Iola Brubeck, wife and force behind jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, dead at 90

Kennedy Center honoree, composer Dave Brubeck, with his Kennedy Center honoree, composer Dave Brubeck, with his wife, Iola Brubeck, on the red carpet on arrival to the State Department for the Kennedy Center Honors Gala Dinner on Dec. 5, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: AP / Kevin Wolf

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Iola Brubeck, who helped propel her husband, pianist Dave Brubeck, to jazz stardom in the 1950s by suggesting that he perform on college campuses and who wrote lyrics for many of his compositions, died March 12 at her home in Wilton, Conn. She was 90.

She had cancer, her son Chris Brubeck said.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dave Brubeck was the biggest star in jazz, with bestselling records, concerts around the world and an innovative way of bringing international rhythms into jazz.

None of that would have been possible, he was the first to admit, without the contributions of his wife, who was his first manager and his emotional anchor for the 70 years they were married.

In the early 1950s, when Iola Brubeck was managing her husband's career, she suggested that his quartet, featuring saxophonist Paul Desmond, present concerts on college campuses.

"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," she said in 2008.

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The idea caught on and launched her husband's career in earnest.

The landmark 1953 album "Jazz at Oberlin," from a performance at the college in Ohio, led to a series of similar recordings and helped propel Brubeck to stardom.

In 1958, Iola Brubeck accompanied her husband on a State Department-sponsored tour of Eastern Europe, marking the first time that jazz musicians had been used as semiofficial emissaries of the United States behind the Iron Curtain.

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He introduced musical elements that he learned during those travels into his music, and his career continued to blossom. His quartet's 1959 recording of "Take Five" became the top-selling jazz record of all time.

Through nearly all of it, Iola Brubeck stayed at home in Connecticut, raising their six children and acting as her husband's anchor.

"There is absolutely no way," Chris Brubeck said Tuesday in an interview, "Dave Brubeck would have become, quote unquote, Dave Brubeck, if it weren't for my mom's involvement and support."

Iola Marie Whitlock was born Aug. 14, 1923, in Corning, Calif., and grew up throughout Northern California, where her father was a forest ranger. She was valedictorian of her high school class in Shasta, Calif., before enrolling at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

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