Ambassador of Cool
Dave Brubeck Has Long Played Jazz on an International Scale

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.

He received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1996, and three years later he was named an NEA Jazz Master, the nation's highest official honor for a jazz musician. Last year, he was designated a "Living Legend of Jazz" at a Kennedy Center ceremony and brought the sellout audience to its feet with his duet performance of "These Foolish Things" with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. He's on the selection committee for the Kennedy Center Honors but, strangely, has never received one himself. Oh, and Clint Eastwood is producing a documentary about his life.

From a One-Room Shack

Tall, lean and standing ramrod-straight, Brubeck extends his huge right hand by way of greeting. Here at the winter condo he and his wife, Iola, rent on Sanibel Island, Fla., Brubeck has just finished a new composition inspired by the photographer Ansel Adams. The manuscript is still on the electronic keyboard in the neat but nondescript living room that looks out on the Gulf of Mexico.

On the coffee table sits a book of Adams's photographs of the California landscape, which Brubeck knew as a boy. He talks about other projects -- an opera based on John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," recent revivals of his classical choral works, upcoming dates with his quartet -- and you quickly get the idea that Brubeck is the least retiring 87-year-old you'll ever meet.

He says that whenever someone mentions retirement, he recalls the words of his good friend Duke Ellington: "Retire to what?"

Then, as he laughs, a mile-wide smile etches its way across his well-lined face. His dark brown eyes, no longer framed by the thick horn rims that were his signature style of the 1950s and '60s, are alternately gentle, fierce and deeply wise. He has the look of the tanned, leather-faced rancher he might have become if he hadn't found music -- or Iola.

They have been married for 65 years, and she helped Brubeck believe in himself when no one else did. She has written lyrics for many of his songs, and she sits in the wings at every one of his concerts.

"We lived in a corrugated tin one-room shack with no windows," Brubeck says of the hard times that lasted well into his 30s. They bathed their children in a stream and subsisted on dented cans of food from discount stores. He and his quartet traveled the country in a station wagon with the bass strapped on top. "We were so broke, God almighty."

But Brubeck kept playing his music, and little by little the whole world took notice.

On the day the Berlin Wall was built, Aug. 13, 1961, a West Berlin radio station broadcast Dave Brubeck's music all day long. It played one tune again and again, "Brandenburg Gate," which Brubeck composed after seeing the landmark that is a symbol of peace in Berlin. He wrote it during his State Department tour in 1958.

Three years ago, Brubeck returned to Poland and was honored at a formal dinner. Afterward, about 10 people came forward and said they had followed him by bus and train during his State Department tour 47 years earlier.

"Mr. Brubeck, you come to Poland, you did not bring jazz," one of them told him. "You brought the Empire State Building, you brought the Grand Canyon, you brought America."

A Young Musical Cowboy

Make no mistake: Dave Brubeck is still very much a working musician. He gives about 80 concerts a year and retains much of the force of the two-fisted keyboard style of his youth. His most recent recording, "Indian Summer," a reflective solo recital released last year, has been hailed as among the best albums of his career.

"He sits down at the piano and loses 30 years," says Bobby Militello, Brubeck's saxophonist for the past 26 years. "I put the gauntlet down all the time for him, and at 87 he picks it up and throws it back at me."

Ever since his career began in San Francisco in the late 1940s, Brubeck has happily defied musical conventions. His style is catchy but never simple. By the early 1950s he was finding a foothold with the public, and in 1954 he became the second jazz musician -- Louis Armstrong was the first -- to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. The article lauded Brubeck and his group for "some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born" and described him in pseudo-hip prose as "a wigging cat with a far-out wail."

Dave Brubeck would be the last person to call himself a "wigging cat." He has, in fact, perhaps the most unlikely background of anyone who became a major jazz artist. He never played in a big band, never lived in a city until after his musical tastes were formed, never moved to New York to play bebop with Dizzy and Bird.

