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04 August 2003

America Magazine

Jazz Goes Back To Church - Dave Brubeck's Religous Music

Dave Brubeck has long been recognized as a gifted jazz pianist and composer. His use of innovative techniques, such as the unique time signatures showcased in the breakthrough album, Time Out (1959), made him a leading light of West Coast jazz. Indeed, the singular chemistry of his classic quartet established him as an enduring jazz favorite. Less well known, however, are Brubeck’s religious compositions. Over the past forty years Brubeck has quietly amassed a body of orchestral work of such emotional depth and intellectual complexity that he is beginning to be regarded as an American composer of the caliber of Charles Ives or Aaron Copland.

I. The Religious Works
Brubeck was raised in a loosely Protestant family, but was himself never baptized. While growing up as a rancher’s son in California, Brubeck was already drawn to contemplate creation and to express musically what he felt. His turn toward classical music, however, arose from his experiences as a infantryman during the Second World War. In a recent interview, Brubeck confided that the war instilled in him the conviction that "something should be done musically to strengthen man’s knowledge of God."

Iola Brubeck, Dave’s wife of over sixty years, recently explained that Brubeck initially considered pursuing themes present in all world religions. Yet, he soon realized that "what he really wanted to do was investigate his own inheritance. It was then that he began to focus more on the Christian message." The initial result of this study was the oratorio, The Light in the Wilderness (1968), a meditation on the temptations and teachings of Christ. The core of the work is a reflection on the call to love our enemies. Brubeck’s response to the madness of war, therefore, was a musical meditation on Christ’s challenging words : "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." It is an abiding theme in Brubeck’s work. Indeed, his religious compositions can be understood as attempts to express musically God’s love and the implications of this love for the Christian life.

In his 1969 cantata, Gates of Justice, Brubeck turned his attention to justice. Brubeck had long been concerned with racial equality. During the 1950’s, he regularly played with his integrated quartet throughout the South, refusing to accept segregation. In response to the violence that began to erupt throughout the country between Blacks and Jews, Brubeck offered a meditation on biblical justice. Composed several months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the cantata incorporates the words of both King and the prophet Isaiah. Brubeck employs Dr. King’s words to remind us that "we must live together as brothers, or die together as fools."

Brubeck pursued similar themes in his cantata, Truth is Fallen (1971). Written during the height of the Vietnam war, the work is a meditation on Isaiah’s lament : "None pleadeth for Justice, none pleadeth for Truth ; . . . Truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter" (Is 59.4, 14). The piece powerfully expresses the social effects of embracing a culture of deception.

In La Fiesta de la Posada (1975), Brubeck shifted to the more joyful theme of Christmas. Based on the Latin American carol tradition of "las posadas," this choral pageant is a grassroots favorite performed annually throughout the country.

II. To Hope : A Celebration : the Mass that led Brubeck to enter the Church
Brubeck reached a turning point in his religious development when he accepted a commission from Our Sunday Visitor to compose a Mass. Brubeck did not want to undertake the project. Not being a Catholic, he did not feel qualified. Yet, as Brubeck explains, the paper’s editor, Ed Murray, would not take no for an answer. "For two years he bugged me. . . . I’d kick him away like a dog you don’t want nipping at your heels, but he kept coming back." Finally, Brubeck agreed but only conditionally. "I told Ed, ’I’ll write three pieces and I want you to find the best Catholic expert to look at them and say whether they’re alright.’" Murray chose Sr. Theophane Hytrek. It was an inspired choice. "She got together a group of musicians in Milwaukee. The message came back, ’tell Dave to continue and don’t change a note.’" So Brubeck continued. The final result, To Hope ! A Celebration (1979), is stunningly beautiful.

There was, however, one glitch. The "Our Father" was not listed among the parts given to Brubeck to set to music. When Fr. Ron Brassard heard the completed Mass, he noticed the oversight and pressed Brubeck to write music for it as well. Brubeck’s response was emphatic : he was tired and going on vacation with his family. Something, however, stirred in the composer. On the second night of his vacation he dreamt an entire "Our Father" : "I jumped out of bed and wrote it down, because I knew its simplicity was working and I didn’t want it to get away from me. . . and it’s so simple ; but I heard the choir and the orchestration, everything." The experience had such a profound effect on Brubeck, he become a Catholic. That very night he said to himself : "If this is what’s happening I think I’ll join the Church."

The recording of the Mass (CD, Telarc, 1996) as performed at the National Cathedral testifies to the arresting beauty of the work. The spiritual power of the Mass, however, is perhaps best revealed in Daniel Wilson’s film (DVD, Lance, 2002) documenting Brubeck’s performance of the Mass in Moscow. The award-winning filmmaker follows Brubeck and Russell Gloyd, the longtime conductor of Brubeck’s orchestral works, through the adventure of preparing a Russian Orchestra and Choir to present the Mass at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. Besides capturing the joy on the faces of those who attended, Wilson documents the spiritual affect of the Mass on the musicians themselves. The words of the Mass seem to empower the singers to express their own spiritual longings, becoming a source of meditation for them. For example, commenting on the biblical refrain, "All my hope is in you, O Lord, you are my rock and my strength," the Russian baritone, Jan Kratov, confides that "this has become lodged in my heart and I will remember it for a long time."

