By now, many Oaklanders, and Montclair residents in particular, are aware that the famous jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck died Dec. 5 at the age of 91 in Connecticut en route to a doctor's appointment.
For more than 50 years, Brubeck scored the music and performed with The Dave Brubeck Quartet, which, among others, included the great saxophone player Paul Desmond and the drummer Cal Tjader.
The seminal album "Time Out," released by the quartet in 1959, was the first ever million-selling jazz LP, and is still among the best-selling jazz albums of all time. It opens with "Blue Rondo a la Turk" in 9/8 time -- nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats.
Most people don't know that Brubeck was not only a master and innovator of modern jazz, he and his wife Iola "Oli" also had an affinity for modern architecture with a dash of sentimentality thrown in for good measure. He combined these ingredients when seeking out a then-very young modern design practitioner by the name of Beverly "Bev" Thorne who was involved with a group called The Case Study Houses program. It grew out of the Southern California-based magazine Arts and Architecture and included other architects and designers such as Richard Neutra, William Wurster and Charles Eames.
Thorne is the last surviving member of the group, now lives on the Big Island in Hawaii and remains active in the design community. His "Millennial House" on Skyline Boulevard in Oakland is nearing completion after 12 years spent in planning and construction.
The Brubecks relocated to the Bay Area after his service during World War II and enjoyed hiking in the then-thinly developed Oakland hills.
On one such hike, they found an overlook at the top of Colton Boulevard where it meets Heartwood Drive and would often picnic there, taking in sweeping views of downtown Oakland and San Francisco in the distance. The Brubecks' picnics, which centered on a large boulder near the promontory of the hill, became the catalyst for building a permanent residence on the site. For those interested, Thorne wrote a detailed version of the story of meeting Dave and Oli and designing their new home for the blog "JazzWax" in February 2010 (http://www.jazzwax.com/2010/02/bev-thorne-brubeck-home-designer.html).
Some of the unconfirmed lore is that Brubeck penned a few of the famous tunes for his breakout album "Time Out" while living in the house on Heartwood Drive.
The origins of the boulder are more sketchy; was it always there or placed by the owners and the architect during construction? Regardless, and this is confirmed, it sits as the centerpiece of the home's family room and is encircled by a piece of three-quarter inch solid glass which rests gently on a thin ledge etched into the rock.
I can attest to this since my dog Bear, who once roamed the streets of Montclair freely, oftentimes ended up at the house where the current homeowner would summon me to retrieve him. A builder myself, I was always secretly pleased that the dog would end up at the Brubeck house instead of the many others he frequented so I could have another tour of this unique home.
Among other things, the structure is noteworthy due to the pair of 16-foot cantilevered steel I-beams that project out toward Heartwood Drive supporting the home's second story. There's also a 3-foot-by-3-foot notch in the roof's overhang that once accommodated a tree that grew alongside the house which the Brubecks and their architect Thorne endeavored to preserve. Time and nature took away the tree, but its ghostly footprint remains.
The house is beginning to show signs of wear but still stands as a testament to two great innovators who fused jazz and architecture in a bold and provocative manner.
Blake Gilmore is a general contractor and occasional writer and essayist. He has lived for 24 years on Heart- wood Drive in Montclair.