The soul in Dave Brubeck’s jazz

YouTube Preview ImageJazz great Dave Brubeck died yesterday, a day before his 92nd birthday.  Along with much of the rest of the world, I was a fan. I have a sizeable record collection and found you could hardly go wrong with a Brubeck LP. I was curious how the obituaries would handle his sacred compositions and his religious life — including his reception into the Catholic Church.

In recent years, there has been some great journalism on this front. I first learned about this aspect of Brubeck from one of our own tmatt’s columns (from which I stole the headline above). It began:

Any jazz fan who has been paying attention at all during the past half century will recognize the quirky 5/4 riff that means the Dave Brubeck Quartet is swinging into its classic “Take Five.”

But there’s another tune the pianist keeps playing that is completely different. “Forty Days” opens with the haunting, chant-like lines that define the most famous piece in his first sacred oratorio, “The Light in the Wilderness.”

“Forty days alone in the desert, days and nights of constant prayer, seeking in the wailing wind an answer to despair,” sings the chorus, in verses inspired by biblical accounts of the temptations of Jesus. “Forty days of questioning: Why was he there, in the lonely desert? Forty days of fasting and prayer, searching for his destined role. …”

Through the decades, Brubeck has struggled to talk about the private journey that has defined his faith. In the program booklet for that 1968 cantata, he explained that he was “reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist Church.” He also stressed that three Jewish teachers shaped his life — philosopher Irving Goleman, composer Darius Milhaud and Jesus.

PBS’ inestimable Religion & Ethics Newsweekly reviewed Brubeck’s sacred works a couple of years ago in a deeply moving interview. Talking about a mass he wrote, interviewer Bob Faw asks him about his approach:

FAW: Sometimes, says Brubeck, the music shapes the text. Sometimes, he says, it’s just the opposite.

FAW: I heard you at one point say “my basic approach is to sing the text until something seems right.”

BRUBECK: Yeah, that’s it: “All my hope, all my hope is in you, oh Lord, you are my rock and my strength.”

FAW: As for those lyrics, it turns out that’s the realm of Dave Brubeck’s wife.

BRUBECK: My wife was driving, and I said, “I’ve finished this.” And she said, “No, you haven’t finished it.” And I said, “Well, what did I leave out?” And she said, “God’s love made visible. He is invincible.”

“God’s love made visible.” So that’s the way it finished.

The whole interview is about this, about how Brubeck’s religious music is transforming and a vehicle to communicating God’s desire that we love one another. Great stuff.

Or how about this Commonweal interview?:

IMC: Your entry into the Catholic Church was precipitated by your 1979 composition of To Hope! A Celebration, a musical setting for the Mass. Can you explain what about that experience was so influential?

DB: So often people will say that I converted to the Catholic religion. This is false. Although I was raised as a Protestant, I was never baptized and had never been a member of any church. I joined the Roman Catholic Church after I had written my Mass To Hope! A good friend of mine, Fr. Ron Brassard, told me that he loved the music I had composed for the Mass but I had omitted the Our Father, and he wanted me to write a musical setting for it. I answered that I had already completed the composition of the Mass and I couldn’t see a way to include what I then referred to as the Lord’s Prayer without interrupting the musical flow. I felt I’d successfully fulfilled my assignment from Our Sunday Visitor, the publication that commissioned the Mass. I definitely felt no motivation to start writing again. Since I had completed the composition, I planned a vacation with my wife and children. We were on a Caribbean island. During the night I dreamt the entire Lord’s Prayer with chorus and orchestra. I jumped out of bed and wrote down what I had heard as accurately as I could remember. Because of this event I decided that I might as well join the Catholic Church because someone somewhere was pulling me toward that end. Over the years I’ve had strong friendships with many priests. As a matter of fact, a group of Christian leaders from the National Council of Churches came to my house in the 1950s to ask me to write music for a Mass. I didn’t think I was ready at that time. So, in a sense, I guess joining the church and writing the Mass was a culmination of a long journey that is still going on.

The interview also has an interesting discussion of contemporary music in worship settings.

So how did the obituaries handle this? Well, while the Washington Post obituary is otherwise fantastic and well worth a read, there is no mention of Brubeck’s religious life (save an early mention of “choral works,” a late mention of “sacred music,” and, if we’re really being generous here, mentions of his advocacy for racial harmony and “being a clean-living family man who lived with his wife and six children”).

