NEW YORK — Dave Brubeck gingerly made his way to the bandstand through a packed Blue Note jazz club, and a smile lit up the jazz legend's face after he began playing a Duke Ellington medley he dedicated to "my favorite jazz composer, pianist, musician and friend."
The pianist, who celebrates his 90th birthday on Monday, mixed standards and originals drawn from his nearly 70-year career in a 90-minute set that left time for only a shortened "Take Five," the late alto saxophonist Paul Desmond's odd-metered tune that surprisingly put the Brubeck Quartet at the top of the pop charts nearly 50 years ago.
Brubeck could easily have excused himself from the late November sold-out Blue Note gig: It came a month after he was discharged from a Connecticut hospital after a 16-day stay following heart surgery to install a pacemaker. But he felt a strong motivation to perform with his quartet.
"It's the love of the music and the love of being with the group because we have such a great time," said Brubeck, speaking by telephone from his Wilton, Conn., home. "I could kind of not work so hard anymore, but that might be a bad thing. My personal doctor said, 'You know, Dave, when you start playing things start looking up, so I don't advise you to stop. You need to play.'"
His doctors were concerned that Brubeck might not be able to perform again when he checked into the hospital on Columbus Day after complaining of dizziness and fatigue. Brubeck spent a week in the intensive care unit before being transferred to the rehabilitation unit. His recovery hastened when his manager, Russell Gloyd, brought him an electric piano to play.
His quartet ended a three-month hiatus at a Nov. 19 concert in Worcester, Mass.
Brubeck got an early birthday present in December's DownBeat magazine when his quartet was voted best small jazz group in its Readers Poll — an honor the Brubeck Quartet first received in 1953 and would repeat frequently until the mid-1960s.
"My first reaction to them was this is the longest intermission I've ever taken," Brubeck joked. "It's really a triple surprise to have this happen at this time in my life."
Last year, Brubeck's birthday fell on the day he received the Kennedy Center Honors with a White House reception followed by a gala concert that included a surprise performance by his four sons.
Brubeck is celebrating his 90th birthday with an intimate party for family and friends Saturday night at his son, Chris' home, in Wilton. Three of his sons — Chris (bass and trombone), Darius (piano) and Dan (drums) — just completed a "Brubecks Play Brubeck" British concert tour.
On Monday, four generations of Brubecks, including several great-grandchildren, will gather in the family home in the Connecticut woods to watch Turner Classic Movies broadcast "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way," a new documentary directed by Bruce Ricker and narrated by Alec Baldwin. Its executive producer was Clint Eastwood.
"My early love of jazz coincided with Dave Brubeck appearing on the scene in the late 1940s and '50s," Eastwood explained in a statement. "This gave me the opportunity to see Dave in person. And as jazz was developing as a great American art form, this provided an inspiration for artistic achievement as I began pursuing an acting career."
Ricker said a central theme of the film is Brubeck's enduring relationship with his wife, and lyricist, Iola, whom he married in 1942 after proposing on their first date.
Brubeck said the final scene moved him the most: It's when he is seated at the piano at Eastwood's ranch with Iola, who asks him to perform "All My Love," a ballad he wrote for their 1999 wedding anniversary.
The documentary is complemented by two 90th birthday, double-CD anthologies, "The Definitive Dave Brubeck on Fantasy, Concord Jazz and Telarc" and "Dave Brubeck: Legacy of a Legend" (Sony Legacy) with recordings from 1942 through 2004.
Brubeck, who converted to Catholicism in 1980, envisions an afterlife where he'd again see his family and jazz friends, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Art Tatum.
"If there's a heaven let it be a good place for all of us to jam together and have a wonderful, wonderful musical experience," Brubeck said.