Instead, he grew up in rural California, first in Concord and later on a remote 45,000-acre ranch near Ione, 40 miles from Sacramento. Young Dave was an authentic cowboy -- his father was a champion roper -- and he spent his days riding horses, mending fences and herding cattle.

Dave's father wanted him to take over the ranch, but his mother had other ideas. She was a talented pianist who, when Dave was a boy, left home for a year to study in England with the classical virtuoso Dame Myra Hess.

In spite of their isolation on the ranch, Brubeck's mother taught her three sons to play piano and gave relatively advanced lessons in music theory. The two older boys, Henry and Howard, went on to careers as composers and music teachers. Dave, however, had a different approach. Before he began wearing glasses, he was cross-eyed and could not read music. As a result, he learned to play by ear and could repeat anything on the piano, no matter how complex, after hearing it once or twice.

His mother and brothers played Chopin and Liszt, but his own musical studies were more casual and improvisational. When he first heard jazz -- "I might have been 5 or 6 or 7. My brother's dance band rehearsed in my mother's studio on Thursday nights" -- he found the music irresistible.

"We weren't allowed to have a radio or records," he said, but he soon overcame that prohibition: "I made my own crystal set and hid it under my bed."

When he was 14, he bought his first record -- Fats Waller's "There's Honey on the Moon Tonight" -- and joined a band that played at parties and honky-tonks. He dreamed that Benny Goodman and his band would pass by his ranch and be trapped in a cattle drive, unable to move on until they took the young Brubeck with them as their piano player.

Brubeck's father wanted him to stay on the ranch, but his mother insisted that he go to college. To please them both, Brubeck enrolled at the College (now University) of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., to study veterinary science. At the end of his first year, a sympathetic zoology teacher pointed him across campus and told him he belonged in music.

Brubeck almost didn't graduate because, he says, the professors found out he had never really learned to read music. He could write musical notation when composing, but he was helpless when it came to sight reading. For four years, he had fooled them with his quick ear, his keen knowledge of theory and his compositional originality. In the end, Brubeck was awarded a diploma only on the condition that he never teach music. Today, the University of the Pacific houses the Brubeck Institute, which is both an archive of his papers and a conservatory for jazz studies.

While Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were inventing bebop in New York, Brubeck was an Army infantryman under Gen. George S. Patton in World War II. When an officer found out Brubeck could play piano, the musician was transferred to a unit where he could lead a band that entertained wounded soldiers. For a while, Brubeck was stationed at a prisoner-of-war camp, where German and Italian prisoners would call out requests while he practiced.

After the war, Brubeck took graduate courses at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., from French composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his explorations of jazz voicings and polytonality, or music played in more than one key at a time.

Brubeck, who named his oldest son Darius, brought polytonality into jazz as a kind of intellectual experiment. He later added further complexities by introducing odd time signatures, such as the 5/4 of "Take Five" and the 9/8 of "Blue Rondo a la Turk."

In 1951, Brubeck formed a quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, whose sweet, lyrical tone was the opposite of the frenetic bebop style everyone else was copying. Desmond and Brubeck, who looked enough alike to be mistaken for brothers, had a rare musical compatibility. Each instinctively knew what musical path the other would take, and the result was a pleasing, yet challenging style of music that was utterly original. With Eugene Wright and Joe Morello, they stayed together as the most popular jazz group in the world through 1967, when Brubeck left to spend more time composing.

The quartet recordings, with polytonal tunes that sometimes went on for 10 minutes, weren't commercial in the least, and no one expected them to catch on with the public. When Brubeck recorded "Time Out," which didn't have a single tune in the standard 4/4 time of most jazz, Columbia Records executives tried to dissuade him from releasing it.

"You could hardly find a less likely formula for popularity than the one Brubeck followed early in his career," jazz historian Ted Gioia, the brother of NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, writes in an e-mail. "Despite all this, he managed to achieve a rare degree of fame and popularity. How did he pull this off? Mostly through the sheer brilliance and audacity of his musical vision."

