This week’s Monterey Jazz Festival is the first since the death of Dave Brubeck, the legendary jazz pianist-composer who midwifed the event’s birth nearly 60 years ago. The festival will mark Brubeck’s passing Friday night when the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra performs a specially commissioned tribute.
I had the opportunity to see Brubeck perform several times, both in Monterey and on his frequent visits to Stockton, where he attended then-College of the Pacific in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, met his wife Iola and began his performing career. University of the Pacific is now home to the Brubeck Institute, whose resident student ensemble performs at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Night Club. The festival lineup also includes a Brubeck panel discussion at 2 p.m. Saturday in Dizzy’s Den and a performance by the Brubeck Brothers Quartet at 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
I interviewed Brubeck three times between 2000 and 2004 and will post these archival items in the run up to Monterey. This feature is from spring 2004.
The centerpiece of the 2004 Brubeck Festival is "The Gates of Justice," a cantata Dave Brubeck composed in 1969 to reaffirm the ties – traditionally close but at that moment dangerously frayed – between blacks and Jews. Drawing inspiration from the words of the recently slain Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and ancient Hebrew texts, the work was conceived as nothing less than a vehicle for healing and reconciliation.
And it wouldn't have been possible without the doorbell, Brubeck said.
In an interview from his Connecticut home, the jazz legend emphasized the role others played in the creation of "The Gates of Justice." That included his wife and fellow University of the Pacific graduate Iola Brubeck (who contributed original texts) and Rabbi Charles D. Mintz (who commissioned the work on behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations).
Brubeck went out of his way, however, to note that without the largesse of J. Ralph Corbett – the Cincinnati entrepreneur who made his fortune inventing the modern doorbell – “The Gates of Justice" might never have swung open.
"He wanted to give all his money to the arts and he funded, like, the University of Cincinnati ... the whole school, millions of dollars," Brubeck said. "He was fantastic about giving money to students. And that's how ('The Gates of Justice') got started, through Rabbi Mintz being told that Corbett would finance it."
The cantata will be performed Wednesday at Pacific’s Faye Spanos Concert Hall. Anchoring a Brubeck Festival marking the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the artist’s dedication to its principles, the evening will feature performances by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Brubeck Institute Jazz Sextet, Pacific Singers and the Pacific Mozart Ensemble. Russell Gloyd will conduct with John De Haan (tenor) and Kevin Deas (bass-baritone) as vocal soloists.
The rest of the weeklong festival includes a performance by the Joe Gilman Trio, outreach concerts by the institute's sextet, screenings of documentaries on Brubeck and the connections between blacks and Jews, an interfaith prayer and music service, and a panel discussion on the civil rights movement.
The Brubeck-Mintz-Corbett alliance that made "The Gates of Justice" possible had been forged a few years earlier when Mintz and his organization – in conjunction with the Catholic archdiocese
of Cincinnati and the city's Council of Churches – produced Brubeck's first
religious work, the Christian oratorio "Light in the Wilderness." Corbett funded not only its Cincinnati premiere, but also a subsequent European tour.
"Two airplanes with all the instruments for the symphony orchestra: Can you imagine all the tympani and basses?" Brubeck recalled. "With friends of the symphony, 125 Cincinnati people were on the airplanes.
”You can't imagine at what cost. Anything anybody wanted. I remember we were having breakfast one morning and somebody said, in Norway, how wonderful it would be to see the fjords. (Corbett) called over a waiter and said, 'I want 150 box lunches' ... and he dialed somebody else and rented a huge boat. That's the way he did it."
When Mintz suggested that Brubeck, having written a Christian oratorio, turn his focus to the growing animosity between blacks and Jews, Corbett agreed to bankroll not only its Cincinnati premiere, but also a follow-up performance in front of 3,000 Jewish leaders from all over the world meeting in Miami.
"It was a tremendous hit with the audience, and whenever I have heard it since, it makes a tremendous impact," Mintz said. "It is a tremendously communicative work."
That's high praise indeed, given that Brubeck said he had little knowledge of Hebraic texts at the time. Fortunately, he knew where to turn for expert advice.
"Rabbi Mintz brought three of the most important rabbis to our house, and we talked it over," Brubeck said. "When you're doing something as complicated as a religious work of any kind, you've got to be very careful."
For the next two years, Mintz traveled regularly from Cincinnati to Connecticut with prayer books and various texts for the Brubecks. What emerged was a cantata that calls attention to the enslavement and suffering that is part of both black and Jewish history.
"The theme of social justice is expressed in the cantorial tenor, who presents the teachings of Judaism and human equality, while a black baritone asks, 'Wonderful, but what about us?'" Mintz said.
"I chose as my central thinking – Iola, too – that Martin Luther King said, 'We must live together as brothers or die together as fools,' " Brubeck said. "You can't make it more clear than that."
The Stockton performance of "The Gates of Justice" comes just two months after the release of a new recording of the work on the Naxos American Classics label. Another label, Telarc, is preparing to release "Private Brubeck," a solo piano collection featuring tunes recorded at Pacific more than 60 years ago. It includes a second disc with Walter Cronkite interviewing Brubeck, in which the American icons swap stories about World War II.
And then there is UOP's Brubeck Institute. Brubeck said he's impressed by its progress and the quality of the students – musically and otherwise – it's producing.
"It's come along so much faster than I could imagine," he said. "A lot of what we want to do at this institute is to relate (jazz) to the world. Our work is full of philosophy."
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