Dave Brubeck and The Jazz Ambassadors
Dan Brubeck: The more repressed a society is, the more they admire the freedom you can find in jazz. Jazz is America. People behind the Iron Curtain started falling in love with jazz.
Chris Brubeck: The idea was if we get jazz musicians to go out, that represents freedom. People could express themselves in this kind of way out of that kind of democracy comes that kind of expression.
ARCHIVAL: Louis Armstrong
Chris Brubeck: You’re not going to get a repressed environment like communism. That seemed to be the idea. I mean, if you saw a Louis Armstrong back then you know, your heart opens up and you’re like, wow, this is great. This guy is totally cool. He loves everyone and he’s expressing himself and he just made people happy all over the world. So that’s a way better defense against fighting communism than fighting might with might and all that, you know. It’s like nowadays, maybe we would just bomb them or something.
Brandi Howell: Welcome to The Echo Chamber. I’m your host, Brandi Howell. On today’s episode, The Jazz Ambassadors, a blue note and a minor key, America has its secret sonic weapon, jazz. This was a headline in 1955 when the United States seeing jazz as propaganda to promote democracy abroad sent its top musicians overseas. The music they thought was a universal language, knowing no national boundaries. So off they sent the so-called jazz ambassadors, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and lastly, Dave Brubeck. His experience with the program is the focus of this episode.
Keith Hatschek: It was a brilliant use of what we have come to term soft power. Eisenhower realized that bullets and bombs ultimately would never decide the outcome of the future of this battle between the capitalist system and the socialist system. He very wisely invested in cultural exchanges. They were dubbed unofficially the “jazz ambassadors”, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie. The groups were chosen to go overseas and play their music. This battle for the hearts and minds of all these territories around the world who were not directly linked to either the Western powers or the Soviet Union played out not so much in a military sense, but in a cultural sense. Why not send a jazz quartet and have them go and do their thing in these various countries and territories? I’m Keith Hatschek. I’m the author of “The Impact of American Jazz Diplomacy in Poland During the Cold War Era”. As far as my interest in the jazz ambassadors, I teach at the University of the Pacific and we are the place where the jazz musician Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola decided to bequeath their papers and all of their archival materials. They both attended school here in the 1940s. Dave went on of course to become a world renowned jazz musician and composer and humanitarian. And one of the things that really struck him was that he was a GI during World War II. He was in the European theater of operations and he ended up leading a band called the Wolf Pack. And after the war, after hostilities had ceased. the band stayed on and they played both for GIs, but also refugees who were displaced over there. And it really gave him a look into what it was like in Europe in the aftermath of the devastation of World War Two. Later, when he became more popular in the 1950s, his music started to be broadcast over the Voice of America.
ARCHIVAL: Voice of America Music USA #357-B, Interview with Dave Brubeck
(Listen to full VOA show at the University of North Texas Special Collections)
Keith Hatschek: And one of their most popular shows was called The Jazz Hour. It was hosted by Willis Conover, a Washington DJ. As a result Brubeck’s music got behind the Iron Curtain in a way that it couldn’t have otherwise gotten there because Western records and books and movies were not allowed to be had in communist control. So Brubeck’s music became pretty popular behind the Iron Curtain.
Archival Dave Brubeck: The Voice of America was so appreciated. But there should have been far more of that type of thing. At the risk of death, people were listening. He came on every night out of Washington. And the average Russian, when he speaks English, sounds like Willis Conover. They took those chances to secretly listen, and we’ve been to secret meetings in places like Poland. The last thing they said to me, just before we came home, 60 people in the jazz club, one fellow stood up and said he wanted to give a toast. And he said, when you go home, remember we want freedom as much as you do.
Keith Hatschek: Jazz is a improvisitory media. The idea that the members of a jazz group are going to be having a conversation musically, they’re going to have give and take and dialogue. Many people felt that that was analogous to the democratic process. People in the Soviet Bloc saw jazz, not only as exciting and youthful and energetic and rhythmic, certainly that was a part of it. But the idea that jazz musicians would venture out without a script, they would create art and music and share it. There was something about that that was very attractive to people who were living an incredibly ordered and regimented life.
At one point, the threat of jazz music and its great impression it was making on Soviet citizenry led Stalin to view any form of jazz music, whether it was listening to it, owning it, making it or forming it or composing it as being out of bounds. At one point saxophones, which had been around since the late 19th century were confiscated and all musicians were told if you own a saxophone, you have to bring it to a certain office. And if you were registered as a musician on saxophone, you had to turn in your card, the cards were destroyed and you were given an oboe or clarinet or a bassoon, and you had to change instruments. That’s one thing, musicians always resourceful. Jerzy Matuszkiewicz who’s one of the most celebrated Polish jazz musicians of all time. He said we were jamming a lot and the neighbors would complain. The militia would come and the first thing they would do is they would threaten us and say, are you playing that decadent Western music? And of course we were, but we just said to them, Oh no, no, no, no. It’s a Polish folk song – just our version of it. The militia, many of them were so poorly educated that they didn’t know what Polish folk music actually was. So they got away with it.
