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Dave Brubeck: Making a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord
By Mark Lombard
This jazz icon sought to break racial barriers, cross national boundaries and build cultural connections. Then he found the Catholic faith.


Son of a Cattle Rancher and Pianist
Musical Ambassador Spreading Freedom’s Message
Breaking Through Orthodoxies and a Leap of Faith
A Life of Achievement
From Bach ‘Swinging’ to Interfaith

Before a packed crowd, Dave Brubeck plays August 9, 2009, at George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 in Newport, Rhode Island.

INTRODUCED TO THE cheers of thousands gathered almost 50 years to the day of the taping of “Take Five,” his signature tune known the world over, Dave Brubeck slowly walks onstage over to a black Steinway grand piano.

Dressed in a white jacket with a pink shirt, black pants, burgundy tie and suspenders, Brubeck offers his thanks to the crowd before immediately pointing to the other three members of the quartet. These include his drummer son, Danny, who flew in from Vancouver to sit in for this concert.

In that half a century since his band released the Paul Desmond-composed song, Brubeck’s hair has gone from black to gray to white. His voice has also changed, weakened with age. Despite that, the audience at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, in late June 2009 hangs on every word, almost leaning forward in unison so he doesn’t have to strain to be heard.

Yet as he sits at the keyboard and begins to play, there seems to be an empowering energy taking hold of him. The frailty of an 88-year-old—the same number of years as those keys on a piano—is transformed into the presence of a legend. Within a medley of Duke Ellington hits that opens the concert, Brubeck attacks the keys, with shoulders hunching up and down and swaying. His hands bounce up and down the keyboard for the quartet’s take on “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

During the rendition of the quartet’s best-known “Take Five,” Brubeck tilts his head back in joy. He intensely watches the other musicians, rocking his head forward in time with the pulsating, driving beat of the song. He then leans forward on the piano, his face alight from the joy of the musical interaction.

“We love to play, and I guess it shows,” Brubeck said when we spoke at his home last July. For this musician who continues to keep a grueling concert schedule that would exhaust those much younger, “the energy comes when we start to play.”

Dave Brubeck changed the world of jazz and was featured on the cover of Time magazine, wrote a Catholic Mass, played for a pope and presidents and was led to Catholicism after dreaming of a composition of the Our Father.

Son of a Cattle Rancher and Pianist

His music is known for employing various and unusual time signatures, and a style that draws on the classical influence he heard from his pianist mother and his own improvisational skills. Sometimes his compositions and performances can be playful, other times sardonic, but they always seek to bridge divisions whether between musical styles or among cultures, races, religions, nations, ages or ideologies.

Born in Concord, California, on December 6, 1920, David Warren Brubeck is the youngest of three sons of a cattle-ranching father and a piano-playing, choir-directing mother. He worked his way through school as a jazz pianist, while studying veterinary medicine with hopes of eventually running the ranch.

In 1942, he entered the U.S. Army where he served under Gen. George S. Patton. But music was responsible for his transfer from a unit that was soon to be sent to the front lines in the Battle of the Bulge to play instead for a Red Cross show. He was ordered to organize an Army jazz band, the “Wolfpack,” which became under his leadership one of the first racially integrated units in the U.S. armed forces.

Discharged from the Army in 1946, Brubeck resumed his music studies. This meant he had to play at jazz clubs and do whatever he could do, including selling sandwiches in office buildings, to support his wife (now of 67 years), Iola, and their growing family in order to keep alive his dream of a career in music.

It was a dream that was almost shattered in a near-fatal swimming accident in 1951 that left him incapacitated for four months. He describes himself as “still fighting” his back injury, from which he hasn’t recovered fully.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet stormed colleges on a campus concert tour in the early 1950s, creating three live albums, a whole new fan base for jazz and great popularity for them.

He was only the second jazz musician featured on the cover of Time magazine (1954), an honor he thought should have been given to “the fantastic” Duke Ellington, an African-American, “my mentor and the one who helped me get started.”

Brubeck canceled a television appearance and several concerts because he would not change from his integrated band, noting that prejudice is “morally, religiously and politically wrong.” He received the “deep appreciation” of the NAACP in a 1960 telegram for his “courageous stand against submitting your band to the pressures of immoral racial discrimination” and for being willing to accept the not insignificant financial loss associated with “the very valuable and tangible contribution that you have made to the fight for human rights.”


In 1958, the quartet was selected by the U.S. State Department to make a 14-country goodwill tour of Europe (including Poland, which was then behind the Iron Curtain), the Middle East and Central Asia.

