Justice Resounding: Dave Brubeck and Contemporary Responses to The Gates of Justice

A revival of The Gates of Justice anchors a three-day festival that the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience will present on February 26-28 in Los Angeles. Leading up to the performance, artists, and scholars involved with the festival reflected on the significance of Brubeck’s trailblazing cantata and how music and choral singing continue to be vehicles for probing issues of race and social justice.

No matter what focus the quest for social justice takes, music’s power to unify and inspire its participants remains a constant. Freedom songs, union songs, African American spirituals and gospel: all of these played an indispensable role, respectively, in the struggle against apartheid, the push for workers’ rights, and the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement.

With The Gates of Justice, his ambitious, trailblazing cantata from 1969 (scored for two soloists and chorus; an orchestra of brass, percussion, and organ; and jazz trio), Dave Brubeck articulated in musical form his understanding of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s iconic, era-defining dream of transformative social justice. In the process, Brubeck sought to reconcile the division perceived to be growing between Black and Jewish communities in the aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968.

A revival of The Gates of Justice will serve as the anchor for a three-day festival that the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience is presenting February 26-28 in Los Angeles. A timelier choice to launch the Milken Center’s new Music and Justice project would be hard to imagine. Music and Justice will comprise a series of concerts, scholarly presentations, and dialogue that will probe issues of race and social justice in contemporary life. 


Enacting Brubeck’s Vision at the Milken Center

“Because of their long history of suffering, Jews and American Blacks know better than any other people the consequences of hate and alienation,” Brubeck wrote in his original program note for The Gates of Justice. The work weaves together aspects of both musical traditions with his innovative jazz style at its most expansive, including improvisatory interludes by his jazz trio of piano, bass, and drums. Iola Brubeck, the composer’s wife, crafted the libretto for the cantata from a collage of biblical passages, Hebrew prayers, spirituals, and excerpts from King’s speeches and the writings of the ancient Jewish sage Hillel, along with her own lyrics.

“We’re trying to enact the vision that Dave and Iola Brubeck put into the work,” explains Mark Kligman, director of the Milken Center, which opened in 2020 at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music; The Gates of Justice festival marks the Center’s public inauguration following the pandemic. Enacting that vision means bringing together performers from both the African American and the Jewish communities in a partnership to realize the conversation that is symbolized in musical terms within The Gates of Justice itself.

“But we want to take that a step further,” Kligman says. The first part of the concert program thus presents a contemporary perspective on music and social justice issues. It includes six works by living composers. Two of these will be given their world premieres: Dear Freedom Rider by Diane White-Clayton and I Dream a World by Arturo O’Farrill. The concert will be performed twice: at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus to open the festival (in a live-streamed event) and again at Holman United Methodist Church in Mid City LA, a landmark for African American Angelenos.

Between these performances, an entire day will be devoted to a conference featuring musicians and leading scholars of jazz, African American studies, and Judaism. They will dialogue about the legacy of Brubeck’s work and about current thinking with regard to race, social justice, Black-Jewish allyship, and the implications of all this for artistic practice.


The Power of the Voice: Symbolic and Real

The Gates of Justice makes strikingly symbolic use of its vocal forces. The two main solo roles, tenor and baritone, represent a Jewish and African American presence, respectively. They are “composite characters,” as Brubeck describes them, with the tenor standing for “the prophetic voice of Hebrew tradition” while the baritone, “whose melodies stem from the blues and spirituals, is the symbol of contemporary man.” He is moreover meant to remind people “of all faiths” that “divine mandates are still waiting to be fulfilled.”

Azi Schwartz, Senior Cantor of Park Avenue Synagogue, is taking on the cantorial tenor part for the first time. He suggests that its punishingly high tessitura suggests “higher ideals, something that is awe inspiring and almost heavenly. You realize immediately all the ways in which humanity and society have fallen short of those high ideals.” The baritone (who will be sung by Phillip Bullock) also evokes a prophetic presence and, according to Schwartz, is “closer the voice of the people.” In some of the cantata’s most-impassioned moments, Brubeck blends the two solo voices to powerful effect — as if Isaiah were chiming in with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like J.S. Bach’s Passions, The Gates of Justice is constructed around pillar-like choruses that bear the entire 12-movement structure aloft. Brubeck extended the metaphor of his cantata as a bridge between communities to delineate this architecture, likening the “improvisations, solos, and choral responses” to “the interweaving cables that span from anchoring piers.” The chorus itself he depicted as “the voice of the people who have been pawns of history … the awesome force of the unheard millions battering at the man-made barriers which have separated men [sic] from each other, and consequently from knowing the nature of God.” At “the heart of the cantata,” they erupt with “the plea, demand, and exhortation: ‘Open the Gates of Justice!’”

