Iola Brubeck died today. She had been under treatment for cancer discovered several months ago during oral surgery. She was 90 years old. Her children made the announcement through the University of the Pacific, home of the Brubeck Institute. Mrs. Brubeck and her husband Dave were alumni of the university. They met there at a student dance in the early 1940s and decided that night they would marry, which they did a few months later. Mrs. Brubeck died peacefully at home in Wilton, Connecticut, with her family around her. To see the announcement, go here.
The photograph to the left shows Mrs. Brubeck with her husband and Duke Ellington in the 1970s. Long before then, she played an essential role in the early years of her husband’s career as pianist, composer and bandleader. This passage from Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, describes the crucial part she played in 1953 in the development of the Dave Brubeck Quartet:
In her role as manager, booker and publicist in the lean days before Brubeck signed with Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corporation, Iola Brubeck acted on an idea that led not only to more work for the Quartet, but also to a major change in the relationship of jazz to its audience. As far back as the 1920s, jazz musicians played on college campuses, but almost always for restricted fraternity and sorority dances. The Brubecks’ pioneering opened the college market as a source of work for jazz artists and helped open society’s ears to wide acceptance of jazz as a mature cultural element.
Mrs. Brubeck wrote more than one hundred colleges and universities, enclosing reviews of the Quartet’s recordings and live appearances. She suggested that The Dave Brubeck Quartet would be ideal for campus concerts and offered a deal that appealed to student associations—a low fee for the band and a split of profits . A few bookings developed. Early on, the band often played in lecture rooms or cafeterias doubling as concert halls, with students wandering in and out during the performances. By the time Joe Glaser’s office took over the Quartet’s management, the system was working. The young agent Larry Bennett, Iola said, “took the idea and ran with it.”
For their March, 1953, appearance at Oberlin College in Ohio, the Quartet found itself in the acoustically blessed chapel of an institution known for the quality of its music department. The audience knew what it was hearing and responded with enthusiastic appreciation. In a canny business move, exchanging broadcast rights for ownership of the master recording, Brubeck allowed the Oberlin campus radio station to tape and later air the concert. When Fantasy issued the performance as a long-playing record, a phenomenon was established: Jazz kept on going to college and Brubeck created an audience that has been loyal to him for decades.
Later, Mrs. Brubeck became her husband’s partner in songwriting, contributing memorable lyrics to many of his compositions, among them those for his musical The Real Ambassadors. She managed all of that professional involvement while raising six children during the years of Dave’s travel as leader of one of the world’s busiest musical organizations.
Through my early coverage of Brubeck and Desmond and, ultimately our friendship, I came to know Iola and the Brubeck family. The friendship continued over the years. When it came time for me to write the Desmond book, she and Dave were primary sources. We spent hours in interviews. They agreed to provide the biography’s foreword. Following Dave’s death in December of 2012, Iola and I stayed in touch, even toward the end as her own health problems became complicated. We exchanged messages until recently. Hers were unfailingly cheerful and upbeat, including the last one about deciding to discontinue therapy. We were together for a few moments at Dave’s memorial service last May. She had just spoken movingly about her husband and his music in a way that made me think of Paul Desmond’s description of her as “the incomparable, regal Iola.”
“For All We Know” was one of her favorite songs.