The trip left a lasting impression on Brubeck, as he incorporated the rhythms and beats of the cultures encountered in music the quartet would produce. “You’re influenced by everything you hear,” he says. “My [college] teacher always said, ‘Travel the world and keep your ears open.’”

“Music crosses any boundaries that outline a different country. The music becomes very universal,” Brubeck explains as we sit face-to-face at his home in Wilton, Connecticut. “You feed something in and you get something back. And there is your exchange, the cross-cultural exchange.”

“Jazz represents freedom, freedom musically and politically,” he says. He notes that his tour “to show how important freedom and democracy are” targeted countries near the then-Soviet Union, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and India, places still very much in the news today.

“This kind of cross-cultural thing is something we should sponsor more because it is so the world,” he says, adding that he continues to keep up with musicians throughout the world and to hear from some who still speak to him about the influence on them of that Cold War tour.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded other albums, but it was their work on Time Out in 1959 that made their mark in the world of jazz. This breakthrough album symbolized Kennedy-era optimism, as well as the evolving complexity in jazz. The first jazz record to sell more than a million copies, Time Out featured unusual time signatures beyond four beats in each measure. Brubeck reasoned that complex groupings of five, seven or nine beats per measure would stimulate rhythms similar to African drum choruses.

“Something I had wanted to do was to experiment in different time signatures,” Brubeck says, explaining that early jazz reflected “simple marching beats” and not the complicated African-influenced rhythms. “Africa is so important” to jazz, he stresses. “I knew that jazz should reflect Africa because without that cross-cultural connection we wouldn’t have jazz.” Working with more sophisticated rhythms was key, he says.

Time, irregular meters and music drawing on other cultural idioms figure prominently in Brubeck’s music following Time Out: Time Further Out (1961), Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962), Time Changes (1963) and Time In (1965).

“Years ago, in 1949, I said that jazz is like a sponge and would soak up the music of all these places where the jazz musicians would eventually go,” he says. “And it just happened to be true.”

Most think of Dave Brubeck as the white-haired jazz pianist who has been for decades leading a famous quartet. But many may not be aware of his impact as a composer of orchestral pieces, a Catholic Mass and other sacred music.

Though he had little classical training, Brubeck acquired an interest in sacred music during the Second World War. That was when he conceived the idea for an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments, especially the prohibition “Thou shall not kill.”

It was not until two decades later that he wrote the short piece, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” to comfort his older brother, Howard, whose son died tragically of a brain tumor at 16. That piece was incorporated into his first major choral work, The Light in the Wilderness (1968), an oratorio on Jesus’ teaching which he premiered with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

“The most profound thing that Christ said was, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,’” Brubeck states. “To think that someday I would use that in the oratorio, that it was the center of The Light in the Wilderness!

The Gates of Justice (1969) is a cantata based on biblical and Hebrew liturgical texts. It is combined with quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and Negro spirituals and integrated within a complex of musical styles. In it, Brubeck points to spiritual and emotional bonds between Jewish people and African-Americans and their joint heritage of suffering, enslavement and diaspora.

Truth Is Fallen (1971), dedicated to the memory of the 1970 Kent State University and Jackson State shootings during Vietnam War protests, draws upon the biblical words of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It expresses the disillusionment and the alienation of a society centered in war and alerts listeners to the “anti-life” forces that destroy the trust that binds together generations, nations, ethnic groups and cultures.

In La Fiesta de la Posada (1975), Brubeck drew upon the Latin American Christmas carol tradition.

To Hope! A Celebration was Brubeck’s first encounter with the Roman Catholic Mass, written at a time when he belonged to no denomination or faith community. It was commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor editor Ed Murray, who wanted a serious piece on the revised Roman ritual, not a pop or jazz Mass, but one that reflected the American Catholic experience.

The writing was to have a profound effect on Brubeck’s life. A short time before its premiere in 1980 a priest asked why there was no Our Father section of the Mass. Brubeck recalls first inquiring, “What’s the Our Father?” (he knew it as The Lord’s Prayer) and saying, “They didn’t ask me to do that.”

He resolved not to make the addition that, in his mind, would wreak havoc with the composition as he had created it. He told the priest, “No, I’m going on vacation and I’ve taken a lot of time from my wife and family. I want to be with them and not worry about music.”

“So the first night we were in the Caribbean, I dreamt the Our Father,” Brubeck says, recalling that he hopped out of bed to write down as much as he could remember from his dream state. At that moment he decided to add that piece to the Mass and to become a Catholic.

