When jazz musician Dave Brubeck died Wednesday, one day short of his 92nd birthday, tributes poured out from all quarters. They usually mentioned his 1959 album Time Out, the first ever million-selling jazz LP. Most also mentioned that he was the first modern jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time, on Nov. 8, 1954.
Buried in most stories, if mentioned at all, was Brubeck’s late-in-life conversion to Christianity and his robust body of sacred music.
Born Dec. 6, 1920, to a California ranching family, Brubeck’s religious sensibilities awakened during World War II when he served in Gen. George Patton’s famed 3rd Army. In an interview with Hedrick Smith for the PBS program Rediscovering Dave Brubeck, he said, “So many of my friends got killed in World War II. On the parachute landing on D-Day, one of my friends got shot in the air in his harness of his parachute.” Brubeck said he started asking himself, “Why am I here? Why did they get killed?” Initially, though, he said he turned not to God but to hard work. Brubeck resolved, “I’m alive and I’m gonna do as much as I can.”
And he did. His post-war productivity was remarkable. Not only did the poly-rhythms of such songs as “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo” capture America’s post-war energies, Brubeck’s output—as many as 250 concerts and four albums a year—turned him into a jazz superstar in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some musicians and critics resented Brubeck’s success, saying he capitalized on an audience that black musicians had built. Others dismissed Brubeck’s music as “West Coast Jazz” or “Cool Jazz” or even “White Man’s Jazz.” But the criticism faded after Brubeck canceled 23 of 25 concerts—many of them on college campuses in the South—when he discovered that his black bass player Eugene Wright would not be welcome. After that, Brubeck, Wright, and the rest of the band were welcomed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, N.Y., and at both black and white colleges throughout the country.
It was Brubeck’s status as a distinctly American voice, and not his religious sensibility, that secured a commission to do a jazz treatment of the Catholic Mass. Brubeck completed To Hope! A Celebration in 1980. The process of composing the piece led him to convert to Catholicism shortly after, though he resisted that description.
“I didn’t convert to Catholicism,” he said, “Because I wasn’t anything to convert from. I just joined the Catholic Church.” He subsequently composed more pieces with religious themes, some of them based on biblical texts chosen for him by his wife, Iola.
Brubeck also defied the stereotype of the jazz musician as a profligate bohemian. At the time of his death on Wednesday, he had been married to Iola for 70 years. Together they had six children, four of whom became professional musicians who sometimes toured with their father. Among the many honors Brubeck received during his long career, two stand out for those who appreciate his faith and lifelong commitment to musical excellence. In 2006 he received the Laetare Award from Notre Dame University, “Given by whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” Secondly, in 2010, Brubeck’s 90th year, his quartet won DownBeat magazine’s readers’ poll as the best group in jazz—57 years after the original Dave Brubeck Quartet won the same award.