Brubeck also hit on the novel formula, at the suggestion of his wife, of playing his music on college campuses. Jazz still carried the scent of the gutter in some circles, and there was something daring and liberating about performing it in the hallowed halls of academia.

Soon enough, though, as his records topped the jazz charts and "West Coast jazz" became a nationwide phenomenon, there came an inevitable backlash among musicians and critics. Brubeck didn't swing, they said. His playing was too stiff, his music was too fussy or else it was too bombastic, he sold too many records, he made too much money, he wasn't a bebopper, he wasn't from New York, he made the cover of Time before Duke Ellington. He was criticized, in some circles, for painting the historically black art of jazz with the pastel shades of California and classical music.

But since the early 1950s, Brubeck had been warmly received at black clubs and colleges throughout the South, and he routinely won popularity polls in black publications.

Brubeck is being honored this week for his work overseas, but he has helped open as many doors at home. In 1958, before leaving on the State Department trip, he was scheduled to make a tour of colleges in the South. He canceled 23 of 25 concerts when local officials refused to allow his bass player, Wright, the lone African American member of the quartet, to appear onstage with the rest of the group. Another time, Brubeck refused to play on a network television show when he realized Wright would not be shown on camera.

"I was aware in 1958 that we were being used in the Cold War propaganda battle," Brubeck has written in an unpublished autobiography, "and acutely aware of the irony that Eugene did not enjoy all the privileges that the rest of our group did in the U.S., particularly in the still segregated South."

Brubeck still recalls with an air of bemused rancor a tour he made in the Netherlands with Willie "The Lion" Smith, an early African American master of stride piano.

"Isn't it true," a Dutch journalist asked Smith, "that no white man can play jazz?"

With Brubeck at his side, Smith simply said to the reporter, "I'd like you to meet my son."

A Summit Breakthrough

There's a picture from Brubeck's 1958 State Department tour of Desmond playing his saxophone in an Indian marketplace. He was trying to charm a cobra out of its basket.

On another occasion, when Brubeck found a piano that hadn't been warped by subtropical heat, he asked if he could use it at later concerts. A group of men picked up the 12-foot Boesendorfer and carried it through the streets on their shoulders.

Thirty years later, when the Cold War was quickly thawing, cultural diplomacy had become a little more refined. On May 31, 1988, President Ronald Reagan had invited Brubeck to join him at a gala dinner at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow, during Reagan's summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Three days of diplomatic talks had proved fruitless, and faces were grim during the dinner at the ambassador's house. Afterward, Brubeck and his group got up to play. A year before, they had performed to enthusiastic audiences in Moscow, Leningrad and Tallinn, Estonia, but on this night they were limited to only four songs. That was all they would need.

"The Russian guests appeared to appreciate the entertainment," the Associated Press soberly reported, "and many tapped along with their feet as Brubeck's quintet played."

During the final number, "Take Five," people noticed that even Gorbachev was drumming his fingers in time with the music.

"I can't understand Russian," Brubeck said, "but I can understand body language."

After the concert, according to the New York Times, Reagan was "bantering" with Brubeck "as Mr. Gorbachev and members of the ruling Politburo looked on with broad grins."

The diplomatic stalemate was suddenly broken, and the Americans and Soviets reached a historic agreement to dismantle parts of their nuclear arsenals.

"The next day," recalls Brubeck's longtime manager and producer, Russell Gloyd, "[Secretary of State] George Shultz broke through the ranks, gave Dave a big hug and said, 'Dave, you made the summit. No one was talking after three days. You made the breakthrough.' "

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that a piano player helped end the Cold War, but Brubeck and his music certainly didn't hurt. Ever since that first jazz journey in 1958, he understood the power of music to cross the boundaries of language, culture, politics and race.

When he took his music to new lands, people instantly recognized what they were hearing. "Jazz," Brubeck says, "is the voice of freedom, more than anything else in the world."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company