Dave Brubeck’s Jewish Music
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.
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.