late 40s, his experiments with new rhythmic and compositional styles – particularly odd meters like 5/4 and 9/8 in some of his most popular pieces – took jazz in new directions. Along with his musical partner, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, he was the best-known proponent of the West Coast Cool Jazz style with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Several of the quartet's recordings, including Desmond's “Take Five” and Brubeck's “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “In Your Own Sweet Way”, are jazz classics – and crossed over at the time to become pop hits as well.

But, as Ottawa audiences heard in 2007 and in 2010, Brubeck was never content to play just the old stuff. He continued to compose well into his 80s. In 2006, a mini-opera he composed based on John Steinbeck's Cannery Row was presented at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Brubeck was a jazz ambassador for the United States, and the music he heard while on his frequent tours influenced his own, most obviously with "Blue Rondo à la Turk”. His quartet toured the Soviet Union in 1987 after decades of trying to get there – one of the rare American jazz groups to do so. Brubeck accompanied President Reagan to Moscow to perform at the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in 1988.

In 2007, Brubeck's appearance with his quartet at the Ottawa Jazz Festival drew an estimated 9,700 listeners to Confederation Park. In 2010, he played with his quartet and the NAC Orchestra; the park was near capacity, with a crowd estimated at 10,500. Although Brubeck let others handle the spoken introductions at that concert, he clearly looked happy and played energetically, and flashed a big grin at the audience at the end. [review]

He is survived by his one daughter and four musical sons – one of whom lives in Guelph, Ontario. Cellist Matt Brubeck teaches at York University, and plays in several jazz groups, including the Stretch Orchestra with guitarist Kevin Breit and Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart. The Stretch Orchestra won a Juno for its first album in 2012.

    – Alayne McGregor

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