Dave Brubeck Undercover

In gathering information for Cold War Cool: Jazz at the Front Lines of American Diplomacy, we contacted Darius Brubeck, keyboardist and son of Dave Brubeck, about his experiences traveling to Poland and elsewhere with his father, mother and brother in 1958. Darius has gained an international reputation for his South African-influenced recordings (he spent some two decades teaching jazz in South Africa) and is based in London. He was 11 when he traveled with his father on one of the first—and most important—State Department cultural trip. Darius replied to our queiries by e-mail and added valuable insight into the experience.

He recounts his father’s undercover venture into Communist East Berlin to obtain travel visas for himself and his family. The Brubecks were inexplicably routed into Berlin on their way to Poland. In a middle-of-the-night, cloak-and dagger adventure, Dave was forced to sneak through a border checkpoint into Eastern sector to obtain visas for travel in the Communist bloc. While sitting in an East German police station, an officer approached and asked, “Are you Mr. Kulu?” Brubeck was confused until the officer showed him a newspaper from Warsaw announcing the visit of “Mr. Cool.” Visas were immediately issued for his entire family. Darius remembers the waiting:

Dave having to slip into the GDR George Smiley style, driven through check points by someone with deep local knowledge and connections, in order to obtain a transit visa allowing all of us (Quartet and family) to pass through East Germany. This was the only way to get to Poland in those days. [Dave’s wife] Iola, my brother Mike (2 years younger than me) and I were left waiting for hours in a hotel lobby in West Berlin, knowing Dave was on a risky mission.

Conditions in the Easter Bloc made an impression on the young pianist.

I remember the post-war poverty and destruction that surrounded us and the lack of basic infrastructure, never mind any form of comfort. I sensed the defiance of the Poles who, while understandably cautious, were demonstratively friendly. My mother and I discussed their show of independence from Russia, observing the exaggerated displays of deference to Catholicism, much self-crossing and men always lifting hats as they passed either church or clergy on the street. I drew a picture of a street scene with a church and children playing in the snow (it was February). Somehow it got into the local newspaper. Our translator again? I heard that it was well-liked and I was proud. But, I had only drawn it for my diary.

One of the more well-known and publicized events during the tour involved Darius’:

…my unplanned international debut as a jazz pianist. People like to say it took place in Warsaw, but I am pretty sure it was Lodz or maybe Stettin [now Szczcecin]. Our Polish interpreter, guide and ‘minder’, literally pushed me and Mike on stage at the end of the Quartet’s first or second concert. I had enough diplomatic suss at eleven to sense it would be a mistake to scuttle back into the wings once the audience had seen us, so walked with as much self-possession as possible to the piano. Mike naturally followed me and Joe Morello (operating like a skilled puppeteer) sat him on the drum seat and put a stick in his right hand. Dad knew that I knew “Take the A Train“, so he started the familiar intro as I sat down. Not really oriented – where’s middle C, what happens next – I played some tentative licks and Dave stage whispered, ‘play the melody, stupid!’ The German press ran the headline ‘Schpielen der Melodie, dumkopf!’ and this has been a family joke all these years.

Darius, even at 11 had no illusions about what was going on:

An editorial point about these two stories is that they reveal the absurdity of Cold-War thinking on both sides. Dave couldn’t get a visa in West Berlin because the US didn’t officially recognise East Germany, but the State Department was willing to risk his arrest in order to obtain the travel documents needed for a US government sponsored tour. I think my ‘performance’ was engineered by Polish officialdom, who were anxious to prove that a famous American musician’s family was safe behind the iron curtain.

Darius recently sat in for his 88-year-old father who was ill at a 50-year anniversary concert for the landmark Time Out recording in Stockton, CA. But his own music is something quite different. You can check it out at his website (see above) . And look for his forthcoming blog “Fifty Years Ago,” knowing that it comes from someone with important memories—Cabbage Rabbit

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