In 1968, jazz icon Dave Brubeck surveyed a broken America and lamented the fractured race relations that had been laid bare by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. So, Brubeck did what artists do.
He created a work of art.
Brubeck composed “The Gates of Justice” in the aftermath of King’s 1968 assassination. The piece was commissioned by the umbrella organization of America’s Reform Judaism movement specifically to address increasing tensions between the Jewish and African American communities. Brubeck fused elements of African American and Jewish spiritual music, saying that he hoped the juxtaposition of musical styles would “construct a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated.”
On Sunday, Feb. 26, Brubeck’s “The Gates of Justice” will be performed at Royce Hall as part of “Music and Justice,” a series by the Lowell Milken Center for Music of the Jewish American Experience that will feature prominent musicians, scholars and critics.
“Some of the most powerful conversations we can have don’t begin with words,” said Anna Spain Bradley, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. “Music and other arts open the door for the deeper forms of human engagement needed to build inclusive community and promote dignity.”
The concert will feature music by contemporary Black and Jewish composers, and will be given a second performance at the historic Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb 28.
“Holman has always followed the significant Black Church tradition of utilizing the power of music and social justice to make the world a better place for all people, regardless of race or religion,” said the Rev. Ken Walden, pastor of Holman United Methodist Church.
In addition to the two concerts, there will be a free pre-concert discussion on Feb. 26 with Darius Brubeck, Wall Street Journal music critic Larry Blumenfeld and Arturo O’Farrill, professor of global jazz studies and eight-time Grammy winner.
The concerts have another historic element to them. They mark the first time that Dave Brubeck’s three sons — Darius, Chris and Dan Brubeck — will perform “The Gates of Justice” on stage together.
“My parents worked with all their heart and soul, and threw everything they had into that piece,” said Chris Brubeck, recalling Dave and Iola Brubeck’s collaborative writing process. “I knew it was very important to them, because my father and mother had a very deep social conscience.”
Dave Brubeck, whose 1959 album “Time Out” was the first jazz album to sell more than 1 million copies, protested against segregation in the 1960s. He planned a tour of southern colleges and universities which he then publicly canceled when they refused to allow his integrated trio to perform. Scholars estimate that the protest cost Brubeck roughly $400,000 in today’s money.
“Brubeck’s commitment to social justice was real and substantial,” said Neal Stulberg, director of orchestral studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and one of the chief organizers of the concerts. “‘Gates of Justice’ is an ambitious work, both in terms of subject matter and musically. It requires outstanding instrumentalists and singers. Having the Brubeck brothers as the jazz piano trio will add a remarkable and personal element to the performances. Our guest vocal soloists, baritone Phillip Bullock and Cantor Azi Schwartz bring power and depth to their solo roles.”
The concerts will also feature work by living Jewish and Black composers, as well as two world premieres by school of music faculty, one by O’Farrill and another by Diane White-Clayton, lecturer of ethnomusicology and the director of the UCLA African American Music Ensemble.
“When we began planning how to bring ‘The Gates of Justice’ to UCLA, we understood how important it was to bring more people into the conversation,” Stulberg said. “Brubeck’s work is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, but it is important to put it in context and dialogue with contemporary concerns.”
White-Clayton’s piece does just this. Titled “Dear Freedom Rider,” it is for piano and 13 singers — one singer for each of the 13 freedom riders who set out in 1961 to challenge segregation in interstate travel in the American South.
“When I first sat down to conceptualize the piece, I started thinking about the freedom riders and then about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement,” White-Clayton said. “The worlds just looked so different and I noticed that some student protesters today didn’t have a real understanding of nonviolent protest.”
She selected 13 UCLA students as singers in her piece, gave them historical materials to consult, and asked them to each write a letter to one of the freedom riders. As she composes the music, she will use the students’ words to create the lyrics to her composition.
“I really wanted to put the students in conversation with the freedom riders,” White-Clayton said. “Music gives us a chance to have that conversation.”
To the same end, the Lowell Milken Center is also sponsoring a conference on Feb. 27 for scholars and artists to deepen the conversation about music and social justice. For artists, the duty to connect their music with society is never far from their minds.
“We can’t take it lightly,” said Chris Brubeck, reflecting on the responsibility he and his brothers Darius and Dan bear in interpreting his father’s monumental work “The Gates of Justice,” more than 50 years after its composition. “Dave’s not there to put his musical imprint on everything. I think there’s a chance that we’re going to give a different kind of new life to it, that’s going to be important when we improvise it.”