Research Guide to Dave Brubeck's The Gates of Justice (1969)

By Alexander Hallenbeck


ave Brubeck is best known as a key figure in the “cool jazz” movement, having released one of the most commercially successful jazz albums of all time, Time Out, with his Quartet in 1959. Though he continued to play jazz until shortly before his death in 2012, Brubeck’s musical output over his long career was remarkably varied. Indeed, many people remain unaware that he wrote numerous large-scale compositions that fused both classical and jazz idioms, often incorporating religious texts and themes of social justice.

Cover art for the 1969 recording

One of these pieces, The Gates of Justice, was written in 1969 against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It is particularly noteworthy for its unique call for “universal brotherhood” between Jews and African Americans, a message reflected in the texts and music, both of which drew on these respective cultures. Though this composition has received little attention by scholars, Gates was a common part of Brubeck’s performance repertoire from its inception until his death in 2012—in fact, it was performed over one hundred times in the United States (see the Performance Chronology). The best record of these performances is found in the concert programs in the Dave Brubeck Collection, which recently moved from the University of the Pacific to the Wilton Library in Connecticut. Though many of these concerts were reviewed by local press outlets, reporters infrequently added observations beyond that which Brubeck himself supplied in his original liner notes. Write-ups in larger newspapers tended to give better, in-depth accounts of these performances, and can be found in the archives of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, for instance. Howard Reich wrote for this latter publication and was one of the piece’s biggest proponents; after reviewing a 1993 performance at the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, he continued to provide retrospective commentary on the composition’s relevant social message into the 2010s.

Co-commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregation, The Gates of Justice illustrates the fact that American churches and synagogues were deeply concerned with civil rights in the 1960s, something that Brubeck was asked to directly address when writing this piece. The premiere of Gates was given at the new Rockdale Temple in suburban Amberley Village, Ohio, having just relocated from Cincinnati in part due to the rising racial tensions that the work itself was meant to address. Of all of the performances of Gates, this premiere received the most amount of press coverage. It featured Detroit-area cantor Harold Orbach and African-American operatic singer McHenry Boatwright as soloists, and caught the attention of local Jewish press organizations such as The American Israelite and The Indiana Jewish Press and Opinion; it was also written about multiple times in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The Gates of Justice illustrates the fact that American churches and synagogues were deeply concerned with civil rights in the 1960s, something that Brubeck was asked to directly address when writing this piece.”

Though covered consistently in newspapers over the years, The Gates of Justice has notably escaped scholarly observation until more recently. Indeed, when Brubeck’s large-scale compositions are written about, it is typically because they blend elements of jazz and classical music, something authors such as John Salmon partly attribute to his early training with composer Darius Milhaud (“What Brubeck Got From Milhaud,” 1992). When Gates is specifically discussed it is often in the company of his other sacred choral works, part of a genre Angelo Versace characterizes as “sacred jazz” in his 2013 dissertation—though even in this source Brubeck’s music is only touched on. Fred Hall’s biography of Brubeck (It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story) includes an entire chapter on Brubeck’s sacred works and Gates is mentioned intermittently.

For scholars and readers more familiar with music-analytic methods and terminology, Harmon Griffith Young’s 1995 dissertation, “The Sacred Choral Music of Dave Brubeck: A Historical, Analytical, and Critical Examination,” is particularly useful because it dives deeper into the inner workings of these compositions while providing a necessary inquiry into the “social factors and cultural contexts which contributed to their writing.” Still, though, Gates is only directly studied in fewer than ten pages, overshadowed by a substantial analysis of The Light in the Wilderness, Brubeck’s first sacred choral work from 1968. This dissertation presents the most comprehensive bibliography of Gates to date, and draws heavily on Ilse Storb and Klaus-Gotthard Fischer’s Dave Brubeck, Improvisations and Compositions: The Idea of Cultural Exchange, which was translated from the original German in 1994 and similarly covers Gates in the context of Brubeck’s other major sacred choral works. These two sources provide the best scholarly treatments of the piece to date because of the authors’ abilities to merge discussions of musical particularities—replete with excerpts from the score—with Brubeck’s social and religious themes.

Gates of Justice Performance Chronology: 1969 – 2007

View Full Google Sheet

Generally, then, The Gates of Justice is infrequently written about on its own; when it is, it is examined in the context of his other sacred choral works, or as one of the many examples of a Brubeck composition that combines jazz and classical music. Considering its important message and rich performance history, the biggest hole in the literature is an African-Americanist perspective on the piece. Though Gates has been performed at multiple concerts celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., mainstream press organizations have not fully engaged with this fact. In addition, to my knowledge only two historically Black newspapers—The Chicago Defender and New York Amsterdam News—include reports of performances.

Recent literature provides some potential ways forward. For instance, Kelsey A.K. Klotz has detailed Brubeck’s engagement with civil rights in the late 1950s (“Dave Brubeck’s Southern Strategy”) and is currently working on a book entitled Dave Brubeck and the Performance of Whiteness that includes a chapter on Gates. While some authors have examined Black-Jewish relations through music in the early twentieth century (such as Jeffrey Melnick’s A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song), others have focused on cultural alliances between these groups in the civil rights era without discussing music (see Marc Dollinger’s 2018 book Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s). Dialoguing such contemporary scholarship that excludes coverage of The Gates of Justice with some of the analytical work done in Brubeck dissertations could shed more light on the composition’s connection to social justice and the relationship between Jewish and African-American communities—topics that are just as relevant in 2020 as they were fifty years ago.

About the Author

Alexander Hallenbeck is a PhD candidate in musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His dissertation examines how transcriptions of American popular music inform musical practice and ideology in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Selected Bibliography

Calloway, Earl. “Conductor Everett Lee Communicates with Brubeck’s Cantata.” Chicago Daily Defender, August 26, 1971.
Dollinger, Marc. Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2018.
Delantiner, Barbara. “Brubeck Ode Taps Spiritual Roots.” New York Times, January 10, 1988.
Duncan, Perdita. "Music in Review: Mchenry Boatwright, Bass-Baritone." New York Amsterdam News, October 4, 1969.
Goodman, Peter. "Brubeck’s King Tribute." Newsday, January 19, 1988.
Hall, Fred M. It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Humphreys, Henry. "Boatwright ‘Steals Show’ in Brubeck ‘Gates of Justice’ Premiere." Cincinnati Enquirer, October 20, 1969.
Kaufman, Ben L. "Brubeck’s Cantata Offers Prophetic Note." Cincinnati Enquirer, October 20, 1969.
Klotz, Kelsey A.K. Dave Brubeck and the Performance of Whiteness. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
———. “Dave Brubeck’s Southern Strategy.” Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 148, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 52-66.
Melnick, Jeffrey. A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Reich, Howard. "Dave Brubeck’s ‘Gates of Justice’ as Relevant Today as It Was in 1969." Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1993.
———. "25 Years of Jewish Music—and Jazz." Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2015.
Salmon, John. "What Brubeck Got from Milhaud." American Music Teacher 41, no. 4 (February/March 1992): 26-29, 76.
Storb, Ilse, and Klaus-Gotthard Fischer. Dave Brubeck, Improvisations and Compositions: The Idea of Cultural Exchange. Translated by Bert Thompson. New York, NY: Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 1994.
Versace, Angelo. "The Evolution of Sacred Jazz as Reflected in the Music of Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Recognized Contemporary Sacred Jazz Artists." DMA diss., University of Miami, 2013.
Young, Harmon Griffith III. “The Sacred Choral Music of Dave Brubeck: A Historical, Analytical, and Critical Examination.” PhD diss., University of Florida, 1995.


Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.

{{msToTime(currentPosition)}} / {{msToTime(duration)}}