Brubeck’s dramatic strategy for the chorus makes Gates an especially compelling vehicle for emphasizing the connection between Black and Jewish communities at the work’s core. The chorus combines references to worship and spirituality with the power of political protest.

“It’s also a Greek chorus, where the audience can imagine themselves in that place,” explains Kelsey Klotz, a musicologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte whose just-published, illuminating book on the composer, Dave Brubeck and the Performance of Whiteness (Oxford University Press), reconsiders standard historical accounts of jazz. She describes how Brubeck treats the chorus “as a weapon to be used against barriers that separate people — like a battering ram” in the pivotal third movement. This is juxtaposed with a moving, Bach-like chorale that holds out “a picture of how we could work together to create something beautiful. But he goes back to the frenetic energy of the first part of the movement to remind us that we’re not actually there yet.”

The chorus for the Music and Justice performances will combine singers from local African American churches, synagogues, UCLA students, and Tonality, a Los Angeles-based vocal ensemble founded and led by Alexander Lloyd Blake. Winner of the 2020 Chorus America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, Tonality is dedicated to themes of social justice. Choral singing is an ideal vehicle for this in multiple ways, Blake explains. “As an art form that involves words, we tell stories and we show perspectives. With a choir, you get to show many identities at once” — which corresponds with the powerful message of Joel Thompson’s setting of a Langston Hughes poem in America Will Be!, one of the four contemporary works Tonality will perform on the first half of the program. Even in the process of creating and rehearsing, of negotiating “how we lead and how we listen,” a chorus for Blake “embodies the ideal situation in which all communities should act.”


Behind the Creation of The Gates of Justice

The appearance of Dave Brubeck’s sons Darius (piano), Chris (bass), and Dan (drums) as the jazz trio for these performances adds a personal note to the Milken Center’s festival. All three have followed in their father’s footsteps as professional musicians and have performed together in various formations: but these concerts mark the first time they are joining to play as the trio in The Gates of Justice, which tallied more than 100 performances by the time of Brubeck’s death in 2012.

In recent conversations, both Chris and Darius Brubeck shared memories of their parents’ commitment to the struggle for civil rights — a passion that emanates from The Gates of Justice and Brubeck’s other large-scale sacred music works. “He was insisting on racial integration already when he began leading his first band as a private first class in World War II,” recalls Darius Brubeck. Later, with the classic formation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet (which underwent several shifts of personnel), he “hit — and sometimes broke down — barriers of what at the time was legal segregation.”

Darius refers to the famous cancellation of a 1960 tour of segregationist colleges across the South when his father was asked not to allow its new Black bassist Eugene Wright onstage. (Wright had initially joined the Quartet in 1958 as part of a major U.S. State Department tour.) “He had to sacrifice a lot of well-paying jobs to do that. But he felt he couldn’t simply criticize segregation without doing something about it.”

Chris Brubeck — both he and Darius are composers as well — points out that the impulse to write The Gates of Justice even stretches back to his father’s early experiences in World War II. Because he was singled out to form what became “the Wolf Pack Band” while in France, Brubeck was spared at the last minute from being sent to the frontline. But the incomprehensible inhumanity he witnessed in war-torn Europe had a traumatic effect that haunted him long after: “He told me that [Gates of Justice] was something he had wanted to write ever since those war years. He thought, ‘If I survive this, I’m going to figure out how to write for orchestra and chorus. And I’m going to use biblical texts, because that’s the strongest language I can use.’”

Fast forward to the late 1960s, when Brubeck decided to disband his quartet at the height of its success so he could devote himself to composing on a larger scale. “He so much wanted to write these big pieces that were meaningful to him spiritually,” says Chris. “That was a real triumph of him conquering a new medium and boldly leaving his old jazz life behind to do it.”

“The idea of a jazz musician’s foray into symphonic music of course wasn’t new,” says Neal Stulberg, who will conduct the performances. Director of orchestra studies and conducting at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Stulberg points to Duke Ellington in particular, one of Brubeck’s idols. “We should also remember that he was embracing this challenge from the standpoint of social activism.”

The first result of Brubeck’s new compositional focus was the cantata Light in the Wilderness, which inaugurated an impressive series of choral-orchestral works including his setting of the Roman Catholic Mass, To Hope! A Celebration (1980). When he experienced its premiere in Cincinnati in 1968, Rabbi Charles Mintz immediately sensed that Brubeck was the perfect choice to write something of the same scale for the organization with which he was affiliated: the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (nowadays known as the Union for Reform Judaism). The Union joined with the College Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati to commission The Gates of Justice.

