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God, Brubeck and All That Jazz

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Any jazz fan who has been paying attention at all during the past half century will recognize the quirky 5/4 riff that means the Dave Brubeck Quartet is swinging into its classic “Take Five."

But there's another tune the pianist keeps playing that is completely different. “Forty Days" opens with the haunting, chant-like lines that define the most famous piece in his first sacred oratorio, “The Light in the Wilderness."

“Forty days alone in the desert, days and nights of constant prayer, seeking in the wailing wind an answer to despair," sings the chorus, in verses inspired by biblical accounts of the temptations of Jesus.

“Forty days of questioning: Why was he there, in the lonely desert?

Forty days of fasting and prayer, searching for his destined role..."

Through the decades, Brubeck has struggled to talk about the private journey that has defined his faith. In the program booklet for that 1968 cantata, he explained that he was “reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist Church." He also stressed that three Jewish teachers shaped his life--philosopher Irving Goleman, composer Darius Milhaud and Jesus.

“With 'The Light in the Wilderness' we were really trying to get at ...the heart of the New Testament," said Brubeck, decades after the oratorio -- with lyrics by his wife Iola--reshaped his work as a composer. “We decided that we would try to provide contemporary settings to help people hear what Jesus was saying."

Last weekend, Brubeck was in Washington, D.C., for a White House reception, a Kennedy Center gala and all the other festivities that accompany being selected as one of the five recipients of America's highest annual award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. The celebration took place on Brubeck's 89th birthday.

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