MUSIC: Christian jazz?

Culture | Dave Brubeck breaks barriers with his music

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" was recently voted the greatest jazz song of the century. The album in which the song appeared, Time Out, marked the beginning of a marriage between jazz and classical motifs and rhythms, highlighted by such compositions as "Blue Rondo a la Turk," a Mozart theme set to jazz. Mr. Brubeck, now 79, is a convert to Roman Catholicism who is vocal about how his faith shapes his work. Though that faith tends toward universalism, he has recently been commissioned to compose a liturgical setting for the Catholic Mass. Throughout his career he has written significant music that is explicitly based on biblical texts. "I was in Patton's army in WWII, and in war, you 'get religion' in a hurry," he told WORLD. "I wanted to write an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments and 'Thou shalt not kill.' We were fighting Italian Catholics and Lutheran Germans, and we Americans were basically Christian. I felt all of us were ignoring our religion. The U.S. had no choice but to enter; the religion was not being taken seriously by our enemies. That's why the centerpiece of my first cantata was, 'Love your enemies; do good to those that hate you.'" Mr. Brubeck's other explicit references to biblical texts include a composition he wrote in 1965, "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled," for his brother Howard, whose 16-year-old son had died because of a brain tumor. That composition was later incorporated into the orchestral piece "The Light in the Wilderness" (on Musical Heritage records), an oratorio based on the temptations and teachings of Christ. His most recent album, To Hope! (Telarc), was a liturgical/ jazz Mass performed for the pope at Candlestick Park with 70,000 of the faithful in attendance. "I dreamt the entire 'Our Father' and jumped out of bed, and wrote down as much as I could. It's pretty close to the dream, and after that dream I decided I would become a Catholic." Mr. Brubeck's mother was a choir director at a local Presbyterian church and his father was a cowboy; he "grew up hearing Mexican songs, cowboy songs, and black spirituals." He and other children in Concord, Calif., also listened to jazz and big band music on the town's lone jukebox. This background helped Mr. Brubeck break down barriers. Instead of waiting for radio airplay to expose him to the public, in the early 1950s he came up with the new idea of bringing his music to college campuses, and thus built a loyal following. His music also broke cultural barriers. The band had a black musician, Gene Wright, and so lost some jobs in the '50s, but Mr. Brubeck held firm: "At one college, the president told me I couldn't bring Gene out on stage. The governor intervened, but they still told me that Gene would have to be positioned at the back of the stage. I didn't mention that to Gene; then, when his solo feature came up, I told him that his mike was broken and that he'd have to come out front and use my speaking mike." Mr. Brubeck uses his own music for spiritual growth: "Through my music, I grow into a deeper understanding of the [biblical]text. When you set the text to music, you get emotionally and philosophically involved with it, more so than just reading it. When you sing the verses or hear it from a musical point of view, it can help the verses come to life. That's why it's important that churches use great music of the world in their services." Mr. Brubeck is now studying Romans 8, and he still struggles with issues of the Bible: "I believe that the teachings of Jesus could save the world. But, I don't believe that Christ is the only way. I must not be a very good Christian," he said. He gets into deep religious discussions with his daughter (whom he respectfully calls a "fundamentalist") over this issue. "This is where I get into arguments with her. She is very much into helping people. She is the one I call when I have a question on the Bible." Still, as a Bible-reading, if not totally Bible-believing, artist, Mr. Brubeck stands as an example of someone who has influenced the culture in a biblically informed, creative, and very cool way.

-Mr. Harris is a writer in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

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