Wilson’s documentary also reveals the importance of Russell Gloyd in making Brubeck’s orchestral pieces more well known. As Brubeck’s factotum, Gloyd both conducts and helps produce the recordings of these more recent works. A case in point are the recent recording sessions that Gloyd organized at the Abbey Road Studios in London. The sessions brought together Brubeck, his quartet, an orchestra and choir to record Brubeck’s Easter oratorio, Beloved Son (1978) and his Eucharistic meditation, Pange Lingua Variations (1983).

In a recent conversation, Gloyd was especially enthusiastic about the success of the Pange Lingua : "We brought the Abbey back to Abbey Road." Commissioned by the diocese of Sacramento, the Pange Lingua Variations is a dialogue between the chanted Latin verses of Thomas Aquinas and English translations of those verses expressed musically by Brubeck. Gloyd explains that "musically what [Brubeck] is doing is representing the spirit of the chant in each of the variations, plus looking at the history of the chant." The result is hauntingly beautiful. Especially effective is the harmony between Brubeck’s music and the poetry of the English text, assembled by Iola Brubeck from several different English translations.

III. The role of Iola Whitlock Brubeck
Iola Brubeck’s labors for the Pange Lingua point to the key role she plays in the genesis of Brubeck’s religious works. Brubeck calls her "the brains of the operation." Concretely, she is Brubeck’s lyrical voice. Trained in literature and drama, Iola is a surefooted lyricist. Her first major collaboration started with Brubeck’s musical, The Real Ambassadors (1962), which tackled racial injustice in creative and courageous ways. Iola wrote the libretto and the lyrics to Brubeck’s score. The idea was to give Louis Armstrong a platform for broaching musically issues Americans found difficult to face. A simple concept, it was far from simple to execute. Iola Brubeck’s lyrics gave the production the voice it needed. In her PBS interview with Hedrick Smith, Iola describes her subsequent collaboration with her husband on the explicitly religious piece, Light in the Wilderness. "I don’t know how I got into the mix but I started looking for portions of the Bible that I thought said what he wanted to say." This style of collaboration has produced a husband and wife partnership of rare quality.

IV. Brubeck’s more recent religious works
Other religious pieces worthy of note are the feisty Voice of the Holy Spirit : Tongues of Fire (1985), the Marian reflection, In Praise of Mary ; a psalm reflection on Brubeck’s experience of having heart surgery, Joy in the Morning (1990), and a chorale/fugue combination in honor of Pope John Paul II, Upon This Rock (1987). This last piece is especially interesting, because it too came to Brubeck in a dream. In honor of the Pope’s visit to San Francisco, Brubeck was asked to write a nine minute reflection on the Lord’s words to Peter, "upon this Rock I will build my Church." Brubeck at first refused. Once again, however, something stirred within him : "I dreamt the fugue subject. I won’t say I dreamt the whole fugue, but once I had the subject then I could hear the answer and the counter subject and I knew I could do it." Brubeck describes it as "the best thing I have ever written."

V. Improvisation and the role of Baroque forms
Some critics have difficulty understanding Brubeck’s use of improvisation in a classical setting. Improvisation, however, which baroque composes called "ornamentation," has a long history in Western music. As Russell Gloyd explains, improvisation was an integral part of baroque performance, especially for Bach, who used it liberally. Gloyd concludes that, with respect to improvisation in liturgical settings, "there is nothing new here. It’s just that unlike Bach we have the chance to record it." Brubeck’s mentor, the French composer Darius Milhaud, with whom Brubeck studied at Mills College in the 1940’s, was also deeply aware to the affinities between baroque forms and Jazz. "Milhaud gave us Bach chorales over and over and the study of Bach counterpoint and fugues. And then when you came to composition you were absolutely free." Indeed, as Brubeck explained to Marian McPartland on her NPR program, Piano Jazz (CD, The Jazz Alliance, 1993), Milhaud would invite the jazz musicians in his composition classes to write their fugues and counterpoint for jazz instruments. It was therefore natural for Brubeck to develop an eye for the affinities between jazz performance and orchestral composition.

VI. Dave Brubeck, Philip Neri and the joy of Disciplined Freedom
Brubeck’s penchant for the oratorio form, a child of St. Philip Neri and his Oratory, points to a curious affinity between Brubeck’s understanding of improvisation and the spirituality of the Oratory. Philip Neri was known by his contemporaries for his unpredictability. The Holy Spirit seemed to empower him with the freedom to act in wild and unexpected ways. Yet, Neri lived this freedom from within a tremendous discipline of prayer and self-denial. Brubeck notes that freedom’s relationship to discipline is also present in jazz. Indeed, he regards this relationship as the source of jazz’s universal appeal. In an interview with Vladimir Posner (included in Wilson’s DVD documentary), Brubeck contends that jazz has "something you must have to succeed : freedom within tremendous discipline." The disciplined freedom of improvisation is perhaps the closest musical expression of the love Brubeck has tried to share. In a recent interview, Brubeck four times drew the conversation back to the Christian call to love our enemies. When he expresses this theme musically, Brubeck is tapping the Christian roots of both jazz and classical music. Indeed, he is infusing them with the vitality of these roots. In Brubeck, jazz is going back to church.

Michael Sherwin, O.P. - Copyright