‘Great Art Survives'

A Conversation with Dave Brubeck

At the age of eighty-eight, Dave Brubeck is one of America’s most celebrated jazz performers and composers. Best known for the 1959 Dave Brubeck Quartet record Time Out, Brubeck has produced a large and eclectic body of work, from jazz standards to jazz operas and ballet scores. In 1980 Brubeck was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and he has composed several religious and liturgical works, including a setting of St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn “Pange Lingua,” an oratorio titled A Light in the Wilderness, and a setting for the Mass titled To Hope!

In 2006, Brubeck was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, given each year to an American Catholic in recognition of exemplary service to the church and American society. Past recipients include John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. Brubeck resides in Connecticut with his wife, Iola. Following a recent performance of his Pange Lingua Variations at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall, I was able to ask Mr. Brubeck a few questions about music, Catholicism, and liturgy.

 

IAN MARCUS CORBIN: You have spoken in interviews about moments onstage when you have become so wrapped up in the music you are playing that you seem to go “beyond” yourself. Is this ecstatic experience like other deep emotional experiences—say, romantic love or spiritual contemplation? Or is it something entirely different?

DAVE BRUBECK: The source of inspiration can be any of the things you mentioned. I think such rare moments come only when you have total concentration. You are consumed in and by the music. I guess you could say that it is akin to contemplation. In order to reach this desirable state of mind you have to rise above the environment you’re in at that particular time—a bad piano, glaring stage lights, or the attitude of the audience. Sometimes the inspiration of the other musicians you’re playing with helps you reach this stage. Playing solo you are dependent on your own ability to concentrate and to create—excluding all distractions from the environment or other parts of your mind.

IMC: Your entry into the Catholic Church was precipitated by your 1979 composition of To Hope! A Celebration, a musical setting for the Mass. Can you explain what about that experience was so influential?

DB: So often people will say that I converted to the Catholic religion. This is false. Although I was raised as a Protestant, I was never baptized and had never been a member of any church. I joined the Roman Catholic Church after I had written my Mass To Hope! A good friend of mine, Fr. Ron Brassard, told me that he loved the music I had composed for the Mass but I had omitted the Our Father, and he wanted me to write a musical setting for it. I answered that I had already completed the composition of the Mass and I couldn’t see a way to include what I then referred to as the Lord’s Prayer without interrupting the musical flow. I felt I’d successfully fulfilled my assignment from Our Sunday Visitor, the publication that commissioned the Mass. I definitely felt no motivation to start writing again. Since I had completed the composition, I planned a vacation with my wife and children. We were on a Caribbean island. During the night I dreamt the entire Lord’s Prayer with chorus and orchestra. I jumped out of bed and wrote down what I had heard as accurately as I could remember. Because of this event I decided that I might as well 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.

IMC: To Hope! is a lively, muscular orchestral piece, yet at several points you insert brief interludes of looser, more introspective jazz improvisation. What does this say about the strengths and limitations of the genres you’re working with? Can jazz express certain emotional reactions that more regimented classical forms cannot, and vice versa?

DB: Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and many other great jazz musicians objected to their music being called jazz. While the outside world may want to put a label on it, those who create it think of it just as music, and tend not to classify it. The reality for me is simple. When music is written, it is usually categorized as classical. When it is improvised, it can still be called classical if it is an inspired improvisation. In either category, it is still music, and it can be good or bad or simply mediocre. In my own work, the improvised sections can sometimes reach an audience on a different emotional level because of the immediacy. A sensitive improviser reflects the feeling and atmosphere of a particular moment in place and time, as well as connecting with the musical material in the composed sections.

IMC: Does the modern Christian worshiper lose anything of value as more intricate, studied compositions are displaced by less complex pop- or folk-style songs in many Christian churches?

DB: The use of rock, folk, or pop music serves a purpose. It gets people into the church. But an inexperienced guitar player who doesn’t have much to say, for example, can make me wish to leave the church immediately, whereas one great jazz or classical guitarist can confirm that I will have a spiritual experience in the church. There are a lot of people on the lowest rung of Jacob’s Ladder, and we must somehow reach down, give them a hand, and make them want to climb. A little really good music never hurt anyone. And when people are given good music they can grow spiritually and even discover they like it. For example, why is Handel’s Messiah performed year after year, reaching millions of people? Every year it gathers more listeners, some new, some who make it part of their Christmas experience. With many repetitions it has become a tradition shared by people on all levels of music appreciation. I think the church should strive to give parishioners good music. Music is as necessary for worship as a building with a beautiful altar, artwork, and stained-glass windows. Together they create an environment conducive to worship and contemplation. We are not in church for entertainment, but to worship.

IMC: The bold, muscular feel of To Hope! is also present in your Pange Lingua Variations, which you recently presented at Yale. How much of this feel is simply a matter of your songwriting style, and how much is a reflection of your outlook as a person and a Christian? Can an artist separate the two?

DB: The Pange Lingua Variations reflect my style of writing, but they also reflect their origins in Gregorian chant. In my piece the original Gregorian chant is sung in Latin, and after the Latin verse I’ve written a contemporary variation to match its meaning. My variations reflect the original chant by my usage of parallel fourths and fifths in many of the movements. So it’s a mixture of the ancient and the contemporary. I don’t think you can separate a person’s “style” and his persona. If you’re writing or improvising honestly, you will inevitably reflect who you are.

IMC: In other interviews you’ve said that your experience as a soldier in World War II showed you that these putatively Christian people who were waging war against each other had failed to truly understand God’s command to love one another. You decided to use music as a vehicle to communicate this message more deeply. More than a half-century later, do you believe art has the power to change the course of history?

DB: Art may not have the power to change the course of history, but it can provide a perspective on historical events that needs to be heard, even if it’s seldom heeded. After all the temporary influences that once directed the course of history have vanished, great art survives and continues to speak to each generation.

 


Related: A Jazz Mass?: Ian Marcus Corbin on composer Mary Lou Williams
Dana Gioia Goes to Washington: an interview with poet Dana Gioia
Whatever Works: an interview with Woody Allen

 

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About the Author

Ian Marcus Corbin is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Boston College, where he studies the philosophy of art and culture.

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