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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