A Dave Brubeck cantata boasts star soloists: His sons

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A Dave Brubeck cantata boasts star soloists: His sons
Chris Brubeck, the son of the eminent jazz musician Dave Brubeck, experiments with one of his father’s shofars with Remy O’Hara, a music student at UCLA, and Jens Lindemann, a trumpet professor at the university, in Los Angeles, Feb. 22, 2023. “The Gates of Justice,” a large-scale 1969 choral work about relations between Black and Jewish Americans by Dave Brubeck, is being performed in Los Angeles. (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

LOS ANGELES, CA.- “Want to give us a blast?” bassist Chris Brubeck asked the young woman in a music studio at UCLA on Wednesday morning.

Remy Ohara lifted a long, corkscrewing shofar to her lips and blew a resonant call. Brubeck had brought a few other shofars with him as options, but it was clear from the moment Ohara, a sophomore trumpet student, started playing that this one had what he was looking for.

The call of a shofar, the ancient instrument usually made from a ram’s horn and best known for its use in Jewish worship, opens “The Gates of Justice,” a grand 1969 choral cantata by the eminent jazz musician Dave Brubeck, Chris’ father.

On Sunday and Tuesday, UCLA will present the work — with Chris and two of his brothers, Darius and Dan, forming the central jazz trio — as the main offering of a series of events devoted to the intersection of music and social justice, and to finding common cause between Black and Jewish communities in America.

“It’s something that Dave really believed in,” said Mark Kligman, a professor of Jewish music at UCLA and an organizer of the program. “He really believed in this type of communal opportunity for unity and conversation.”

Searching for — and galvanizing — that common cause between Black and Jewish Americans was the motivation behind “The Gates of Justice.” Brubeck, famous for numbers like “Take Five” and for his pioneering use of unconventional rhythms in jazz, also wrote concert music that reflected his social conscience, particularly on issues of race.

During the days of Jim Crow he refused to play tour dates if they were contingent on replacing Black players. His 1961 musical “The Real Ambassadors,” with lyrics by Iola Brubeck, his wife, starred Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae in a story about jazz, racism and the music business.

As the 1960s progressed, Dave Brubeck — who was raised Protestant but joined the Catholic Church after writing a Mass setting in the late 1970s — was pained to see the unity among racial and religious groups earlier in the civil rights movement give way to tensions and suspicion. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was the direct inspiration for “The Gates of Justice,” which quotes the Bible and liturgical texts alongside King’s writings.

The music is also an amalgam, taking in the influence of Jewish cantillation, traditional choral styles, gospel, mariachi, pop, blues and 12-tone music. (It shares its eclecticism with the 1971 “Mass” by Leonard Bernstein, who had collaborated with Brubeck on jazz-classical experiments.)

In 2001, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, founded by businessperson Lowell Milken, recorded the work for Naxos. And the UCLA performances — on Sunday at Royce Hall on campus and on Tuesday at Holman United Methodist Church, a Black congregation in the city — will take place under the auspices of the school’s recently opened Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience.

Neal Stulberg will conduct a chorus consisting of the ensemble Tonality and members of Los Angeles church and synagogue choirs; a brass and percussion orchestra; and two vocal soloists. The keening tenor part will be sung by Azi Schwartz, a cantor at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York; and Phillip Bullock will take the baritone part, influenced by traditional Black styles.

As the core jazz trio, which has improvising interludes, Chris Brubeck, on bass and trombone, will be joined by his brothers Darius, on piano, and Dan, on drums. (Another of Brubeck’s sons, Matthew, is a cellist; they had a sister, Catherine, who died last year, and a brother, Michael, who died in 2009.) Chris, Darius and Dan have played together often, but this is the first time they will collaborate on “The Gates of Justice” — and the first time they have been united since before the pandemic lockdown.

Dave Brubeck’s roots were in swing, but he had classical chops. In an interview, Darius said his father had a shelf full of music theory books, and kept the scores of Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues next to his piano for reference. After World War II, Dave Brubeck studied at Mills College in California with the jazz-loving French composer Darius Milhaud, who had fled Europe during the war. Brubeck came to admire Milhaud so deeply that he named his first son after him.

In the 1950s, Brubeck became a celebrated figure in jazz, featured on the cover of Time magazine — exposure that led to criticism, which dogged him, that he owed his fame, at least in part, to being a white man who appealed to a broader audience. His era-defining recording “Time Out” (1959) was the first jazz album to sell a million copies. But in the late ’60s, after his classic quartet disbanded, his work shifted, turning more toward classical forms and social issues.

Brubeck’s first major choral work, “The Light in the Wilderness” (1968), adapted biblical texts to spread a message of hope amid that decade’s widespread questioning of faith and the lingering horrors of World War II. A few years after “The Gates of Justice,” he wrote another cantata, “Truth Is Fallen” (1972), in response to the killing of student protesters at Kent State University in 1970. He kept composing in this social-religious vein over the next decades, even as he returned to touring with small jazz groups almost until his death, in 2012, at 91.

“The essential message of ‘The Gates of Justice’ is the brotherhood of man,” he wrote in the liner notes for Decca’s recording of the work, now out of print. Brubeck wasn’t an expert in Jewish music, but he had open ears and curiosity; the shofars Chris Brubeck brought to UCLA as alternatives were ones he had found in his father’s house and presumed were research materials for the cantata.

“He seemed to have an affinity for the right cantorial, modal stuff to do,” Chris Brubeck said.

Playing through those modal, klezmer-style scales on the piano during the interview, Darius Brubeck said, “Those traditional scales fit everywhere in the piece, in different movements, in different moods.” He then added a missing note to the scale to form, like magic, a classic blues scale. Even on a fundamental musical level, then, Black and Jewish styles blend into each other in the score.

“They were both enslaved, uprooted from their homelands and wandered in the diaspora,” Dave Brubeck said in 1997 of the similarities between the Black and Jewish experiences. “When I began exploring the music, I was thrilled to hear the similarities among Hebraic chant and spirituals and blues.”

The work has its raucous moments, as in a climactic section, “The Lord Is Good,” in which grandeur melts into a smoothly integrated succession of references to mariachi melodies, pop songs and Chopin. But even when the piece swings, it has a solemn, even melancholy cast — prayerful more than hopeful.

The tenor and baritone solos are impassioned and soulful, with a shining duet on King’s word’s “Free at last”; the choruses are sometimes serene and sometimes emphatic, with stentorian demands to “open the gates” and “clear the way.” The sober prayer of “Lord, Lord” is punctuated in the score by shouted racial slurs that will be rendered at UCLA as a cacophony.

Like Dave Brubeck’s other large-scale pieces, “The Gates of Justice” is not unknown, but it’s hardly a standard, either. As with many artists who ranged between pop and classical styles — Bernstein, Gershwin and André Previn among them — Brubeck had trouble maintaining an audience for the full scope of his output.

“He could not really, totally break through and have people understand that he did both things,” Chris Brubeck said. “As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing is this piece not be forgotten, and that it still speak to people in some way.”

As part of the effort to show the work’s continuing relevance, it will be performed on the UCLA programs alongside newer pieces, including premieres by Arturo O’Farrill and Diane White-Clayton. And the brothers spent the rehearsal tinkering with the score and its possibilities, seeking to heighten its rally-like forcefulness and its harmonic contrasts.

“It’s a living piece,” Darius Brubeck said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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