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Music led jazz legend to Catholicism

Dave Brubeck joined church after composing new tune

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/12/2012 (1554 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After the Dec. 5 death of famed jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, the media was filled with tributes.

Much-deserved praise was offered for the groundbreaking musician, noting his unique compositions using different time signatures, the millions of albums sold, his decades of great music-making and his influence on countless musicians. Much less was said about something very near to Brubeck's heart: his faith.

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck performs at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on July 4, 2009.


Jazz legend Dave Brubeck performs at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on July 4, 2009.

Although Brubeck was best known for songs such as Take Five, he also created religious compositions such as To Hope! A Celebration, a contemporary setting of the Roman Catholic mass, oratorios such as A Light in the Wilderness, and Bending Towards the Light... A Jazz Nativity.

Brubeck's religious songs grew out of this Roman Catholic faith -- a church he joined after writing To Hope!

As he told the story, Brubeck was commissioned to do the piece by Ed Murray, editor of a Roman Catholic magazine. Murray wanted a mass that reflected the American experience -- and what better music to use than jazz, a unique American musical form?

When Brubeck protested that he didn't know anything about the mass, Murray wasn't deterred.

"When I'd say I didn't know anything about the Mass, he'd say, 'Exactly what I want; it's a fresh view,' " Brubeck recalled, noting Murray wanted someone who could look at it "with fresh eyes."

Composing the mass had a profound effect on Brubeck.

"I dreamt the entire Lord's Prayer with chorus and orchestra," he recalled about writing one section. "I jumped out of bed and wrote down what I had heard as accurately as I could remember."

Because of that event, he decided "I might as well join the Catholic Church, because someone somewhere was pulling me toward that end."

Peace was also important to Brubeck, the result of his experience as an infantryman in the Second World War.

In a 2009 interview with the PBS TV show Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Brubeck said his service in the war convinced him "something should be done musically to strengthen man's knowledge of God."

For Brubeck, the commandment forbidding killing was especially important.

"There was the German army and people that were basically Lutheran, and there was the Italian army that was basically Catholic, and (the) Judeo-Christian American army all breaking these Ten Commandments," he is quoted by the Catholic News Service as saying.

"And backed up by their governments in forgetting absolutely what their religion was all about. Isn't that terrible? Fifty-six million people died because they forgot, 'Thou shalt not kill.' "

Peace was one of the most important messages he wanted to convey through his sacred music. "This is what, to me, is the essence of Christianity," he is quoted as saying in a Religion News Service article.

Religion and spirituality also infused other of his compositions, such as the music he composed for an episode of the TV series This is America, Charlie Brown about the NASA space station.

In one part, when Earth is viewed from space, Brubeck chose The Desert And The Parched Land, from To Hope! The theme comes from the book of Isaiah, where the prophet writes that the "desert and the parched land will exalt; the steppe will rejoice and bloom."

"It is a vision of our beautiful Earth that I hope we can preserve for future generations," he wrote in the liner notes for Quiet As The Moon, the CD of music from the episode.

Brubeck wasn't the first to bring together jazz and religion; Duke Ellington performed a sacred concert at San Francisco's Grace Episcopal Cathedral in 1965, and the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams composed a jazz mass, Mass for Peace. Jazz itself has roots in the African-American church experience, and many jazz musicians drew on their experience in gospel music.

Yet jazz is rarely heard in most churches today, apart from a few jazz vespers services here and there. Which is too bad, says Jamie Howison, the priest at St. Benedict's Table and author of the book about jazz great John Coltrane titled God's Mind in that Music.

"Jazz is a good image for the church," he says. "It has improvisation, but with structure, the music is very collegial, and there's a lot of trust in the band."

For Howison, this improvisational act not only is a "wonderfully creative thing," it mirrors the incarnation -- "God's great improvisational act."

Like a jazz musician, "God is constantly looking for new notes to play," he says. "Not as a solo, but as part of an ensemble." The band members, he adds, are "open to where the spirit leads them," and the theme of the piece, like the spirit, "comes and goes but never gets lost."

I think Brubeck would agree.


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