Iola Whitlock Brubeck, the widow and lifelong collaborator of jazz great Dave Brubeck
, died March 12, 2014, at her home after a brave battle with cancer.
The University of the Pacific alumna was 90 years old.
Mrs. Brubeck earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1945 from College of the Pacific, which became University of the Pacific, where she first met the man who would be her husband. She became an educator, radio producer and writer and served as her husband’s business manager throughout his legendary career. As Mr. Brubeck’s chief librettist and lyricist, she collaborated on or authored text for a dozen sacred choral compositions, a jazz opera, and almost three dozen songs performed by her husband and others.
“We have lost a truly cherished member of the Pacific family and I have lost a dear friend,” said University of the Pacific President Pamela A. Eibeck. “Iola was a strong, intelligent, and confident woman who collaborated with her husband to achieve greatness in jazz and in life. We are deeply honored to house the Brubeck Institute at University of the Pacific.”
Mrs. Brubeck was as important to spreading jazz to mainstream America in the 1950s as was her husband, who died Dec. 5, 2012, a day shy of his 92nd birthday.
“Iola Brubeck was a keenly intelligent woman, a very talented artistic collaborator, and gifted at directing and managing her husband’s life and career,” said Simon Rowe, executive director of University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute. “The long life shared together by Iola and Dave Brubeck was a true partnership in every sense of the word.”
“It’s arguable that Dave would never have known the success he achieved without the rock-steady support, inspiration, and good sense of Iola,” Brubeck biographer Fred M. Hall wrote in “It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story.”
In 1999, Dave and Iola Brubeck allowed a vast collection of correspondence, manuscripts, tapes, scores, arrangements, photos and memorabilia to be housed in University of the Pacific’s Holt-Atherton Special Collections. The university the following year established The Brubeck Institute, which builds on the Brubecks’ lifelong commitment to music, creativity, education and the advancement of important social issues, including civil rights, social justice and the environment.
The Brubeck Institute’s five programs include the Brubeck Collection, the Brubeck Festival, the Brubeck Fellowship Program, the Summer Jazz Colony, and the Brubeck Outreach Program. For information on the Brubeck Institute: www.BrubeckInstitute.org.
The Institute has created an extensive digital archive of correspondence, music, photographs and sketches, and video interviews with Dave and Iola Brubeck, viewable at http://go.pacific.edu/BrubeckCollection.
Mrs. Brubeck expanded jazz audiences by helping to force open the doors to colleges that previously had looked down on jazz as an unworthy area of study, according to Susan Childs Matheson in her May 1999 Stanford University master’s thesis, “In the Stream of Time: Iola Brubeck’s Contribution to Jazz.”
Dave Brubeck’s success depended largely on Iola Brubeck’s intelligence and management skills, Matheson wrote. And a huge part of that was getting the Dave Brubeck Quartet on college campuses and allowing them to record such best-selling albums as “Jazz Goes to College,” “Jazz at Oberlin,” and “Jazz at the College of the Pacific” in the 1950s.
Mrs. Brubeck spoke of that effort for a Library of Congress webcast in 2008: “We discovered that the best audiences for Dave’s music were really a young musical audience, preferably music students,” she recalled. “… (So) I sat down and wrote to every college up and down the West Coast that I thought was within driving distance of where we lived in San Francisco and offered our services. … ” Mrs. Brubeck also introduced her husband to influential disc jockey Jimmy Lyons and was instrumental in the reconciliation between her husband and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond after a rift between the two. Desmond later wrote the band’s hugely successful “Take Five,” song and remained in the Dave Brubeck Quartet until it dissolved in 1968.
The couple took inspiration from one another, his music inspiring her lyrics, as in “Strange Meadow Lark,” or her poetry sparking his melodies, as in “Autumn In Our Town.” She also contributed to such works as “The Light in the Wilderness,” “The Gates of Justice,” “Truth Is Fallen,” and “Earth is Our Mother.” Another of their celebrated collaborations was the 1960s Broadway-style musical “The Real Ambassadors,” starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae.
Mrs. Brubeck is also remembered as an educator. She developed one of the first jazz appreciation classes and taught it with her husband at UC Berkeley in 1950. “As an educator, she expanded the public’s understanding of jazz through her teaching, interviews, and writing of magazine articles, program notes, liner notes, and The Dave Brubeck Quartet Newsletter,” wrote Matheson.
Mrs. Brubeck was born Aug. 14, 1923, to Myrtle and Charles Whitlock in Corning, Calif., and raised for a time in tiny Chrome in California’s Glenn County before the family moved to Redding. From an early age she showed a keen intelligence, self-discipline, dry sense of humor, and compassion for the less fortunate, and skipped a grade as a student in a one-room schoolhouse, according to Matheson.
In Redding, she won several speech, debate and writing contests, edited the school newspaper, participated in high school clubs and student body government, and was president of the honor society.
She became interested in drama at the Little Theater in Redding, which carried over into work with local radio. She was the Shasta High School Class of 1940 valedictorian at age 16.
Her intelligence, determination and persistence were again on display as she entered College of the Pacific. She was active in the debate team, the Pacific Weekly student newspaper, and theater. At one point, Mrs. Brubeck re-wrote a play to include mostly female characters since the men in the cast had been called up to serve in the military during World War II.
It was at a concert at Pacific in what is now Faye Spanos Concert Hall that she first spotted Dave Brubeck playing piano. Today a plaque marks the place where they met. They got to know each other better on a student radio variety show, “Friday Frolics.” She produced the show and he played in the band.
Their relationship shifted when he asked her to a dance. Instead of dancing, they ended up on the Calaveras River levee and chatted away the evening.
“(We) talked and talked and talked,” Mrs. Brubeck recalled in a November 1997 interview with Matheson. “When the evening was over, he had decided he wanted to marry me and I had decided this is one interesting person ... (for whom) I really felt a very strong attraction.”
He graduated and was in the Army when they married four months after the evening on the levee. She completed her education and got a job at Riverside radio station KPRO to be closer to her new husband. When he shipped out to the European Theater, where he led one of the first integrated bands in the history of the U.S. military, she honed her management skills and sharpened her jazz savvy working in radio.
After Mr. Brubeck returned to the United States in 1946, the couple moved back to Northern California so he could study with renowned French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College. The couple named their first son, born the following year, Darius in his honor. The couple had four more sons and a daughter between 1949 and 1961.
The 1960s and ’70s saw the couple working on classical and sacred works, and Mr. Brubeck performing with sons Darius, Dan and Chris. In the 1980s, Brubeck wrote and performed “Upon This Rock” for Pope John Paul II during his visit to San Francisco, toured the Soviet Union with the Brubeck Quartet, and performed at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1988.
University of the Pacific honored Mrs. Brubeck with an honorary doctorate in 2000. Mr. Brubeck had received an honorary doctorate in 1961 and a President’s Medal of Achievement in 2006. The couple also shared in an award, the 1996 Achievement in the Arts Award from Northwood University. Mrs. Brubeck was last at University of the Pacific for the announcement of the Iola W. Brubeck Endowed Fellowship during the Brubeck Festival in March 2013. The endowment helps to support a member of the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet.
Mrs. Brubeck was preceded in death by her husband Dave and son Michael. She is survived by sons Darius, Christopher, Daniel and Matthew, daughter Catherine, 10 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren