Iola Whitlock Brubeck, widow and collaborator of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, died March 12, 2014 at her home in Wilton, surrounded by her family, after a brave battle with cancer. She was 90 years old.
“Iola was a brilliant person who collaborated with our father, Dave Brubeck, in every aspect of his career over their 70-year marriage,” her children Darius, Chris, Catherine, Dan and Matt Brubeck said in a statement. “She was a gifted lyricist whose poetry was sung by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Frederica von Stade and many others.
“Early in Dave’s career, Iola was the visionary manager of the Dave Brubeck Quartet who pioneered the presentation of jazz concerts in colleges across the country. Somehow she balanced all of this with raising six children and in later years, also enjoyed her 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She was an elegant woman with a quick mind and wit, who led an accomplished life with grace, heart and soul. We will miss her very much.”
Mrs. Brubeck was born Aug. 14, 1923 to Myrtle and Charles Whitlock in Corning, Calif. The family later moved to Redding, Calif. and at age 16 she was valedictorian of the Shasta High School Class of 1940.
She attended the College of the Pacific, graduating in 1945 with a bachelor of arts degree. The school later became the University of the Pacific. It was there she met Mr. Brubeck.
The university houses the Brubeck Institute and a plaque marks the spot where the couple met after Iola saw Dave playing piano at a concert. They subsequently worked together on a student radio variety show which she produced. He played in the band.
“I heard him play at a school assembly and I was very impressed with how he played, although I really didn’t know anything about jazz,” she said during a public television documentary, Rediscovering Dave Brubeck, in 2001. “I was just impressed with his intensity and energy and it was different sounding from anything I’d heard before.”
According to the website davebrubeckjazz.com, a date to go out dancing turned into a long evening of conversation that ended with two becoming engaged.
During World War II, while Mr. Brubeck was serving overseas, Mrs. Brubeck went to the NBC training school in Hollywood where she also free-lanced as a radio actress. Upon his return home, the couple enrolled at Mills College in Oakland where Mr. Brubeck studied composition and Mrs. Brubeck studied philosophy and creative writing.
Their first child, Darius, was born in 1947 and the family went on the road together with the Dave Brubeck Trio and Quartet. Despite years of touring jazz clubs, the band still was not meeting with great success. It was then Mrs. Brubeck hit on the idea of playing college campuses that became a major turning point in her husband’s career.
What they found, Mrs. Brubeck said in the documentary “was an enormous new audience for jazz.” While jazz bands played dances, presenting concerts was rare. The move was a great success and exposed the band and music to a wider audience and greater fan base.
Later, when the Dave Brubeck Quartet embarked on a worldwide cultural tour at the behest of the U.S. State Department, Mrs. Brubeck and the children went along.
Throughout Mr. Brubeck’s career, she wrote lyrics to many of his compositions, both jazz and sacred. In 1962 they co-wrote a musical called The Real Ambassadors, which reflected their tours abroad as well as the racial strife here in the U.S. The show starred Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae.
The Brubecks moved to Wilton from California in 1960, living on Newtown Turnpike while they built their home in north Wilton. Although she managed her husband’s career and wrote lyrics to his many songs, Mrs. Brubeck also filled the role of mother, raising her six children, driving them to multiple after-school activities. She served on several local boards including The Norwalk Youth Symphony.
Mrs. Brubeck is predeceased by her husband, Dave, who died Dec. 5, 2012, and her son Michael. She is survived by sons Darius, Christopher, Daniel and Matthew, daughter Catherine, 10 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
The family is having a private funeral, but a public memorial service will be scheduled in the coming months.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Wilton Library Jazz Series, the Iola W. Brubeck Fellowship Endowment (c/o The Brubeck Institute, 3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton, CA 95211) or Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County (visitingnurse.net).