Dave Brubeck, who has died one day short of his 92nd birthday, was the musician who made modern jazz palatable for mainstream listeners. He had a million-selling, top 20 hit with Take Five and became one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century.
He was born in Concord, California to a musical family and started played the piano when he was just four. He had wanted to be a cattleman but, by his teens, he was playing in local dance halls and eventually gave up on veterinary studies and took up a musical course instead. There his talent shone through and he knocked off any rough edges by playing long hours in jazz clubs.
He graduated in 1942 and was drafted into the forces, serving in France. A colonel, on hearing him play an impromptu session, suggested he concentrate on playing music, because of the beneficial effect it had on the troops' morale. After the war, he returned to the US to study classical music, but the tug of jazz was still strong.
He had briefly met a young saxophonist, Paul Desmond, while in the forces and in 1947 he and Desmond teamed up in a jazz octet in San Francisco. But Desmond left, the band broke up and a frustrated Brubeck formed his own trio in 1949. When they began to play clubs, Desmond returned on the scene and started to guest with them. Brubeck was a bit irked at Desmond, and it is interesting that one of jazz music's greatest combinations had such a shaky start.
In interviews for his 80th birthday, Brubeck underlined the prickly nature of their early relationship. "I didn't want him to join us. We were an award-winning trio, we were hot." And he recounted how he told his wife: "If that Paul Desmond phones the house, tell him I'm not at home"
That view softened, however, and Desmond's persistence and talent paid off. Also, the trio stalled as Brubeck suffered a neck injury which led to him not being able to play for six months. And so a legendary jazz coupling was born. The contrast between Paul Desmond's wistful lyrical playing and Dave Brubeck's sharp, staccato rhythms, was a winning and memorable combination.
Brubeck, of course, had more to his piano playing than sharp staccato rhythms and pieces such as Brandenburg Gate, The Duke and Strange Meadow Lark show the true range of his mastery of chord structure.
Brubeck also had a keen commercial nose. He formed his own record label, Fantasy Records, in the early 1950s and spoke at length about the commercial aspects of his recordings. "When I signed for Columbia Records my objective was to make money so I could have artistic freedom."
Success showered upon the Brubeck quartet. Between 1957 and 1967 they had their golden years and laid down their recording legacy. In 1959 they released Time Out, an innovative album which strayed from the conventional 4/4 beat and explored different time sequences. Take Five is the most famous track but others such as Blue Rondo, A La Turk and Kathy's Waltz became classics. During these years of success, Brubeck undertook arduous worldwide tours and in so doing spread the gospel of jazz. The venues he visited include the Odeon in Glasgow.
The classic quartet, which also included Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums, broke up in 1967 and Brubeck turned more to writing music. For some years he also played with a jazz friend Gerry Mulligan. Many honours followed and Brubeck formed a new band with sons Dan, Darius and Chris, all of whom became jazz musicians.
He still toured and returned to Glasgow. A memorable concert at the SECC in 1998 found the quartet format re-established, with Joe Millitello taking over the saxophone role with considerable success. A concert in April 2003 marked his final Glasgow appearance.
The affection and respect in which he was held in the UK was shown in the award of a BBC Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. He was also honoured with a White House reception for his 89th birthday in 2009. A year later, as he pushed 90, there were rave reviews for his playing with the Cleveland Philarmonic Orchestra. He is survived by his wife Iola and sons Dan, Darius and Chris.