Ten years later, Brubeck’s work in music and social justice rings throughout the world

Dave Brubeck is pictured in black and white playing a piano

Dave Brubeck plays the piano at University of the Pacific in December 2008.

Without guidance from a Pacific professor, the world may never have heard the captivating music of jazz icon and alumnus Dave Brubeck ’42. 

Not a music professor—but zoology.

The legendary pianist, composer and civil rights champion initially attended Pacific as a pre-veterinary major, though his interest clearly lied elsewhere.

Brubeck, who died ten years ago this month, recounted the story in a 2007 interview with Pacific, saying the professor told him, “Brubeck, your mind is not here with these frogs and formaldehyde. You're always listening to what's coming from the conservatory across the line. Do me a favor. Go over there next year.” 

He did, and the rest is melodic history.

“Dave broke down boundaries and opened up new ways of approaching the music … It’s hard to encapsulate everything in terms of his contributions. He's truly an icon,” said Director and Professor of Jazz Studies Patrick Langham, who first met Brubeck in 2003 when he joined Pacific.

Brubeck was largely known for his use of odd time signatures (the rhythmic grouping of beats in music).

“His compositions like “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “The Duke” have become jazz standards, and they are played every night all over the world,” said Conservatory of Music Professor Emeritus Keith Hatschek.

Brubeck’s music earned him numerous accolades over his six-decade career. He was on the cover of “Time” magazine, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame and was a Kennedy Center honoree. Through his music, he also was a social justice advocate.

“Dave and Iola Brubeck (also a Pacific alumna) made music that is true. Their family served our nation in so many ways, always with heart, always with an ear attuned to injustice,” said Conservatory of Music Dean Peter Witte. “They understood that too many would have us turn back the clock, would seek to pit us against one another. Dave and Iola called us forward. They encouraged America to be as open and free as Dave’s music sounds.”

Brubeck refused to perform at venues where his African American bass player Eugene Wright was not welcome. “From his standpoint, music was colorblind,” Langham said.

The Brubecks wrote a ground-breaking Civil Rights-era jazz musical featuring the legendary trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong called “The Real Ambassadors.” The little-known story is told in a book Hatschek published earlier this year.

“Their idea was to try and combine the spirit and funkiness of jazz with messages that would get people thinking more about social issues in America at a time when African-Americans faced tremendous discrimination, musicians among them,” Hatschek said.

Brubeck maintained a close relationship with Pacific over the years, often returning to Stockton for the university’s annual jazz festival where he heaped praise on students in the program.

“Here is one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world, and he was extremely humble about his own playing,” Langham said, adding that Brubeck’s support and contributions continue to impact Pacific’s jazz program.

“He was always generous, always willing to sit with a student and listen. It's a tremendous legacy,” added Hatschek.

When Brubeck was once asked how he wanted to be remembered, it was for opening doors. “That's about all I could ask,” Brubeck said. “Take a good look, see where you can go now where somebody else had to knock hard.”