Ambassador of Cool

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Early in the spring of 1958, Dave Brubeck was driven past the final gate separating the Communist world from the West and dropped off on a street corner in East Berlin. Brubeck was already one of the best-known jazz musicians in the world, but he felt alone and conspicuous in the grim Cold War city of armed soldiers and a thousand lurking spies.

His mission: to pick up tickets and visas for his quartet to travel through East Germany to Poland. He was embarking on a State Department goodwill tour that would make him the first U.S. jazz musician to perform behind the Iron Curtain, but on this leg of the journey, he was left to his own devices. No one from the State Department was there to help him. Call him the jazzman who was left out in the cold.

Eventually, as Brubeck tells it, a burly-looking man approached him and said, "You Mr. Kulu."

"No, I'm Mr. Brubeck," he replied.

"You Mr. Kulu," the man repeated.

He then pulled out a Polish newspaper and pointed to Brubeck's picture. Finally, Brubeck realized what he meant: To the Poles, he was "Mr. Cool."

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.

This was his introduction to the strange, ill-defined world of cultural diplomacy, a little-known sidelight of international relations, when musicians and other artists were sent abroad by the State Department and U.S. Information Agency as emissaries of the American way.

Brubeck's 1958 tour moved on to Turkey, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and four countries much on our minds today: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie had made earlier tours, but for decades Brubeck would be a semiofficial jazz ambassador for the United States, making repeated trips to Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, cultivating new fans for his music and for the land it represented.

"There is no American alive who has done more extensive and effective cultural diplomacy than Dave Brubeck," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "Dave is not only one of the greatest living American artists, he's also one of the greatest living American diplomats."

In the coming week, Brubeck's half-century legacy of musical statesmanship will be honored with a series of receptions, seminars and concerts all across Washington. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will present him with the first Benjamin Franklin Award, for civilian service to international cooperation. Brubeck's legacy of cultural diplomacy will be celebrated at the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, Meridian International Center and George Washington University. Next Sunday, he'll lead his quartet in a concert at the Kennedy Center, on a double bill with Ramsey Lewis.

Dave Brubeck is now 87 years old and, in more than one sense, is the reigning elder statesman of jazz. He has made hundreds of recordings as a pianist and bandleader, and his 1959 record "Time Out" -- inspired in part by the international music he heard on his State Department tour -- was the first jazz instrumental album to sell a million copies. "Take Five," the album's big hit, remains the best-selling instrumental jazz single of all time.

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