Jazz musician leaves legacy

Many fine and detailed obituaries of jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck have been penned and published since he died on Dec. 5, just one day shy of his 92nd birthday. But one of the best and most succinct summations of his long and varied career was written years ago by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their highly regarded and exhaustive “Penguin Guide to Jazz”: “Often derided as a white, middle-class formalist with a rather buttoned-down image and an unhealthy obsession with classical parallels and clever-clever time signatures, Brubeck is actually one of the most significant composer-leaders in modern jazz.”  

Dave Brubeck
Jazz musician and composer Dave Brubeck poses at his home in Wilton, Conn., in this 2009 photo. CNS photo by Mary T. Carty

It is rather humorous to read of how Brubeck has been viewed for decades by some critics as “stolid” (a term Brubeck took umbrage with, rightfully so) and even dull. In fact, Brubeck was neither, but he was certainly both a paradox and a pioneer. One paradox is that Brubeck, although having studied under the French composer and “modernist” Darius Milhaud and having much formal classical training (unusual for a jazz musician at the time), found tremendous and unprecedented success in the 1950s as a chart-topping popularizer. In 1954, he graced the cover of Time magazine, a first for a jazz musician, and his most famous album, “Time Out,” recorded in 1959, was a smash hit, especially among college students. 

“For all his conceptualizing,” stated the New York Times’ obituary, “Mr. Brubeck often seemed more guileless and stubborn country boy than intellectual.” This sort of apparent contradiction always followed Brubeck. The critic Leonard Feather, in his 1965 work, “The Book of Jazz,” observed that Brubeck was “a controversial figure” who had been accused by some of “senile romanticism,” but also praised (by British pianist Steve Race) as “the most uniquely significant jazzman of our times.”  

Truth be told, Brubeck straddled many lines — musically, racially, culturally — because he was a remarkably talented and disciplined artist, as well as a grounded and good man. He never succumbed to drugs and hedonism like so many of his fellow jazz musicians and was married to his wife, Iola, for 70 years as a dedicated family man. 

Brubeck constantly explored new avenues of artistic expression. In 1968 he composed the ambitious piece, “The Light in the Wilderness: An Oratorio for Today” that included references to Christianity, Judaism and other religions. The next year he composed a cantata, “The Gates of Justice,” which addressed race relations between Jews and others.  

In 1980, Brubeck received a providential commission from Ed Murray, the liturgical director for Our Sunday Visitor at the time, to compose a Mass setting. The musical result was “To Hope! A Celebration,” the first of several liturgical pieces by the composer. Brubeck entered the Catholic Church in 1981, with Murray as his godfather. Brubeck’s explanation for becoming Catholic was simple: “I was answering a call.” In 1981, Brubeck and his quartet gave a concert, “Jazz in Celebration,” in Huntington, Ind., sponsored by Our Sunday Visitor. In his program notes, Brubeck wrote the following: 

“The Heart of the Mass is found in the words themselves, living language full of deep meaning, born from the very human need to know God. It is language shaped by tradition and honed by usage, embodying with it the seeds of understanding. I approached the composition as prayer, concentrating upon the phrases, trying to probe beneath the surface, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through centuries. Emotions that are life, from deepest sorrow to highest exaltation, were part of my experience in writing ‘To Hope!’ When the work was completed, I felt a strong sense of wholeness and affirmation.” 

In 1987, he composed music for Pope John Paul II’s visit to San Francisco and received a blessing from the late pontiff. “I kissed his ring,” said Brubeck later, “It doesn’t get any better than that.” When it comes to great jazz, great artists and great men, it doesn’t get much better than Dave Brubeck. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.