The intention was for a work that would address the deteriorating relationship between Jewish and African Americans in the wake of the King assassination. Brubeck initially balked at the proposal given his status as an outsider from these communities. “The commission was thought at the time best suited for somebody who was neither Black nor Jewish by faith to provide a musical bridge of reconciliation,” according to Darius Brubeck.

But from today’s perspective, does that leave The Gates of Justice open to charges of cultural appropriation? Jeff Janecszko, the curator of the Milken Archive, responds that there are valid concerns about the use of traditions and musical materials from someone who is detached from them. At the same time, he points out that “Brubeck was very earnest in his attempt to learn those traditions. I think we also have to look at it from the perspective of something that was composed in the late 1960s, when people looked at music a little bit differently, and not today.” For Azi Schwartz, Brubeck’s method of mixing together different styles “is very authentic in how it all comes together: these are not cliches. He brings together so many different things that sound traditional, yet when you actually look at how they are mixed, they sound avant-garde.”

To respond to aspects of The Gates of Justice that have become dated — Kelsey Klotz also refers to “discomfort with the sort of racial essentialism that is at the crux of the piece when we have a Jewish cantor and a specifically Black baritone” — a mixture of pieces from contemporary Black and Jewish composers comprises the first part of the Music and Justice festival concert. “When we had the opportunity to choose what Tonality would be singing, it was important to find composers who speak to issues that we feel we should be addressing,” says Blake.


Bringing the Legacy Forward to the Present

For Mark Kligman, the bridge-building aspect of The Gates of Justice makes it a particularly apt choice for the public inauguration of the Lowell Milken Center at UCLA with the Music and Justice series. The Milken Center was founded as North America’s first permanent academic home for the study of Jewish American music, “but it’s not just for Jewish music or the Jewish community,” he explains. “Championing civil rights is the core of the American Jewish experience in the middle of the 20th century. And that’s something that needs to be renewed.”

From the vast Milken Archive of Jewish Music (founded in 1990 and containing more than 600 works), Kligman wanted to revive a major work that would make an important statement about life and culture today. The Archive’s 2001 recording of Gates “rose to the top”  — not only by virtue of its inherent artistic quality but because of its relevance for the current situation. “Social justice is an ever-present issue in our daily lives,” he says.

The overwhelming sense of despair that was driving former allies apart as the idealism of the 1960s faded has unsettling — and all-too-obvious — parallels with our own situation. Current anxieties about an increasingly fractured American society are intensified by the persistent patterns of systemic racism and police brutality as well as resurgent anti-Semitism. Attacks on “critical race theory” and the proliferation of QAnon conspiracy theories on social media repackage the familiar old tropes and dog whistles.

“If they were still alive, I don’t think my parents could possibly believe that all the struggles on so many levels in our American society could have been set back,” observes Chris Brubeck. At the same time, he is convinced that it would have pleased his father to find his work providing a platform for composers today — like Arturo O’Farrill and Diane White-Clayton — to offer a creative response from the present.

One of those conversations in the Milken Center program will be with White-Clayton’s newly commissioned Dear Freedom Rider for 11 UCLA student singers, cello, and piano. A musical polymath who is active as a composer, singer, pianist, and conductor, the Los Angeles-based counters contemporary feelings of despair and disillusionment with an homage to the courageous idealism of the Freedom Riders who resisted ongoing segregation in the Deep South by riding buses across states. The first wave of Freedom Riders, in 1961, comprised 13 brave young civil rights activists participated (including, famously, John Lewis) — a number that White-Clayton has incorporated into her piece by scoring it for 13 musicians and using a 13-tone row (with one repeated note).

White-Clayton says she chose this topic as a response to The Gates of Justice because it also explores African American-Jewish relationships (a significant number of the white Freedom Riders were of Jewish heritage). Her piece sets texts that an eclectic group of White-Clayton’s students at UCLA were asked to write in the form of letters from the present to the Freedom Riders. “I’m always fascinated when composers use their platform to make a statement that goes beyond the music to challenge us and provoke conversation,” she says. “That’s my hope with this piece.”

“Brubeck wanted to be considered a living composer,” observes Kelsey Klotz. “I think the way that you do that is to put his pieces in conversation with works from today.” The Gates of Justice is particularly amenable to such conversation in its attempt to build bridges and at the same time to break down boundaries — aesthetically and politically, as an artist and a social justice activist.

Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work appears in the New York Times, the Seattle Times, Gramophone, and many other publications. The English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival, he also writes program notes for Boulez Saal in Berlin and the Ojai Festival in California.

Get News