Dave Brubeck received early training in classical music from his mother, a pianist, and by the age of 13 was performing professionally with local jazz groups. In 1941-2, while a music major at the College of the Pacific in Stockton in California, he led a 12-piece band. He also studied classical composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. During World War II, he was sent to Europe to lead a service band (1944). After his discharge in 1946, he resumed his studies with Milhaud, and, with fellow students, founded the experimental Jazz Workshop Ensemble, which recorded in 1949 as the Dave Brubeck Octet. Also in 1949, with Cal Tjader and Norman Bates (whose place was later taken by Ron Crotty), he organized the Dave Brubeck Trio. This group existed until 1951, when, with the addition of Paul Desmond, Brubeck formed his first quartet. The "classic" Brubeck quartet was created when Brubeck and Desmond were joined by Joe Morello (1956; and Gene Wright (1958)). This group remained together until 1967, when Brubeck disbanded it to concentrate on composing.
Brubeck's quartet was immensely popular on college campuses in the 1950s; the album Jazz at Oberlin, recorded in concert at that college in 1953, contains some of Brubeck's (and especially Desmond's) finest improvisations. In 1954, as a sign of his growing popularity, Brubeck's picture appeared on the cover of Time. He also left Fantasy for Columbia Records. During the 1950s and 1960s, he began experimenting with time signatures unusual in jazz, such as 5/4, 9/8, and 11/4. By 1959, he recorded the first jazz instrumental piece to sell a million copies, entitled Desmond's Take Five (in 5/4 meter), which was released with his own Blue Rondo a la Turk (in 9/8, grouped 2+2+2+3). Only Max Roach preceded Brubeck in the successful integration of irregular meters and jazz forms.
Brubeck, who considers himself in essence "a composer who plays the piano," has written and, in some instances, recorded several large-scale compositions since the 1960s, including two ballets, a musical, an oratorio, four cantatas, a mass, works for jazz group and orchestra, and many pieces for solo piano. In the 1970s, he organized several new quartets which at various times included one or more of his sons: the keyboard player (David) Darius Brubeck (b. San Francisco, June 14, 1947), the trombonist and electric bass guitarist Chris Brubeck (b. Los Angeles, March 19, 1952), and the drummer and percussionist Danny (Daniel) Brubeck (b. Oakland, May 4, 1955). Brubeck has appeared at the Newport (1958, 1972, 1981), Monterey (1962, 1980), Concord (1982), and Kool jazz festivals, and performed at the White House (1964, 1981). During the 1950s and 1960s, he was a frequent winner of popularity polls in Down Beat, Metronome, and other magazines. In 1976, Brubeck performed and recorded again with Desmond, Morello, and Wright to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the formation of his first quartet.