He has adamantly asserted for years that he is not a convert, saying to be a convert you needed to be something first. He continues to define himself as being “nothing” before being welcomed into the Church.

His Mass has been performed throughout the world, including in the former Soviet Union in 1997 (when Russia was considering adopting a state religion) and for Pope John Paul II in San Francisco during the pontiff’s 1987 pilgrimage to the United States. At the latter celebration, Brubeck was asked to write an additional processional piece for the pope’s entrance into Candlestick Park.

Again, it was a dream that led him to accept a sacred music project that he initially refused as not workable. The dream “was more of a realizing that I could write what I wanted for the music,” Brubeck says.

“They needed nine minutes and they gave me a sentence, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church and the jaws of hell cannot prevail against it.’ So rather than dream musically, I dreamed practically that Bach would have taken one sentence in a chorale and fugue, as he often did, and that was the answer,” he says. “So I decided that I would do that piece for the pope,” which is known as “Upon This Rock.”

World tours of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, including several for the U.S. State Department, have made its leader known as one of America’s foremost goodwill ambassadors. He has performed before world leaders at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow in 1988, as well as eight other U.S. presidents, princes, kings and heads of state.

He received, among other awards: Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal, perhaps the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics; the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award; the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal of Arts award, presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame and American Classical Music Hall of Fame; and the Living Legacy Jazz Award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

In 2008, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice awarded Brubeck the U.S. State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy for offering “a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American.”

And with all of his awards and jazz-related achievements, this father of six children, four of whom are musicians who have played with him professionally, describes “Upon This Rock” and The Light in the Wilderness as his greatest musical accomplishments.

Brubeck does not make a distinction between his work as an orchestral and chorale composer and his performing as one of the world’s foremost jazz bandleaders.

“I go back to the music of Bach, like the Brandenburg Concertos, which are so rhythmic and swinging, so very close to the jazz idiom, and yet they are the most profound part of classical music,” Brubeck says. Jazz and the sacred, he adds, “have always been close.”

He finds working with sacred texts challenging. “The Bible is the Bible,” Brubeck says, “whether you say you are Protestant or Catholic. In the end, it is the Bible...those profound, more than just man-inspired writings.”

He is currently working with the Pacific Mozart Chorale on a CD recording of his sacred music and a new piece called “The Commandments.” When he was working on it, he inquired about a sentence or a phrase that “would connect the three great religions—the Jewish religion, the Christian and the Muslim.” He was given a quote from the Islamic tradition, which he found powerful: “We must follow the words of Moses.”

“Now why haven’t we?” an animated Brubeck asks. “Why aren’t the three different religions taking this seriously?”

The Commandments are the basis for all three faith traditions, he stresses. “We’re not that far apart,” he says. “Why are we moving so slowly” to implement them in our lives? He worries about why “some of our huge amounts of money going to army expenditures...aren’t going to education of such important things that might contribute eventually to stopping... future wars.”

He sees a relationship between what Christ said, “Love your enemies,” and what Buddha said, “The crowning enlightenment is to love your enemy.”

“How far apart are we if that sentence and Christ’s sentence are examined? They are almost the same, except that Buddha was 600 years earlier,” he points out.

Brubeck says that his faith is fed in a variety of ways based upon what he encounters during the day. On the afternoon of our interview, the musician says, “I was looking at a text that is on my piano that has been there for years...and [I] never read it.” As it turns out, it was the Prayer of St. Francis.

“If I was going to set something new [to music], it would probably be this,” he says.

Then reflecting on the creative process for a moment, Brubeck notes, “That’s the way it happens, you know.” He does not offer an explanation as to why the prayer didn’t connect with him “the first time that I must have looked at it. But it happened now.”

“You can’t say exactly what is the creative process. If you really know what it is, you should bottle it up for future use. But it is always different things,” Brubeck stresses, adding that one can encounter beauty and the divine in the most mundane of circumstances. “Driving a car, all of a sudden you will hear something that is quite beautiful.”

The jazz musician recalls once when “I was kind of stuck on a piece, thinking, How am I going to write my way out of this?” He says he always has to be open to new ways of tackling a composition.

Creativity is a sharing in God’s power. In nature, “there is never a duplication, a snowflake is never duplicated. And think of how many billions come down,” Brubeck says. “If God can create like that, we ought to be able to reflect a bit of that.”

Dave Brubeck reflects that a lot.

Listen to excerpts of this interview at

Mark Lombard is the managing editor of this Web site and director of Web business development for St. Anthony Messenger Press. He and his wife Mary Carty, the photographer for this article, have been jazz aficionados for several decades.

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