Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Brubeck makes music with a message

A work by the jazz great that premiered in Cincinnati comes out to honor Black History Month

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Dave Brubeck, playing at the JVC Jazz Festival in August.
(Enquirer file photo)
"We must live together as brothers, or die together as fools."

Jazz icon Dave Brubeck was reflecting on those words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"You know," says the 83-year-old jazz man by phone from New York, where he was making four new albums last month, "we should have all listened to what he said then. I'm trying to make our thinking along those lines, because until we do realize that we're all brothers, this world is going to be a tough place to live in."

In honor of Black History Month, the Milken Archive has released a new Naxos recording of Brubeck's The Gates of Justice, an interfaith cantata commissioned and premiered in Cincinnati in 1969. It is scored for jazz trio, brass orchestra, chorus and two vocalists - a tenor and a baritone. Brubeck specified that a Jewish cantor sing the tenor part and that the baritone be African-American.

Brubeck's piece was a plea for brotherhood between blacks and Jews during a period of strife in the 1960s, immediately following the 1968 death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was commissioned by the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the Corbett Foundation, in cooperation with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (a lay umbrella for Reform synagogues).

"It was an emotional time," Brubeck says. "The idea was to bring these two cultures together, to show similarities rather than their differences."

The world premiere was Oct. 19, 1969, to dedicate the newly-built Rockdale Temple in Amberley Village.

Original performers on 'The Gates of Justice': The Dave Brubeck Trio (Brubeck on piano; Jack Six, bass; Alan Dawson, drums); Erich Kunzel, conductor; tenor Harold Orbach; baritone McHenry Boatwright; CCM Chamber Choir, Elmer Thomas, director; the Brass Chorale and Percussion from the CCM Philharmonic; Robert Decamp, organist.

Kunzel recorded it in 1970 for Decca Records at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., with the CCM brass and Westminster Choir. (The album is now out of print.)

Performers on the new 'Gates of Justice': The Dave Brubeck Trio (Brubeck on piano; Michael Moore, bass; Randy Jones, drums); Russell Floyd, conductor; cantor Alberto Mizrahi; bass-baritone Kevin Dees; the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Brass Ensemble, Tom Hall, director.

The Milken Archive album was recorded in 2001 in Baltimore.

"It was a tremendous hit," says Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel, who conducted the premiere. "There was a standing ovation. I remember it very vividly; it was very exciting. Everyone loved it. It's a very meaningful piece, and we were all so happy with what the result was."

The text combines lyrics by Iola Brubeck (Dave Brubeck's wife), biblical passages, Hebrew liturgy, quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches and the Jewish sage, Hillel.

Most people know Brubeck as the icon of West Coast "cool jazz," and founder of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. But Brubeck started out as a serious composition student of French composer Darius Milhaud, a jazz lover who encouraged his student to follow his heart.

Wide-ranging styles

Musical styles in The Gates of Justice are wide-ranging, from Hebrew liturgical chant and the sound of the shofar (ram's horn), to spirituals ("Lord, Lord, What Will Tomorrow Bring") and the blues. There are also brief quotations from '60s pop gurus the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.

Between movements, Brubeck's own jazz musings weave a sophisticated thread. He never knows where his improvisations will wander, he says.

"There's a wide range of music you listen to, and you're born into. It all reflects on your improvisations," Brubeck says, with a little laugh. "Everything you've ever heard in your life can, all of a sudden, pop into an improvisation."

The Gates of Justice was a direct result of another ecumenical jazz work by Brubeck. In 1967 Kunzel conducted and recorded the world premiere of Brubeck's large-scale Light in the Wilderness with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by Cincinnati's Ecumenical Council.

One of the major players in the project was Rabbi Charles D. Mintz of UAHC, who lived in Cincinnati. The morning after the Wilderness premiere, Rabbi Mintz was having breakfast with Dave and Iola Brubeck.

"I asked him, 'Dave have you ever thought of doing a Jewish work?' " says Rabbi Mintz, who now lives in San Mateo, Calif. "He said, 'I'd love to, but I have to tell you, I don't know the first thing about Judaism.' I said, 'Don't worry.' "

Brubeck asked for a commissioning fee - $5,000 - a steal for someone of his stature.

"I said, are you pulling my leg?" Rabbi Mintz recalls. "Dave winked at me, and said 'Chuck, I've never had a commission.' "

Still, the rabbi didn't know where he was going to get the money. A short time later, at a Cincinnati Opera performance, Mintz felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Ralph Corbett, the arts patron who made his fortune from NuTone door chimes. Corbett wanted in on the project. Mintz had his fee.

The rabbi felt Brubeck was perfect for the task.

"I loved the idea of utilizing his eclectic compositional style," he says. "I didn't know where we were going to take it."

For the next two years, Mintz traveled to the Brubeck home in Wilton, Conn., to consult on the texts. Brubeck recalls that Rabbi Mintz sat in their kitchen, as his wife, Iola, wrote prose.

"He outlined the important things to cover, but then gave her complete freedom to write the text. It just all worked perfectly," Brubeck says.

Two weeks after the Rockdale Temple premiere, the Cincinnati musicians performed The Gates of Justice to 3,800 cheering delegates at the 50th General Assembly of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) in Miami Beach, Fla.

"It was a great audience," Brubeck recalls. "The Jewish leaders knew the text (by heart). Rather than following it from a program, they just listened and paid attention to what was going on, onstage."

Coming back to it

Kunzel has conducted several revivals of the cantata at Music Hall. Three years ago, cantor Alberto Mizrahi spearheaded the new recording, part of the Milken Archive's two-year project to record 600 works on Jewish themes. In April, Brubeck will tour with The Gates of Justice to the University of the Pacific, his alma mater in Stockton, Calif., and to Temple Shearith Israel in San Francisco - Brubeck's first trip there since he drove his teacher, Milhaud, to the temple for the premiere of Milhaud's Sacred Service.

"I was going to Mills College on the G.I. Bill, and I drove Milhaud everywhere he needed to be," Brubeck says. "That's why this is going to be very special."

Brubeck thinks The Gates of Justice is just as relevant today as it was in the '60s.

"Maybe more," he says. "I write these kind of pieces, and hopefully some people will listen to it and get the message."


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