The incident occurred in a chapel at Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral. The chapel was put to use as an impromptu interview room prior to a rehearsal for his concert in the cathedral the next night.
The white-haired figure stared at me and asked, “Why?”
The concert was titled “Brubeck at the Cathedral.” I had asked him whether a jazz pianist performing in a sacred space was an oxymoron. He did not think that, he said, and explained the place of cathedrals in culture during medieval times. He listed examples of music and art that found a home there.
That was 25 years ago. It seems like yesterday.
The incident came to mind when I heard of Dave Brubeck’s death on Dec. 6, the day before his 92nd birthday. The rehearsal was for Brubeck’s composition “The Gates of Justice.” Meeting a legend and an idol was good to drop the pretense of being an objective journalist. I retrieved a poster of the event. “Would you sign this?” I asked. He agreed.
Pressing my luck, I produced a vinyl recording of “Time Out” in a jacket. He took it, turned it to the back and front.
“Do you know how much this is worth?” he said.
“No, but how much after you sign it?” I asked.
I ventured up the aisle, slipped into a pew and waited for the rehearsal. No one asked me to leave. I realized it was an all-but-private concert. I slipped out, went to the rectory, called my wife and suggested she race down.
There was a break in the rehearsal. Brubeck came down the steps from the sanctuary, headed right for us. I thought, we are about to be tossed out of the cathedral by Dave Brubeck.
“That cathedral I mentioned during the interview,” he said, “it wasn’t St. (X), it was St. (Y). You should know that for your article.”
I introduced my wife, who said she recalled seeing him perform in Seattle. She told him the year and name of the theater. “Yes, that’s the place with the green seats,” he said.
Later in the rehearsal, kneeling under the piano to make some adjustment, he showed the attention to detail that makes a great artist.
A career spanning six decades was able to combine the sacred and secular. Brubeck composed “The Gates of Justice” in 1969, a cantata that mixed Scripture with the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1980, he premiered “To Hope: A Celebration,” a Mass he composed that was commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor.
Prior to the premiere, he was asked why there was no Our Father in the Mass. Brubeck said no one asked for it. A few months later, Brubeck remembered, “I dreamt the entire Our Father and jumped out of bed and wrote down as much as I could. It’s pretty close to the dream, and after that dream I decided I would become a Catholic.”
Brubeck continued to compose sacred music while continuing his rigorous tour schedule well into his 80s.
He said he was inspired to write spiritual music by the juxtaposition of his experience in World War II and the commandment “thou shall not kill.”
His music still gives reason to hope. He expressed in the closing lines of “All My Hope,” the post-Communion piece of his Mass: “My hope, my light, my peace, my joy, my faith, my God everlasting.”
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at Considersk@gmail.com.