But Brubeck’s inventions in jazz represent just part of his achievement. He also penned full-fledged ballets and epic choral/symphonic works. The latter took on religious themes and ranked alongside works such as Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts for their ingenious synthesis of classical, jazz and other idioms.
Brubeck’s sprawling oratorio “The Gates of Justice,” performed at Anshe Emet SynagogueÖ in Chicago in 1993, fearlessly merged blues melody, Hebraic cantorial singing and chord progressions right out of the African-American spiritual.
To Brubeck, this cross-cultural score – which was commissioned by Rabbi Charles Mintz in the boroughs of New York – had specific political and sociological purposes.
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"He came over to the house with two other rabbis, and he suggested I write a piece of music to show the similarities between black people and Jewish people,” recalled said Brubeck, in a 1993 Tribune interview.
"The idea would be to show how both groups have been enslaved and dispersed, slandered and harmed, to show that they had more in common than not. …
"For me,” Brubeck continued, “the center of the piece is a particular line that was written by Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘If we don’t live together as brothers, we will die together as fools.’ That’s what this piece is about, when you boil it down.”
That sentiment drove a great deal of Brubeck’s efforts in music and in life. He challenged racial barriers by hiring the African-American bassist Eugene Wright as part of his quartet in 1958 and proceeding to tour the South, a region of the country that did not welcome mixed-race bands. Brubeck and his wife, Iola, in the 1960s created “The Real Ambassadors,” a musical that addressed racism head-on and featured Louis Armstrong at a time when the trumpeter was wrongly considered out-of-step with the civil rights era.
"Dave was very aware of race and politics,” said trumpeter Jon Faddis. “Back then, you had to go through a lot of stuff, and he stood up and fought for what he believed.”
Because of his fame, Brubeck brought that much more attention to the debate.
"He was very important, in that he was hot and brand new and very much in demand,” said nonagenarian record producer George Avakian, who recorded Brubeck on Columbia. “He was very much in the forefront, in the eyes of the public.”
Moreover, Brubeck used his increasing clout in the ’50s to storm the academy, which had been ferociously resistant to jazz. What started out as a few concerts that he and his wife booked themselves quickly morphed into tours and recordings.
"He created the college circuit,” said Avakian.
The fact that virtually every university of note has a jazz department or some kind of jazz curriculum owes to the Brubecks’ efforts. In effect, they helped create not only a scholarly infrastructure for jazz but built a vast new audience for it.
Brubeck’s impact also rippled far beyond our shores. When Brubeck and his quartet played the Soviet Union for the first time, in 1988, he was received by Mikhail Gorbachev and the masses as a conquering hero.
"What amazed me was that even people like Gorbachev’s interpreter told my wife that when he comes home from a hard day at the Kremlin, he puts on my music,” said Brubeck in the 1990 Tribune interview. “But the most amazing thing was when this guy from the secret police brought about 14 of my albums to one of my concerts and asked me to sign them!
"Actually, I didn’t even know I was talking to a secret police guy until somebody from our embassy said to me: ‘You know that guy who brought all of your albums? He’s one of our toughest customers.’
"And they couldn’t believe he had all my records. Of course, they were all illegal in the Soviet Union,” which had banished jazz as ‘decadent’ music.
"But, obviously, someone in the secret police would have been in a position to get my records.”
Moreover, music by Brubeck and others had penetrated the Iron Curtain through Voice of America radio broadcasts.
Brubeck always was astonished by the popularity and accolades that came his way, including a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 1996; a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1999; and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009.