Brubeck's 'Mass' Appeal

Performing at a choral concert this weekend, the jazz legend will display his lesser-known spiritual persona.


To Hope! A Celebration, the Mass by Dave Brubeck that a small army of singers and musicians will perform Sunday at Morgan State University, almost didn't get written.

"I'm not a Catholic. I've never been to a Mass," Brubeck says he told Ed Murray, then the editor of the Catholic magazine Our Sunday Visitor, who pressed him for two years in the late 1970s to write a Mass. "I don't know anything about it. You should get somebody that's really familiar [with it].

"He said: `No, I want somebody who will look at it in a different way and bring a new light to it.'"

Brubeck finally gave in.

"I told him I'll write three parts of the Mass and you send it to the top Catholic musician that you know would be the most critical and if they like it ... then I'll continue."

Murray did just that, and the word came back: "Tell Dave to continue, and don't change a note."

So he plunged on to write the work that will be the centerpiece of the concert Sunday at Morgan's Murphy Fine Arts Center, which appropriately enough will salute Brubeck on his 85th birthday, Dec. 6.

The forces marshaled for the concert include 160 singers from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the Morgan State University Choir, a 30-person orchestra, three soloists - Amy Pfrimmer, a soprano evacuated from New Orleans, baritone Kevin Deas and tenor Mark Bleek - and the Brubeck Quartet.

The Choral Arts Society, with Tom Hall conducting, will perform a Brahms motet; the Morgan choir, directed by Eric Conway, will sing spirituals; and Brubeck's quartet will play jazz pieces. Then they'll combine for the To Hope! Mass, with Russell Gloyd, Brubeck's longtime associate, conducting. The Mass runs about 55 minutes.

Brubeck says he can't calculate how long it took to write To Hope!, which premiered in Providence in 1979.

"I'm doing so many other things," he says. "I'm traveling all over the world, playing concerts, and lecturing at schools, running my institute at that time."

The Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific, his alma mater, holds his archives, awards fellowships, holds a jazz festival and runs a summer jazz colony. Brubeck is chairman of the institute and Clint Eastwood, a sometime piano player, is honorary co-chairman.

"I'll tell you," Brubeck says, during a phone conversation, "one time I had free time at home and what usually takes me a year or two I did in 21 days. I wrote a whole oratorio, Beloved Son."

Beloved Son is an Easter oratorio for baritone, soprano and orchestra that ends with the words "He is risen" and the Brubeck Quartet closing with a rocking, barrelhouse, New Orleans finish.

"Yeah," he says, "we were trying to get down home, man."

Brubeck has written at least 10 major religious pieces. He likes to style himself as a composer who plays piano. He's always had a strong spiritual bent, perhaps heightened by his service in World War II, when he played in an Army band, but saw many of his friends killed. His first oratorio, The Light in the Wilderness, written in 1968, is a meditation on the Christian exhortation to love your enemy. He joined the Catholic Church after writing To Hope!

While even today he juggles several projects at once, he is, in fact, a focused composer.

Jazz writer Joel Simpson recalls that once Paul Desmond, the late alto saxophone player whose "Take Five" with the Brubeck Quartet is one of the most famous tunes in all of contemporary music, let alone, jazz, said they needed some original material. Brubeck replied he could write two pieces in a half-hour. He wrote "In Your Own Sweet Way" and "The Waltz," both jazz standards now.

And he doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

"No," he says simply, grousing a little bit about how busy he actually is.

He presented a new work, The Commandments, in September at Rose Hall at Lincoln Center in New York. And he's played four concerts since then. He recorded his most recent CD, Park Avenue South, with his quartet - Bobby Militello, alto sax and flute; Michael Moore, bass; Randy Jones, drums; and, of course, Brubeck on piano - at a Manhattan Starbucks.

"He is very obviously still in good shape," writes jazz critic Don Mather.

Brubeck and his wife of 62 years, Iola, leave for London aboard the Queen Mary from New York on Monday for a 17-concert tour of Europe. Iola Brubeck has written or translated many librettos for Brubeck. And he hopes to write some music on the six-day voyage.

"I always do that," he says, "write on planes or boats or trains or wherever."

He wrote the buoyant jazz tune "I Love Vienna," which is on the Starbucks album, "on a train coming through the Alps on the way to Austria."

On his birthday, Dec. 6, he'll play with his quartet and the London Symphony Orchestra in concert at the Barbican in London. Among the works on a very full program will be the lullaby from La Fiesta de la Posada, which was written with his wife.

"My eldest son has written a piece for me for symphony orchestra," Brubeck says. That's Darius, the eldest of his six sons, who is named for Darius Milhaud, the composer and teacher Brubeck studied with and reveres. Darius' work is called "From All of Us."

"I won't play on that piece," Brubeck says. "I'll be sitting there and listening."

If you go

Dave Brubeck's Birthday Bash will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Morgan State's Murphy Fine Arts Center. Tickets are available through the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, 410-523-7070.

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