Dave Brubeck, jazz impresario and late-in-life Catholic, dies

Dave Brubeck is pictured in 2009 at his home in Wilton, Conn. The Catholic jazz musician and composer died Dec. 5. — CNS/MARY T. CARTY

Dave Brubeck, the influential and prolific pianist whose composition "Take Five" became a standard in the annals of jazz, died of heart failure Dec. 5 in Norwalk, Conn., at age 91, one day before his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck, who played his "cool" brand of West Coast jazz before Blessed John Paul II and eight presidents, became a Catholic in 1980 after completing a commission from Our Sunday Visitor — a Mass titled "To Hope." Brubeck said in a PBS biographical profile, "I didn't convert to Catholicism, because I wasn't anything to convert from. I just joined the Catholic Church."

He received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame and the Christophers' Life Achievement Award, both in 2006, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. He got an honorary degree in sacred theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland in 2004. Brubeck also received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009 for his contributions to American culture and the arts.

Brubeck originally turned down the commission for "To Hope" since he wasn't a Catholic then, but Ed Murray, then the editor of Our Sunday Visitor, "just wouldn't take no for an answer," Brubeck said.

"When I'd say I didn't know anything about the Mass, he'd say, 'Exactly what I want, it's a fresh view. Somebody who will come in and just look at this with fresh eyes.'" Brubeck said. He eventually told Murray, "I'll do it if you have some very knowledgeable Catholic people — I'll write three parts of the Mass — and if they like it, then I'll continue." After they listened to what he had written, the word came: "Tell Dave to continue and don't change a note."

As for "On This Rock," which he composed for the 1987 visit of Blessed John Paul to San Francisco, he was also reluctant, Brubeck told CNS. "I wouldn't accept that. They called me late in the evening and they needed an answer right away, the next day," he recalled.

"So I said no, and then I asked for the text. And the text was 'Upon this rock I will build my church and the jaws of hell cannot prevail against it.' So I'm thinking, 'Now they want nine minutes on this one sentence. How am I going to do that?'

"I went to bed and in the middle of the night I thought the only way to do this is how Bach would have done it — with a chorale and fugue. We can use the words over and over. I was dreaming the subject of the fugue.

"And when I woke up I said, 'Jeez, I've got it. This is the way I can do it, is with a chorale and fugue.' I think it's the best thing I've ever written."

In addition to dozens of albums of jazz compositions, he wrote several oratorios, including "Bending Towards the Light ... A Jazz Nativity," a live recording of the annual Christmas jazz pageant performed at Lincoln Center in New York."
—CNS


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