The soul in Dave Brubeck's jazz

Back in my teen years, I was a bit of a classical music nerd. Then someone gave me a copy of the second Blood, Sweat & Tears record and, before you knew it, I was into jazz and forms of rock that required the musicians to know more than three chords. During one of those nights exploring the exotic back bins of the only decent local record store (I think this was while I was still in Port Arthur, Texas), I ran into "Adventures In Time," an excellent two-disc set covering the career of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. On a lark, I bought it and soon I was deep into the work of the pianist and his classic quartet.

Some of the titles fascinated me, especially a tune entitled "Forty Days." I could only think of one reason to give a tune that name.

As it turns out, that piece plays a crucial role in Brubeck's first sacred oratorio, "The Light in the Wilderness." The chorus sings these words, penned by the his wife, Iola: "Forty days alone in the desert, days and nights of constant prayer, seeking in the wailing wind an answer to despair. Forty days of questioning: Why was he there, in the lonely desert? Forty days of fasting and prayer, searching for his destined role. ..."

Anyway, a few years later I interviewed Brubeck for the student newspaper at Baylor University and asked him about his very complex and personal faith journey, built on a blend of Judaism, liberal mainline Protestantism and, more and more as the years went on, Catholicism. In all, I've had four interviews with Brubeck, who is just as complex and delightful face to face as he is at a piano keyboard.

If you care about the arts, you probably know that Brubeck was one of the five legends honored the other night at the Kennedy Center -- in a ceremony held on his 89th birthday. (Click here for info on the pianist and all of the honorees.)

I have to admit that I was afraid that Brubeck was going to die before the Kennedy Center committee got around to calling his name. Then, once he was selected, I wondered if anyone in the mainstream media was going to offer even a hint that Brubeck has made fascinating contributions to modern sacred music, as well as to contemporary forms of jazz.

Thus, I want to give a shout-out to the Washington Post for including this small detail in a long profile linked to the Kennedy Center gala:

While other honorees were easing toward the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Friday, the Dave Brubeck quartet was getting ready for a gig that night. In Cranston, R.I. In a Catholic church. And it was not a "give 'em 'Blue Rondo' and send 'em home happy" gig. Rather, the group was to combine with 60 Providence Singers to perform "Canticles of Mary," a complicated work in which he offers a prelude hymn and then employs three Gregorian chants in three separate movements. But because this is a Brubeck composition, of course the choir has to sing all four themes simultaneously in the finale.

You can also get a sense for who this man is in this rich passage a few paragraphs later. Note the hints of his religious roots:

He loves playing, period. Anything, everything, any night he can. Listen to Brubeck live or recorded, and it's all there in exuberant disregard for rules: The Caribbean "jump up" road march of Easter Morning, the minor laments of klezmer, the quote of the Disney theme "Someday My Prince Will Come" in the middle of the Turkish street beats of "Blue Rondo," dervishes, soldiers, Bach.

BrubeckTIMEThat short section of the Post piece woke me up and made me want to write about Brubeck again, which I did this week -- for the Scripps Howard News Service. I've been hearing from Brubeck fans about that today, so I thought I'd share a chunk of that piece, including the final quote:

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. ...

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?"

OK, if you have a shelf of Brubeck discs, go get one and turn it up. I recommend some of his solo albums from recent years (like this one, this one or this one).

Or you can just click on the YouTube video at the top of this post. "Forty Days" remains one of my favorite tunes of all time. Enjoy.

Please respect our Commenting Policy