The New York Times obituary mentions that “his mother, Elizabeth, was a choir director at the nearby Presbyterian church” and that he composed a mass. As for religious content, we’re told:

As a composer, Mr. Brubeck used jazz to address religious themes and to bridge social and political divides. His cantata “The Gates of Justice,” from 1969, dealt with blacks and Jews in America; another cantata, “Truth Is Fallen” (1972), lamented the killing of student protesters at Kent State University in 1970, with a score including orchestra, electric guitars and police sirens. He played during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in 1988 and he composed entrance music for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1987.

It did end with a nice quote:

Mr. Brubeck once explained succinctly what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”

The AP obit has a few mentions of Brubeck’s religious work and his Christian faith. For much more on Brubeck and religion, read this American Catholic piece on him from a couple of years ago.

But I have to agree with the reader who said he hadn’t “seen much reporting on Dave Brubeck’s oratorios and other sacred music.” And that crucial bit about how he became Catholic? Good luck finding that.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Having read a lot about Brubeck in Catholic media I was curious to look for mention of his faith in stories of his death. Sadly, I have–like the other reader mentioned here–have seen very little about his faith life and works in mainstream media stories even though his faith was apparently as big a part of his life as was his music.
    This, in my opinion, whether intentional or unintentional, whether through bigotry or ignorance, is part of the growing marginalizing of Christianity in our culture. Examples small and big abound. Our local newspaper just had a story about the lighting of a large Christmas Tree on our city’s common. Only the whole story fastidiously avoided the word Christmas in its story–it was always just “the tree.” Conscious or unconscious censoring–who knows. But the result is the same.

    • sari

      Deacon John,
      Maybe what you’re seeing is reflective of shifts in societal values. I’d love for some astute religion (or not) reporter to contrast Christmas lawn decorations of yesteryear with today’s yard art. One biggie is the shift from creches/religious to winter/secular. Here I am in Texas, in an area vocal about its religiosity, and yet Frosties, reindeer, and Santas predominate. Angels and manger scenes? Absent in all but one yard (so far). Last year there were two.

      How does your city refer to the tree on your common? Have they changed the word to avoid holiday lawsuits?

  • Pete Mc Nesbit

    As he said himself there wasn’t a conversion as he had never been baptized a Protestant. That he felt a pull after writing his mass TO HOPE. Why you are looking for the word conversion when there was No conversion, is perplexing. Did you READ the quotes you put into your article?

    • mollie

      Pete,
      Thanks for the note.
      I read them, and I specifically avoided the word “conversion” when I wrote the post. It has been edited and I can’t speak to the editor’s decision.

      • mollie

        FWIW, After discussions with the editor, I changed a few of the words.

        It’s funny, because I actually thought a bit about the use of this word “conversion.” As generally understood, it could not be a better word choice. Whether he was changing from nothing to Catholic or from Zoroastrian to Catholic, we usually call this act a conversion.
        I would have used the word if he hadn’t been so vociferous that, according to his own definition, it was not to be used.

  • tmatt

    I added the conversion references for two reasons.

    First, from a Catholic perspective, it was a conversion. In a way, it was a conversion to Christianity from a mixed background.

    I actually discussed this issue with Brubeck in one of the three interviews I did with him through the years. He knew the Catholic view on this, but simply disagreed in his case. You end up trying to decide whether to be accurate on THE FACTS or accurate on his view of his experience.

  • Julia

    “And I said, “Well, what did I leave out?” And she said, “God’s love made visible. He is invincible.”
    “God’s love made visible.” So that’s the way it finished.”

    This is a repeated line from a Brubeck Christmas piece that my Philharmonic chorale performed a few Christmasses ago. I believe the cantata was inspired by the Mexican Posada – people walking around neighborhoods as Joseph and Mary looking for a place to stay. It was very cool.

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  • Mark Anderson

    Mollie, et al:

    Has there been any coverage of the response of the Brubeck children to their father’s crossing the Tiber? Or of their “faith journeys”?

    Mark

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  • MJBubba

    Julia, yes, “God’s Love Made Visible” is a wonderful Christmas carol. It is from Brubeck’s oratorio “La Fiesta de la Posada.” http://www.allmusic.com/album/la-fiesta-de-la-posada-festival-of-the-inn-mw0000180762
    It is a wonderful piece, but the recording quality is not the greatest. We play it in my house on real honest vinyl every year during the third week of Advent. (I don’t play it otherwise, to protect my precious vinyl.)

    Brubeck’s sacred music was pretty much a secret. Back in the 1970s you could go regularly into very large music stores with dozens of Brubeck albums in their bins and search for months and months before turning up one of his sacred music recordings.

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