Cool to Classical: Dave Brubeck Wrote for Orchestras, Choruses

Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - 01:30 PM

Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday at age 91, is being remembered as a pioneering jazz pianist and bandleader but also a composer whose large-scale symphonic and choral works expanded music's possibilities.

In the mid 1950s, Brubeck started working on parallel career tracks. He achieved pop-star acclaim with jazz hits like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and also began symphony orchestra collaborations that prefigured today's "crossover" projects. One of the first efforts came in 1956, when the Dave Brubeck Quartet shared a "Jazz Jamboree" event with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium in Manhattan. The program drew 21,000 fans.

In 1959, Brubeck, Bernstein and the Philharmonic took their collaboration a step further. In a program at Carnegie Hall, the Brubeck Quartet joined the orchestra in Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, a composition by Dave’s brother Howard Brubeck. They recorded the piece the next year for CBS; it presaged a steady stream of Dave Brubeck’s own symphonic and choral compositions.

In a 1984 interview on WQXR, Brubeck told host Bob Sherman that his early interest in classical music came from his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a piano teacher who once studied with Dame Myra Hess. After service in World War II, Brubeck studied composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. Milhaud helped to shape Brubeck's penchant for classical structures (unusual time signatures, polytonality) and critics would later identify a classical elegance in the pianist's tone and phrasing.

Among Brubeck's most successful "jazz-meets-symphony" projects was Elementals (1962), a kaleidoscopic suite that grew out of an arranger's workshop at the Eastman School of Music. He later recorded it with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Brubeck also wrote for chorus. His 1969 cantata, Gates of Justice contemplated the historic struggles of Jews and blacks. The texts include a mixture of traditional Hebrew and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was recently assassinated. In 2004, he told WNYC's Sara Fishko: "I think people are aware enough of how bad off the world is if we don't behave, and a piece like the 'Gates of Justice' is full of what they should be doing."

Brubeck continued to fuse classical music and jazz throughout his career, occasionally appearing as a soloist with orchestras. In 2002, the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices released a double CD featuring several of his works.

"Composition is selective improvisation," Brubeck told WQXR's Sherman, paraphrasing Igor Stravinsky. He added his own provocative twist that emphasized jazz's stature. "The true jazz musicians are the true [composers] – and the people who say they play classical usually don’t because they don’t improvise."

Below: Brubeck performed with the London Symphony and several of his musician sons in a 2000 birthday tribute.

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Comments [4]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

DAVE BRUBECK was indeed a man for all seasons, combining the talents of a fine musician and composer in widely differing formats, jazz to classical and that, too, in dimensions from small chamber size to large scale works. His achievements in linking the pop and classical cultures and his work on behalf of minorities by writing music that could unite, place him as a singularly empathetic genius. R.I.P. DAVE BRUBECK !!!

Dec. 06 2012 12:45 PM
Carolann from Denville,NJ

I had the great honor and pleasure of singing Mr. Brubeck's Christmas cantata "La Fiesta dela Posada" in 1998 in Morristown, NJ. I was and am a member of the Morris Choral Society and we were asked to be the chorus for the work, with Mr. Brubeck, his band and orchestra. It was a truly memorable occassion. Since the house was sold out, Mr. Brubeck invited the chorus to sit on the risers after the cantata, to hear the rest of the show. How generous!
In response to Ms Nordstrom, the mass is titled, "To Hope", and the Morris Choral Society has performed it as well. It is a truly marvelous work and aptly named.
The world is a poorer place without Dave Bribeck.

Dec. 06 2012 12:16 PM
Hermann V. Kuma

With the passing of Dave Brubeck the world has lost a great patriarch in the field of music. Dave was one of a kind and I remember clearly how much I fell in love with "Take Five." I still love it so much and I also believe that Paul Desmond was one of the greatest saxophonists who walked this earth. Dave Brubeck will be sorely missed!

Dec. 06 2012 10:57 AM
Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom from Kennebunk, Maine

It is sad to hear of the passing of the great Dave Brubeck. Not remembering whether Brubeck wrote one or more jazz masses, I Googled to find out and there was no response. Instead, Google asked me to consider creating a Search ALERT for "Dave Brubeck jazz mass," which I did. I remember his participating in the performance of such a composition at the First Presbyterian Church during a Hinshaw Music "CELEBRATION" in Chapel Hill, NC, in the Eighties. Either Hinshaw just featured it, or perhaps they actually published it. The simple way to find out is to email Roberta VanNess Whittington, president of Hinshaw to find out, and that is my next move. I had looked forward hopefully to his return some day to perform in Maine where we now live so that I could hear him again in person. I remembered seeing advertisements of his performances in New England with his sons that I could not attend. May they continue his great tradition of jazz. Condolences herewith.

Dec. 05 2012 08:29 PM

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