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2009 Kennedy Center Honoree: Dave Brubeck

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In his Connecticut home, Dave Brubeck regularly uses a dancer's barre to stretch, keeping his limbs flexible as part of his morning exercise program.

At age 88, he still goes out on the road, stretching himself musically as both performer and composer.

The acclaimed jazz pianist turns 89 on Sunday, the very day he will be feted by President Obama at a White House reception and, later, at the Kennedy Center Honors gala as one of this year's five recipients of the nation's top award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.

"I never really thought it would happen," he says of the award that eluded him for so long.

Turning 89 the day he meets the president? "Nothing can top that," he says enthusiastically on the telephone in a voice full of energy.

As the chief driver and instigator of the Dave Brubeck Quartet (active from 1951 to 1967) he attained a level of mass popularity rare for a jazz figure, becoming, in 1954, just the second to make the cover of Time magazine. His 1959 album, "Time Out" — featuring alto saxophonist Paul Desmond's classic 5/4 composition, "Take Five" — became one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever, establishing Mr. Brubeck as a master of accessible and original swing rhythm.

"Dave writes stuff harder than he can play," says Chris Brubeck, 57, his son and neighbor in Wilton, Conn. "It's not like he is a super-duper trained musician, which a lot of people think. Not like Leonard Bernstein, who couldn't play jazz like Dad."

Typical of his versatility, Dave Brubeck again last week was at New York City's Blue Note with his quartet. A 22-minute orchestral work about photographer Ansel Adams that he wrote with his son Chris will be played next by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in February.

"When you see him walking, you think he must be a few years past 50 or 60, but when he sits down at the piano, he is, like, 30 years old," says fellow pianist Ramsey Lewis, 74, citing his friend's "youthful" thinking and attitudes as a prime motivator and praising his ability to remember the many songs played in his career. "He is very alert, astute and aware of what is going on in the world. There is hardly a time I talk to him or run into him when he isn't writing or doing something. His fingers are as nimble as ever.

"His solo performing is like a warm glove on a cold night," Mr. Lewis reflects.

The secret to Mr. Brubeck's continuing productivity is "charging ahead and loving what you do and, of course, being offered all these dates so he always has something to look forward to," says veteran jazz pianist Marian McPartland, 91. "He is much admired by all musicians, I think, and certainly by me."

Another "secret," say those closest to him, is his wife, Iola — a lyricist — and the contentment and creativity of a 67-year marriage that produced six children, four of whom grew up to be musicians. Mrs. Brubeck, 86, whom he met at a college dance, is tasked these days with writing his autobiography — but it will be about both of them and their very full life together.

Born into a ranching family in Stockton, Calif., in 1920, Mr. Brubeck was influenced early by his mother, a classical pianist whose sons all became musicians. "I learned music by listening," Mr. Brubeck says.

His older brother became composer Darius Milhaud's assistant at Mills College, where Mr. Brubeck later studied after serving four years in the Army overseas. He had graduated earlier from the College of the Pacific, where he originally had intended to study veterinary medicine. Professors there pointed him to the conservatory and let him graduate only with the promise that he would not teach piano, according to one account. It seems he wasn't very good at reading music.

Mr. Brubeck had a close medical call in spring when, according to his agent, he got a viral infection in his lungs that put pressure on his heart. Nevertheless, he expects to play for a celebration of Mr. Lewis' 75th birthday in June at Chicago's Ravinia Festival.

Noting that he has played for "almost all presidents since John Kennedy, and him, too," Mr. Brubeck recalls when Kennedy would have a Thursday musical open house for college students who were pages and interns in the Washington area in the summer. "Pierre [Salinger, Kennedy's press secretary] had me playing in the Rose Garden, and it leaked out," he says. "There were so many young people that we moved to the Washington Monument. Tony Bennett was also there that time, so we did a duet together without a rehearsal."

The memory box is full to overflowing as he goes on to recount early times in San Francisco when a young Clint Eastwood would sneak into the now-defunct Black Hawk jazz club to hear him play. Mr. Eastwood is making a feature-length documentary about him.

Stories from Mr. Brubeck's long, varied and well-traveled life begin in the present, circle to the past and somehow end up embracing the entire jazz firmament.

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