The religious side of the late Dave Brubeck and his music

Published: Friday, Dec. 7 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Of the many pieces written the past two days honoring jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, who died this week, some have focused on the music legend's faith and how it influenced his music.

Brubeck never fit the stereotype of a high-profile entertainer, the Washington Post said. "He defied the raffish image of the jazz musician by being a clean-living family man who lived with his wife and six children."

And religion was a part of his life since childhood, according to a piece in the Get Religion blog, which aggregated past profiles of Brubeck. "Through the decades, Brubeck has struggled to talk about the private journey that has defined his faith. ... He explained that he was 'reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist Church.' He also stressed that three Jewish teachers shaped his life — philosopher Irving Goleman, composer Darius Milhaud and Jesus."

Brubeck was eventually baptized into the Catholic Church, the result of a Mass he was commissioned to write in 1979, titled "To Hope! A celebration."

Accounts of the experience on Commonwheal and PBS.org say Brubeck balked when a priest said the piece should include a musical setting to "Our Father who art in heaven."

"So I said, ‘Well, nobody told me to write it, so I didn’t write it. I’m finished with The Mass, I’m going to the Bahamas with my family, and I’m going to take a vacation. I’ve been working very hard.’ So I get down there, and what happens? I dream the Our Father because a priest tells me I left it out. So I jump up in the middle of the night, and write it all down. And now it’s in The Mass.”

Brubeck said the experience prompted him to join the Catholic Church "because someone somewhere was pulling me toward that end. Over the years I’ve had strong friendships with many priests. As a matter of fact, a group of Christian leaders from the National Council of Churches came to my house in the 1950s to ask me to write music for a Mass. I didn’t think I was ready at that time. So, in a sense, I guess joining the church and writing the Mass was a culmination of a long journey that is still going on."

Brubeck didn't act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965, according to David Anderson of Religion News Service, when he wrote a short piece, "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled," to comfort his brother, Howard, whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.

"That piece was incorporated into 1968’s 'A Light in the Wilderness,' his first full-scale sacred composition. That was followed by a series of pieces including 1969’s 'The Gates of Justice,' a choral work using words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; 'Truth is Fallen,' in 1971; 'La Fiesta de la Posada' in 1975; and 'Beloved Son,' in 1978."

Anderson noted that other jazz greats have written sacred music. "Duke Ellington, for example, was invited to give what he called 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.’ ”

Brubeck once explained to Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly why jazz syncs with religious music. "Well, it would go back to the spirituals and the gospel singing that is so wonderful, so rhythmic and so great in certain churches, and you reach that audience if you have that gospel feeling."

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