Jazz legend Dave Brubeck battled time and place throughout his life.
His 1959 album Time Out broke new ground by featuring all original works, polytonality and unusual time signatures. It also produced one of the most recognizable songs in jazz, “Take Five.” But another album standout hints even more at classical music’s pull on the artist.
“Blue Rondo a la Turk” borrows from jazz expression and classical forms, and it incorporates sounds that Brubeck heard during World War II among Turkish folk musicians. The piece foreshadowed his desire to integrate such influences on a much larger scale.
Dave Brubeck’s sons - Chris, Darius and Daniel - shared the same stage with their father and witnessed his penchant for fusing jazz, classical and other musical forms and techniques. Chris Brubeck said his father’s approach to music, which combined orchestra, chorus and jazz, was pioneering at the time.
“There was a time, and we experienced it, where the classical world was very snobby and rather aloof and almost gave you bad vibes because you were the jazz rabble daring to come on stage,” Chris Brubeck said.
After World War II, Dave Brubeck studied with European composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck wanted to learn how to be a classical composer, but his mentor questioned why he wanted to learn European classical music. According to Chris Brubeck, Milhaud thought the only good new music in the world was American jazz.
“Milhaud was a big encourager of this idea of, why copy us, you know? Incorporate jazz and European classical music and you'll have something new and noteworthy and we all think it’s the new future trend,” Chris Brubeck said.
After disbanding his classic quartet in the late 1960s, Brubeck began to focus more on large-scale compositions which included a sacred piece originally titled "The Temptations and Teachings of Christ.” Re-named “The Light In the Wilderness,” the piece represents Brubeck's first full-length oratorio for choir, orchestra, baritone soloist and jazz quartet.
Chris Brubeck said when his father went to Europe for the first time during the war, he was startled that countries that professed to be Christian were slaughtering each other.
“He vowed to himself, ‘If I ever lived through this thing I want to write a major piece to try to remind humanity of what the essential teachings of what Jesus' life is all about,’” Chris Brubeck said. “That became his mission and finally he acquired the tools through study to be able to realize it. ‘The Light in the Wilderness’ is my dad’s first big work and I love it because it’s so full of this beautiful bloom of first ideas.”
Jim Graves, the director of choral activities at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma City, studied “The Light in the Wilderness” for his dissertation. Graves said there are two sections to this piece of work.
“The first part is really kind of narrative in its approach: Jesus’ teachings. And then the second part is more contemplative and kind of man's response to these teachings,” Graves said.
Graves will conduct “The Light in the Wilderness” as part of the “Brubecks Play Brubeck” showcase that will include the Southern Nazarene University choral society and professional orchestra on April 5 at 7:00 p.m. at Bethany First Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City. Joining the Brubeck brothers to reprise their father’s classic quartet makeup is acclaimed European saxophonist Dave O’Higgins.
For Graves, the showcase is a dream come true.
“Compositionally, it is just fascinating to kind of pull apart all of the different techniques he's using,” Graves said.
Dave Brubeck was no stranger to Oklahoma City. in 1996, he played with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra and a group of eight different church choirs.
“It became a real kind of healing moment after the 1995 Murrah building bombing,” Graves said.
For Chris Brubeck, this particular showcase represents an opportunity to reconnect on stage with his brothers and share their father’s expanded musical repertoire and the vision the elder Brubeck must have had in bringing people together, at least in one place and time.
“When you have a lot of people coming together to make wonderful art together it’s like on the most spiritual level,” Chris Brubeck said. “This is what God really intended when he made human beings - not wars and ridiculousness - but harmony and striving together to create these moving spiritual and philosophical moments and to sort of offset the stupidity of humanity with some high art.”
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