Summer Music Interview | Dave Brubeck’s Jewish Music

By | Oct 07, 2011
2010 July-August, Interview
Dave Brubeck

Jazz and religion? It’s not a fusion that normally comes to mind, but religious themes run through the music of many jazz musicians, including one of the greatest: Dave Brubeck. Admired by young and old for his masterful recordings of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” and his own “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” Brubeck has delved deeply into sacred themes with his choral compositions, especially The Gates of Justice (1969) and The Commandments (2005). Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich interviews Brubeck, now 89, about the arc between spirituality and jazz, and why as a non-Jew he has been inspired to create “Jewish music.”

People often think of jazz as sensual music, but it also has a spiritual side—

There is a kinship between jazz, blues and spirituals because they spring from the same roots. Many jazz musicians performed in church before ever setting foot in a nightclub. Jazz can be fun, entertaining, sad or happy, but it can also be profound. Even though it may not be expressing a religious theme overtly, there is a spiritual quality in the best jazz improvisations that comes from deep within the soul of the player. In Corinthians 13 it says, “For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully even as I have been fully known.” I often think about that description because when I am improvising I feel as though I am looking through a glass darkly, but suddenly I may break into the light. Improvising in jazz can be a transforming experience.

Although my wife and I are not Jewish, it seemed that our thoughts were very compatible. What they were hoping for was a new approach to the old truths.

In which jazz composers and compositions do you hear the spiritual side of jazz?

Having heard Mahalia Jackson at the Newport Jazz Festival and witnessing how the secular jazz audience took to her as if she were the greatest jazz singer of the day, I am convinced there is very little to differentiate the genres. I talked to Mahalia later that day, and she told me she didn’t really want to sing jazz and had explicitly avoided going in that direction. Her pianist…“swung” and made Mahalia swing as if they were a jazz duo. I once toured with Rosetta Tharpe and saw the same response from jazz audiences all over Europe. One of the earliest examples of a jazz composer’s writing in a specifically spiritual vein is Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” It dates back originally to “Black, Brown and Beige,” one of Duke’s early major efforts. Also, “The Lord’s Prayer” from Ellington’s Sacred Concerts is very beautiful. There have been a number of jazz musicians who have written jazz masses—Billy Taylor, Mary Lou Williams, Louie Bellson come to mind, and I think one of the first was by a musician named Ed Summerlin. Of course, there is John Coltrane and the entire album of A Love Supreme that reaches for the sublime. I’ve always felt that Louis Armstrong’s inspired playing was a gift from heaven, and the genius of Art Tatum surely must have come from the Holy Spirit. How else can we explain what either of those geniuses could create?

How did you come to compose The Gates of Justice?

The Gates of Justice was commissioned by Rockdale Temple of Cincinnati, Ohio. After the premiere of The Light in the Wilderness by the Cincinnati Symphony, sponsored by the Ecumenical Council, Rabbi Charles Mintz, who was on the council, told me that he wanted “equal time.” He asked me to write a piece for the dedication of Rockdale Temple. He then brought three rabbis to our house in Connecticut to discuss the commission and what areas we should explore. Although my wife and I are not Jewish, it seemed that our thoughts were very compatible. What they were hoping for was a new approach to the old truths.

Why do you think they chose you?

They thought that with my background in jazz I could create something to heal the rift between the African-American community and the Jewish community that had at one time been so closely allied. At this time there were many cities in the United States that were being destroyed, suffering from riots in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I thought by showing the similarities in the history of both peoples—slavery, the diaspora, rejection—I could contribute to a mutual understanding that would help everyone to act together in the cause of social justice. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “We either live together as brothers or die together as fools,” sums up the central idea of the piece.

Many decades later you composed The Commandments. Why did you take on that project?

It was an opportunity to state musically what I believe in very deeply. I had the desire to write a piece of music about the Commandments since World War II and my narrow escape in the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout the war I witnessed the destruction and the unnecessary deaths of French, German, American, English, Italian, Russian soldiers and civilians. I was troubled by the realization that although we worshipped the same God and had been taught the Commandments, we still were killing each other. I thought that if each country and culture would examine their own religious and spiritual backgrounds, they would discover that we all have been taught the same basic rules, which are summed up in the Commandments.

How is this relevant today?

There is a Muslim teaching that says one must follow the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses, as I see it, is the Commandments. I use these religious themes to remind people of their own religious and cultural backgrounds and to ask of them to take seriously what they have been taught and apply it to their lives and to the problems of society. Until they do, the hatred, dissension, destruction and killing will continue.

Were you affected by the experiences of your teacher, the composer Darius Milhaud, who fled Europe for his life during World War II?

America was enriched with the flood of great artists and musicians entering the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. Many came to California: When Milhaud landed in New York he was offered a job at Mills College in Oakland. Stravinsky and Schoenberg went to Los Angeles. Hindemith and Bartok stayed on the East Coast. I was especially blessed to have had the opportunity to study with Milhaud in California and to have had a close personal relationship with him. I was privileged to accompany him to rehearsals when his Sacred Service was premiered at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco in 1949.

Are you still composing music?

Over the past few years I have been delving into American poets. The Pacific Mozart Ensemble plans to record a collection of these settings by such poets as Wendell Berry, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, Dana Gioia and Richard Wilbur. Every tomorrow I hope that I will compose something worthwhile.


Note: Brubeck’s Gates of Justice and The Commandments as well as the Milhaud Sacred Service were recorded by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

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