Sunday, April 13, 2008


Sam Smith

A HALF CENTURY AGO , jazz musician Dave Brubeck became a star in an anomaly: some American foreign policy that actually worked. He recently was in Washington celebrating his participation in the Jazz Ambassadors program of the 1950s,which sent musicians abroad to show a different side of America. Among the other participants: Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Benny Goodman and Miles Davis.

In 1958, Brubeck visited 12 countries, including Poland, Turkey, East and West Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran and Iraq. As Brubeck explained it, "We were out 120 days without a day off, and it was rough travel. The water wasn't fit to drink, but you got so thirsty, you drank it. The State Department didn't want us to come home. They wanted us to stay out. They cancelled our concerts here at home."

In an interview with National Endowment for the Arts chair Dana Gioia several years ago, Brubeck told how the Voice of America had been his warm-up band: "Most of the people, when they spoke to you in English, sounded like Willis Conover from the Voice of America. His show came on every night worldwide. . . To this day . . . you can hear his voice. In Russia, people sound like Willis. If you listened to my recordings in the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War, you could be sent to Siberia or worse. They listened to my records, and they called it 'Jazz in Bones.' Using X-ray plates, they could record Willis Conover and get a fairly good recording. If you were caught with that, you were dead. But the doctors and the nurses and the students would very carefully listen to these recordings, and they had underground jazz meetings all the time."

Listening to Brubeck recall his tour under the prodding of Hedrick Smith at a Library of Congress event the other evening, it was clear that Brubeck had added his own flair for diplomacy. And not just from the stories. The Brubeck Institute Quintet played tunes between the anecdotes. The musicians were all 18-20 years old but the 87-year old Brubeck treated them with respect and enthusiasm, turning his chair to watch each solo and even at one point signaling to Christopher Smith that he noted the bassist hadn't got his solo. It's one of those things that happens to bass players so they both shrugged and smiled.

Brubeck himself only played one number all the way through and when it was time for his "Blue Rondo" he stood behind Javier Santiago and announced, "This piece is so damn hard that I'm going to have him play it." Santiago masterfully tackled the opening, relinquished the piano bench to Brubeck for the solo and then returned for the close. You don't see many legends do that sort of thing, especially when it's their tune.

As I watched Brubeck and the young musicians under his influence, I recalled being an 18-20 something drummer and buying a ten inch LP called "Jazz at Oberlin," which I would play repeatedly in my room and on my college radio station show, "Jam With Sam." Maybe I even played it while Brubeck was on his tour in 1958, my junior year. One thing is certain, for young college musicians and jazz fans of my vintage, trapped behind the Iron Curtain of 1950s values and culture, there was no doubt that Dave Brubeck revealed the meaning of life better than your parents or your professors. And if you were a young white musician, it was a sign that there was room for you, too.

Brubeck crossed the generations like it was just another national border in the Cold War. Matt Schudel of the Washington Post quotes the NEA's Gioia as saying: "There is no American alive who has done more extensive and effective cultural diplomacy than Dave Brubeck. Dave is not only one of the greatest living American artists, he's also one of the greatest living American diplomats."

Just the sort of guy you would have wanted to send to Poland in the midst of the Cold War. Brubeck told Gioa, "When we played in Poland in 1958, I had gone to Chopin's home, and I had seen the statue that the Nazis had almost broken. I had been in his home and seen his pianos. So that night on the train to the last concert in Poland, I composed in my head a song dedicated to Chopin and the Polish people. As an encore, we played it, and there was absolute silence in the auditorium. I thought, now I've ruined all 12 concerts. They're shocked that I would play in a Chopinesque kind of way. And then, the place went insane with applause. . . It's called Dziekuje, which means 'thank you' in Polish. Here it is 2005 - that was 1958 - and they still remember that piece."


It hadn't been easy getting to Poland. A Hedrick Smith documentary website notes:

"The tour also featured a stop in Poland, which required a journey into communist-controlled East Berlin. Because of a State Department snafu, the group didn't have the necessary visas. A tour official found a way to get papers, but collecting them required a risky illegal journey through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and into communist territory. 'I was supposed to be in [music promoter] Madame Gunderlach's trunk to go through the gate,' Dave explains, 'And of course, there were plenty of signs telling you not to go through. Many people that had gone through into East Germany disappeared for about six months or longer. So I didn't want to be in that position.'

"Brubeck refused to ride in the trunk, but did crouch down in the backseat and was dropped off at a big, non-descript building. 'I sat there for two hours alone in this bare room,' he said. 'And this guy, very shabbily dressed came and sat next to me. He said, 'You Mister Kulu?' And I said, 'No, Mister Brubeck.' And he said, 'No, you Mister Kulu.' And I said, 'No, I'm Mister Brubeck.' So he took out a Polish newspaper and there's a picture of me. And under it, it says, Mister Kulu. So I figured it out - "Mr. Cool Jazz, that's what Kulu means. He thought that [was] my name. But he had the papers for me to continue on through East Berlin into Poland."

The problems didn't end there. Reports Schudel: "Later he climbed aboard an East German train bound for Poland with his wife, son, three band mates and a musician's wife. When guards demanded to know why the Americans were carrying so much luggage, Brubeck recalls, he had to pantomime drumming to explain that they were musicians traveling with instruments. His boom, boom' drew suspicious glares, but they eventually made it to Warsaw."

In India that Brubeck found only one decent piano - a 12 foot grand in Bombay with gold in its keys. He wondered aloud what he would play at a major event the next day. His hosts answered by gathering 20 men who lifted the piano and carried it to the stadium. In Afghanistan it was tougher. Kabul, recalled Brubeck, "was a hard place to find a piano." They located a terrible one, but Brubeck said it was okay; there were "just certain notes I won't play."


But Brubeck didn't just perform. He learned. In Turkey it was about 9/8 time. In India about a different standard for improvisation that Deepak Ram explained at the Library of Congress event: "We encourage improvisation after you have studied 12 years." Everywhere Brubeck went he not only played, he listened. Out of it came a number of tunes including Blue Rondo a la Turk based on the Turkish zeybek,

And he kept at it. Thirty years later, Brubeck had Mikhail Gorbachev tapping his fingers to "Take Five" at a break during a stalled summit meeting. The next day Secretary of State George Shultz gave Brubeck a big hug and credited him with breaking the conference stalemate.

But then this was a white musician who had won the first jazz poll ever taken by the black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. And Schudel tells the story of Brubeck and William "The Lion" Smith doing a tour in the Netherlands, during which Smith is asked by a journalist, "Isn't it true that no white man can play jazz?" Smith, Brubeck beside him, replied, "I'd like you to meet my son."

It was not unlike what Louis Armstrong said to Jack Teagarden on their first meeting: "You're ofay, I'm spade, let's blow."

It isn't that jazz musicians are better people; it's just they have better things on their mind than national and cultural anger. Finding these better things is the quickest way out of human conflict: the commonality of appreciation overcomes fear of the uncommon. Jazz has always been a metaphor for this: a place where everyone gets to solo but only if they also back up everyone else - that mystical blend of individual and community that makes some human societies thrive. One day we may even learn how to make it work for countries as well.