Brubeck always felt that his successful jazz career led fans to overlook the second career he launched as a jazz-inspired classical orchestral and choral composer in 1967 after disbanding his original quartet.
His experience in World War II led him to look beyond jazz to compose oratorios, cantatas and other extended works touching on themes involving religion, civil rights and peace.
‘‘I knew I wanted to write on religious themes when I was a GI in World War II,’’ Brubeck said, recalling how he was trapped behind German lines in the Battle of the Bulge and nearly killed. ‘‘I saw and experienced so much violence that I thought I could express my outrage best with music.’’
His interest in classical music was inspired by his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist, who was initially disappointed by her youngest son’s interest in jazz. She later came to appreciate his music.
Born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6. 1920, Brubeck took piano lessons with his mother as a child. Then his father moved the family to a cattle ranch in the foothills of the Sierras.
When he enrolled at the College of the Pacific in 1938, Brubeck had intended to major in veterinary medicine and return to ranching. But while working his way through college by playing piano in nightclubs, he became smitten with jazz and changed his major to music. In 1942, he married Iola Whitlock, a fellow student who became his lifelong partner, librettist, and sometime manager.
Brubeck joined the Army as an infantry man, but ended up leading the semi-official Wolf Pack band attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s army. They played popular standards as well as some of his first original jazz tunes, including ‘‘We Crossed the Rhine,’’ based on the rhythm of trucks hitting the metal pontoon bridges as they entered Germany.
His band, which was one of the first integrated units in the then-segregated Army, reopened the Opera House in Nuremberg, the site of mass rallies organized by the Nazis, who had banned jazz.
Years later, the addition of Wright to Brubeck’s quartet made the group one of the nation’s best-known integrated music acts. A longtime champion of civil rights, Brubeck cancelled lucrative gigs at Southern universities and on television’s Bell Telephone Hour when the organizers insisted that he replace Wright. He refused to play in South Africa under apartheid.
After his discharge, he enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. That’s where he formed an octet, including Desmond on alto sax, Dave van Kreidt on tenor sax, Cal Tjader on drums and Bill Smith on clarinet. The group played Brubeck originals and standards by other composers. Their ground-breaking album ‘‘Dave Brubeck Octet’’ was recorded in 1946.
In 1949, Brubeck with Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty, both fellow octet members, formed a more commercially viable trio and cut their first records, which gained a national audience. After surviving a near-fatal diving accident in 1951, Brubeck formed a quartet by adding Desmond.
Brubeck continued performing with the latest version of his quartet until just past his 90th birthday, despite needing heart surgery and a pacemaker.
In a 2010 interview, Brubeck, who converted to Catholicism in 1980, envisioned an afterlife where he'd again see his family and jazz friends, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
‘‘If there’s a heaven,’’ Brubeck said, ‘‘let it be a good place for all of us to jam together and have a wonderful, wonderful musical experience.’’
Brubeck is survived by his wife of 70 years, a daughter and four musician sons. Another son died in 2009.
Brubeck Institute: http://web.pacific.edu/x19959.xml
Associated Press writers Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Michelle R. Smith in Providence and the late Mary Campbell contributed to this report.