The soul in Dave Brubeck’s jazz

The soul in Dave Brubeck’s jazz December 14, 2009

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.

“With ‘The Light in the Wilderness’ we were really trying to get at … the heart of the New Testament,” said Brubeck, decades after the oratorio — with lyrics by his wife Iola — reshaped his work as a composer. “We decided that we would try to provide contemporary settings to help people hear what Jesus was saying.”

Last weekend, Brubeck came to Washington, D.C., for a White House reception, a Kennedy Center gala and all the other festivities that accompany being selected as one of the five recipients of America’s highest annual award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. The celebration took place on Brubeck’s 89th birthday.

The emphasis, of course, was on his life as a jazz superstar.

“It’s understandable that nobody really talked about his work in sacred music,” said orchestra conductor Russell Gloyd, who is also Brubeck’s longtime manager. “The problem with Dave is that he’s been around so long that he’s done almost everything.” The religious side of Brubeck’s repertoire is “something that often gets overlooked, which is sad because this music means so much to him,” said Gloyd.

Not long after the pianist became famous, the husband-and-wife team wrote a large-scale work called “The New Ambassadors.” It contained “They Say I Look Like God,” a bluesy Gospel number written for jazz legend Louis Armstrong that combined a Gregorian chant melody with lyrics based on the book of Genesis.

That led to “The Light in the Wilderness,” which was followed by two more major religious works, “Truth Has Fallen” and “The Gates of Justice,” which drew on passages from the Jewish Torah and speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there was a Spanish-tinged Christmas cantata called “La Fiesta de la Posada,” the Easter cantata “Beloved Son” and a series of musical meditations based on “Pange Lingua,” a Eucharistic hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Finally, the Our Sunday Visitor publishing company asked Brubeck to compose a Mass, which was completed in 1979 and given the title, “To Hope! A Celebration.” The experience was so overwhelming — Brubeck said the complete “Our Father” piece came to him in a dream — that the composer ended up joining the Catholic Church.

The Brubecks are still hard at work. While the other Kennedy Center honorees arrived a day or two early, Gloyd noted that Brubeck was busy squeezing in another performance in a Catholic church — performing “Canticles of Mary,” which blends jazz, Gregorian chants with a new hymn written by the Brubecks.

For centuries, Brubeck once told me, the world’s best composers worked to create music that would appeal to audiences in sanctuary pews as well as in elite concert halls. For him, composing a complete Mass was one of the greatest technical challenges of his career because it had to be challenging and simple at the same time.

“I really wanted it to be something that everyday people could perform,” he said. “Most of the time, the faith that really matters and really affects people is the faith out in the local churches. The Mass was written for those kinds of people — not just for professionals. … What good is religious music if it can’t be performed in churches?”

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