Beat goes on: Jazz great Dave Brubeck brings Jewish-themed choral piece to Bay Area

At 83, Dave Brubeck has yet to call “time out.”

The artist responsible for the best-selling jazz album of all time still keeps a schedule that would clobber musicians half his age.

That itinerary includes a rare local performance of his 1969 cantata “Gates of Justice,” coming up April 8 at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. Brubeck hopes his music, with its uplifting theme, will provide spiritual respite for troubled times.

“The piece seems more powerful now,” says the composer. “When we do it lately, people say it has a tremendous message. I don’t remember that much excitement at the premiere.”

Accompanying Brubeck and his renowned jazz trio will be baritone Kevis Deas, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, the Pacific Singers and the Pacific Mozart Ensemble.

It’s that big a piece of music.

Based on Jewish texts and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Gates of Justice,” says Brubeck, is “a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated.” Stylistically, it draws on classical, jazz and sacred music in an alternately noisy and contemplative score.

“I think the world is in shock now,” says Brubeck, “and when you’ve got a line from Martin Luther King like ‘You must live together as brothers or die together as fools,’ I think people hear it clearly now.”

The concert is the highlight of this year’s Brubeck Festival, an annual celebration of the arts, with a social justice component thrown in. “It’s going to be quite interesting this year,” he says, “because all the different churches and synagogues will do programs with singing and various speakers. We need these things so badly now.”

Whether because of his surname or because of his intellectual approach to jazz, Brubeck has often been mistaken as Jewish. He is not. But compositions like “Gates of Justice,” with its essential Jewish content, might serve to keep the misunderstanding alive.

This year’s Brubeck Festival coincides with a newly recorded version of “Gates of Justice,” released as part of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music series.

Brubeck has fond memories of working on the piece, collaborating on the text with several rabbis, as well as his wife. The concert also brings Brubeck back to his native California and the Bay Area of his boyhood. Born in Concord, he attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton, the home base of his festival and the Brubeck Institute.

He got his jazz career up and running in San Francisco, a city he still adores. “I did all my important early playing and early development there. The Geary Cellar under the Geary Theater. That was my first job after the war. Duke Ellington saw me there and told me to go to New York.”

Like any aspiring jazzman, he did head for Manhattan. During the ’50s and ’60s, Brubeck became known around the world for his cerebral, occasionally percussive piano style. His “Take Five” is still the world’s hippest tune in 5/4 time.

Over the years, Brubeck has served as a cultural ambassador, performing around the world. He’s happy to go anywhere to spread a message of universal brotherhood. “If people would just believe in their basic religions,” he says. “This is where all our spending should go, to cultural exchange and to student exchange.”

Lately Brubeck has been on the road again.”I’m always working on something,” he says. It’s true. As Brubeck wrapped up his interview, his wife Iola was unplugging his portable keyboard and lamp so they could check out of their Florida hotel on time.

Despite his grueling schedule, Brubeck knows somewhere out there, the cosmic clock is ticking, and he hopes to tackle one more big ambition: recording all of his classical pieces before time catches up with him.

“At 83,” he says, “I’m motivated.”

Dave Brubeck performs “Gates of Justice” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F.. $35-$45. Information: (415) 478-2277, or www.tickets.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.