February 29 is something extra, something special, something that doesn’t come along every year. So is jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s first major composition, which premiered on that date in Cincinnati. He completed the oratorio on the teachings of Jesus, Light in the Wilderness, in January. A month before, he had ended his jazz quartet’s sensational sixteen-year history.
Both Brubeck and Duke Ellington—perhaps America’s two greatest living jazz musicians—have recently invested much of their talent in expressing the beliefs of the Bible through music. (See story of Ellington’s sacred concerts in January 21, 1966, issue.)
Brubeck’s religious background is eclectic: “reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist church.” He has read the Bible “all the time” for many years, despite a “nomadic existence” in which he once crammed 250 one-night stands into 365 days. During tours he has developed friendships with a couple dozen clergymen and has read such theologians as Tillich and Schweitzer. He got theological advice on the oratorio from Vedanta, Unitarian, Episcopal, and Jesuit leaders.
Although Brubeck has dabbled in religious efforts and once did several TV shows for the National Council of Churches, the idea of doing a serious composition began two years ago. His nephew Philip, 17, suddenly died of a brain tumor. In his grief, Brubeck wrote a choral number of considerable beauty on the text “Let not your heart be troubled. Ye believe in God, believe also in me.” It was months before he would even send this personal memorial to his brother Howard.
“I just jumped into it,” he says, but he found he could express himself in choral writing and began developing the oratorio.
“The struggle between good ...1
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