September 2, 2003

Crist links musical stylings of Bach, Brubeck

Michael Terrazas

When jazz musician Dave Brubeck brought his world-renowned quartet to Emory last fall, for Stephen Crist it was more than a chance to see a legendary performer up close—it was an opportunity to advance a new and innovative line of research in musicology.

Crist, associate professor of music history and recently named chair of the department, is primarily a Bach scholar. But since the mid-1990s Crist has been exploring connections between Bach and the peripatetic Brubeck, whose 60-year career has crossed boundaries both musical and political, as the Dave Brubeck Quartet has continued to delight audiences around the world even as its founder moved into his 80s.

The kernel was planted when Crist, as a child pianist, read and played jazz sheet music and listened to his father’s Brubeck records. Then, in 1996, Crist heard a broadcast of a Catholic mass composed by Brubeck, which alternated between jazz and classical styles. That led Crist to search for more connections, and he found that Brubeck had written a piano sonata called “Chromatic Fantasy”—a reference to Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue”—and a heretofore undiscovered research question was born.

“I didn’t even know there was that side to Dave Brubeck—I thought he was exclusively a jazz musician,” said Crist, who decided to contact Brubeck directly in 1998 when attending a meeting of the American Bach Society (ABS) at Yale University.

Brubeck, who lives in Wilton, Conn., invited Crist to make the drive from New Haven, and the two spent half a day together.

“Dave said he had never had any interest from Bach scholars before,” Crist said. “He started sending me stuff. I’d get a CD in the mail from his manager with a note: ‘Dave thinks you would really enjoy listening to this; on track 3 there’s a Bachian improv.’”

When the president of the ABS asked him to collect and edit essays for the just-published volume Bach in America (University of Illinois Press, 2003), Crist jumped at the chance to write an article on his newfound pursuit. Titled “The Role and Meaning of the Bach Chorale in the Music of Dave Brubeck,” Crist’s piece explores both musical and certain personal similarities between the two composers, and even features a handwritten piece of sheet music from 1958 of the Brubeck Quartet performing a Bach chorale.

When Brubeck agreed to visit Emory for a four-day festival and symposium in his honor in October 2002—during which he received the President’s Medal from former President Bill Chace—Crist knew he had a special scholarly opportunity. He invited jazz scholars from Spelman College, Harvard, Yale and Rutgers universities, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to attend.

“Not only among Bach scholars, but there’s really not been a whole lot done on Dave Brubeck’s role in jazz history,” said Crist, who organized two roundtable discussions of which he plans to publish edited transcriptions. “You just put several world-class jazz scholars around a table and see what happens.”

Of course, not only was Brubeck’s visit fruitful for the musicology research of Crist and the attending scholars—at least two other researchers have written articles or book chapters based on that experience with Brubeck—but a handful of Emory students were treated to a jazz improv master class led by a living legend. Brubeck also participated in a “performer up close” session and spent a significant portion of the four days interacting with students.

As for Crist, he said he plans to write a book on Brubeck within the next few years. The two continue to correspond, and Brubeck included a flattering writeup of his visit to Emory in his newsletter, which is published and circulated among his fan club.

“I don’t consider myself a jazz scholar, but I’m planning to write a book on Dave Brubeck, so I guess that makes me a jazz scholar,” Crist said. “Would it have happened without that [festival] weekend? Maybe, but it’s much less likely.”