Remembering Dave Brubeck

By David Langbart

Jazz great Dave Brubeck died on December 5, one day short of his 92nd birthday.  Since then, there have been many retrospectives – in print, on television, on radio, and on line.  Almost all of those remembrances mention the goodwill tour of Poland and the Far East that Brubeck and his quartet made in 1958 at the behest of the Department of State.  The Department described Brubeck and his combo as well qualified to make the trip: “As a serious jazz artist with some classical training and background, we believe Mr. Brubeck can add a new dimension in correcting certain overseas misconceptions on American jazz.”

While the documentation in the Department’s central file on the 1958 trip is not extensive, the reports found there present a picture of a successful and well received visit of “‘cool’ or ‘horn-rimmed’ jazz.”  Here are some extracts from those reports:

From Poland (Embassy Warsaw Despatch #355, 24 March 1958):

[In Krakow][i]t started with a musical greeting of the Quartet (by a delegation of local musicians) at the railroad station at five o’clock in the morning. For two evenings the collegiate generation of Krakow packed the Rotunda auditorium and applauded vigorously. Following the first evening concert, the piano was hauled from the concert hall to the Literary Club for a jam session that continued until three o’clock the next morning. Here all the ‘cats’ gathered to hear and be heard. There were over two hundred present at this session alone.  And while none of the members of the Brubeck Quartet speaks any foreign language, there was considerable demonstration of skill in this modern international language.

From Turkey (Embassy Ankara Despatch #363, 12 December 1958):

Reports continue to be heard from Istanbul and Izmir, as well as here, about the “marvelous”, “wonderful”, “excellent”, etc. representation job done by all members of the Quartet and their families in addition to their concerts.  The morning that they left Ankara, two boys who had gone to the airport stood shaking their fists at the plane, and the young French horn player, with tears running down his cheeks cried “It’s terrible, terrible!  We are like children without a father now that he (Brubeck) is gone!”  Although all of the responses to Brubeck did not match the emotion of this little scene, reactions were unanimously enthusiastic, and each performance a sell-out. . . .

While in Ankara, Mr. Brubeck asked a member of the USIS cultural staff to prepare a tape that would include representative music of Turkey.  A tape was made with excerpts of such early phases as the Drums of Mehter (more commonly known as the Janissary music) up through today’s better known Turkish composers’ works.  Based on this tape and his recollections of Turkey, Brubeck later composed the “Golden Horne,” which is included on a disk called “Impressions of a Trip”. . . .

From Ceylon [Sri Lanka] (Embassy Colombo Despatch #1154, 9 May 1958):

Mr. Brubeck was most gracious about signing autographs and listening to young musicians who followed him around.  The entire Quartet was outstanding in this respect and left an excellent memory of their good manners and engaging personalities.  The newspapers carried many pictures showing Mr. Brubeck surrounded by young autograph fans.

From Pakistan (Consulate General Dacca Despatch #315, 14 May 1958):

Western music is strange to most people in this part of [the] world but Jazz has a greater universal appeal than classical music to the Pakistanis.  This may be explained by the fact that the “Blues” note or fourth is quite common in Bengali melodic structure.  Further, the driving rhythms of Jazz, especially the varied accents of progressive Jazz, are very similar to those used in both folk and classic Bengali music.  Many of the Pakistanis among the capacity crowd who attended the Shahbagh concert were pleasantly surprised, especially by those numbers where the drums were most emphasized.  Introduction of numbers by the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer helped the audience to understand the music and to realize that Jazz as performed by this group is a true art form.

From Afghanistan (Embassy Kabul Despatch #628, 7 May 1958):

[Saxophonist Paul Desmond was ill and did not participate.]  The members of the trio were received with great interest and enthusiasm by a cross-section of people in Kabul, ranging from Shah Mahmoud and Shah Wali, members of the Royal Family, at the opening concert, to members of the university and schools who had heard the Brubeck records and gave the group a first-class welcome.  The Embassy is of the opinion that this visit was not only successful but valuable in establishing American entertainment at a new level in Afghanistan. . . .

It is tempting to overestimate the value of so successful a mission, and to read into it a more lasting impact than perhaps is the case.  But the performances by the Brubeck trio are without question one of the most successful entertainment episodes which have occurred in this city for a considerable time and . . . Brubeck, by his simple dignity, his friendliness and the fact that all members of the group are attractive American people, have placed us at least for the moment in a position where we have outpointed our Soviet competitors.  The Embassy cannot speak too highly of the value of a comparatively small, highly talented group who meet people easily and well who conduct themselves with quiet poise. . . .

From Iran (Embassy Tehran Despatch #1023, 22 May 1958):

Playing to three audiences totaling some 2200 people in Tehran and Abadan, the appearances of the Brubeck Quartet in Iran were an outstanding success.  The music was of an unaccustomed but dynamic type which won over the younger generation and interested the older and in every way was a program asset in presenting one of the aspects of American culture.

The personality of the group was very winning and provided that indefinable characteristic that makes Americans appealing on the personal level. . . .

From Iraq (Embassy Baghdad Despatch #1219, 25 June 1958):

When news first broke that Brubeck would appear in Baghdad, it was received by the Baghdadi jazz lovers with electrifying enthusiasm.  Requests had been made for so long by this segment of the population that they could hardly believe their ears when they heard the news.  Tension mounted and enthusiasm increased daily for approximately a month until the night of May the 8th when he presented his first program in Khayyam Theater to an enthusiastic audience composed of high ranking Iraqi Government officials, members of the foreign colonies and jazz loving Iraqis.  This audience of over 1500 was immediately won, not only by Brubeck’s music, but also by his charming personality.  A matinee performance was given the following day primarily for the Iraqi college students.  In spite of final examinations which were taking place at this time, more than 500 enthusiastic jazz fans gave Brubeck and his “boys” a standing ovation, wild with enthusiasm.

Source Note:  All quotations are from documents in File 032 Brubeck, Dave Jazz Quartet, in the 1955-58 segment of the Central Decimal File, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State.

4 thoughts on “Remembering Dave Brubeck

  1. I’ve been a life-long Brubeck fan, and loved reading about the tour. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Thanks for posting this. I have a copy of his album with “Take Five” on it (the LP, not a CD). I’m going to play it today in his honor!

  3. Thanks so much for this interesting piece. I’m a big fan of Dave Brubeck’s work. Isn’t it amazing the power music has in bringing cultures together.

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