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Notre Dame’s highest honor goes to musician

Justin Tardiff | Friday, May 19, 2006

Renowned jazz musician Dave Brubeck will receive the 2006 Laetare Medal – Notre Dame’s oldest and most highly regarded award given to American Catholics – at Commencement exercises this weekend.

The honor is given annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

“The composed energy of Mr. Brubeck’s art helps us apprehend the fullness of creation,” University President Father John Jenkins said in a statement March 30. “His life and his music splendidly interweave the celebration of beauty with the imperative to worship.”

The popular pianist has produced a number of popular jazz pieces, including “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” In 1954, the Brubeck’s quartet graced the cover of Time Magazine following the release their album, “Jazz Goes to College.” The magazine called Brubeck “the most exciting new jazz artist at work today” and the creator of “some of the strangest and loveliest music” in the history of jazz.

Larry Dwyer, director of jazz studies at Notre Dame, said the Laetare selection reflects Brubeck’s “consistently high level of musical achievement” through his professional career, which has lasted more than half a century.

“Brubeck’s music always swings and always includes interesting and profound levels of improvisation,” Dwyer said. “Best of all, everyone – jazz fan or not – always enjoys listening to Dave Brubeck.”

But Brubeck’s repertoire extends beyond the realm of jazz. The esteemed musician has composed and performed ballets, cantatas, solo piano pieces, a musical, an oratorio and a Mass – a testament to his Catholic faith.

In a June 2005 Nat-ional Public Radio interview, Brubeck echoed the words of a Nez Perce chief and said, “the Great Spirit made us all.”

“Science through DNA knows this to be true,” he said. “The very cells of our body know this to be true, and our great religions know it to be true. Our hope lies in the Great Spirit, the God of all Creation, that my particular faith calls the Holy Spirit.”

Born Dec. 6, 1920 in Concord, Calif. and raised on a nearby cattle farm, Brubeck first aspired to be a rancher – though the musical persuasion did not evade him for long.

By age four the young virtuoso had wowed his mother – a classical pianist and teacher – with his advanced keyboarding skills and simultaneously unnerved her with his unique improvisations.

A music major at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Brubeck met his wife of 63 years while playing jazz on a campus radio program. He graduated from the school in 1942 and was drafted into military service for two years during World War II.

After the war, Brubeck attended Mills College to resume his musical studies. He formed the now-famous Brubeck Quartet in 1951.

Notre Dame announces its Laetare Medal recipient each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent on the Church calendar.

The medal is inscribed with the Latin phrase, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit,” or “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”

The first Laetare Medal was awarded in 1883.

Previous medal winners include President John F. Kennedy, novelist Walker Percy and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean.