“That’s the beauty of music,” he told the AP in 1992. “You can take a theme from a Bach sacred chorale and improvise. It doesn’t make any difference where the theme comes from; the treatment of it can be jazz.”
In 2006, the University of Notre Dame gave Brubeck its Laetare Medal, awarded each year to a Roman Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
At the age of 88, in 2009, Brubeck was still touring, in spite of a viral infection that threatened his heart and made him miss an April show at his alma mater, the University of the Pacific.
By June, though, he was playing in Chicago, where the Tribune critic wrote that “Brubeck was coaxing from the piano a high lyricism more typically encountered in the music of Chopin.”
More acclaim came his way when it was announced that he would be a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors at a ceremony in late 2009.
Brubeck told the AP the announcement would have delighted his late mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist who was initially disappointed by her youngest son’s interest in jazz. (He added that she had lived long enough to come to appreciate his music.)
Born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6, 1920, Brubeck actually had planned to become a rancher like his father. He attended the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific) in 1938, intending to major in veterinary medicine and return to the family’s 45,000-acre spread.
But within a year Brubeck was drawn to music. He graduated in 1942 and was drafted by the Army, where he served — mostly as a musician — under Gen. George S. Patton in Europe. At the time, his Wolfpack Band was the only racially integrated unit in the military.
In an interview for Ken Burns’ PBS miniseries “Jazz,” Brubeck talked about playing for troops with his integrated band, only to return to the U.S. to see his black bandmates refused service in a restaurant in Texas.
Brubeck and his wife, Iola, had five sons and a daughter. Four of his sons — Chris on trombone and electric bass, Dan on drums, Darius on keyboards and Matthew on cello — played with the London Symphony Orchestra in a birthday tribute to Brubeck in December 2000.
“We never had a rift,” Chris Brubeck once said of living and playing with his father. “I think music has always been a good communication tool, so we didn’t have a rift. We’ve always had music in common.”
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