ARCHIVAL DAVE BRUBECK: The idea of freedom, if there’s a dictator, the first thing they’re going to stop is jazz. Absolutely. Hitler’s stopped it immediately. Stalin stopped it. It just gives the people of a country too much idea of what it would be like to be free. People just don’t realize how little freedom there was. Some people weren’t allowed to speak. But they would sing maybe or hum – some way they’ll get through.
Keith Hatschek: There was a music committee of academics and critics that was convened. They made recommendations to the State Department. At the same time groups that were popular – Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie. Those were groups that were going to be more popular and a bigger draw out on these jazz ambassador tours. So they happened to be ones that in the early years of the touring program were ones that were invited to go and perform. In 1957, discussions between the State Department and Brubeck’s booking agent ensued and it was agreed that he would go on a European and Asian tour. And part of it would be underwritten by the State Department. Well, everything moves slowly in government circles. There are some correspondence from the late 1957 time period discussing the tour. How long it would go for, where it would go, what countries would be covered.
The reality was it worked on two levels for Dave Brubeck and his group, his music had become more popular through its broadcast over the Voice of America.
ARCHIVAL VOA: Music USA coming to you on 72 35, 9,515 to 10 kilo cycles. Let’s hear more of the recordings of Dave Brubeck in the next half hour of the Voice of America jazz program.
Keith Hatschek: So the hope was more people would come to hear the group and their music and more people would eventually, especially in the countries such as India and Ceylon and Iran and Iraq, where there were record stores and bookstores that it would actually spur some sales of Brubeck’s recordings. But on the other hand, Brubeck knew that some of the places they were going, for instance, Afghanistan – it’s fascinating. They played in Kabul and Brubeck commented that when he looked out in the audience, most of the audience was made up of serving Soviet officers who were there on their version of foreign exchange. They were building roads. They were building runways. They were building bridges, but they too, through the Voice of America, knew of Brubeck and his music, and they gave him a standing ovation. They loved the performance.
ARCHIVAL DAVE BRUBECK: President Eisenhower sent us behind the Iron Curtain. 1958. We went first to Poland, then to Turkey Afghanistan, the periphery of Russia, Iran, Iraq, East and West Pakistan, India and Ceylon. And on my mind is we’ve got to get together.
Keith Hatschek: Music had a way of breaking down the ideology. When the tour was finally all coming together, they ended up visiting nine countries on behalf of the U.S. State Department as jazz ambassadors, and in every country they visited, people were ecstatic. For many of them, tThey really believed that it was giving them a key to what they want to do with their own life. One of the countries was Poland. And of course, Poland at this time was a satellite country of the Soviet Union. And so the group spent two weeks in 1958 in Poland. They played 13 concerts. That fascinated me because there was a letter in the archives, Dave and Iola Brubeck saved a lot of their fan mail. So this was a letter from a musician who had gone to seven of the concerts in Poland. And he wrote with such passion about how much he learned about himself as a musician by attending these concerts and listening to the music and observing the way the musicians interacted. It struck me as being kind of a life-changing experience. And so I thought, I wonder if this guy is still alive. So that led me to the idea of a research trip to Poland, which I was fortunate enough to do in 2007. And I got to interview over a dozen musicians who met and were influenced by Dave Brubeck and his quartet in that historic 1958 tour.
I hired a student research assistant from the University of Warsaw. He mentioned that his grandmother had quite a collection of jazz albums that she had accumulated over the years from the gray market. And I said, Oh, that’s interesting. He said, and I think she really did like Dave Brubeck and I said, Oh, that’s great. And then the next day he said, well, I talked to my grandmother and she’s very happy that you’re here. She was in her eighties at that point, I said, great. And I thought for a minute, I went away, which he liked to speak about that. He goes, I don’t think so, but I’ll ask her. So later in the same day, he sent me a text message and said, my grandmother would like to speak with you. Helena Zaworska. She was a woman of letters and had been an editor of the leading intellectual language journal for many, many, many years in Poland. She was a huge jazz fan as a college student and for the rest of her life, a woman of great intellect and great creative imagination. And so the fact that she was not able to get access to much of the great literature of history. And that until she became a doctoral student and she was finally allowed to go for a year and a half and study at the Sorbonne, she had never left Poland. She knew that she only had a very limited view of what life and world could offer. So jazz music became her lens. It became her way to travel. She would close her eyes and listen to the wonderful jazz music that was on the Voice of America each evening, as well as she and some of her friends began to collect black market jazz records.
She would travel on Sundays by train 13 hours round trip from Warsaw to Krakov where a friend of hers had a much larger jazz record collection and they would spend the whole afternoon early evening just luxuriating and listening to jazz music of their choice. She talked about what that meant to her at the time, how jazz and particularly Dave Brubeck and his music played an important role in her own life.
She said, Jazz and particularly Brubeck, took on the status of myth to us. What it represented was bigger than the music itself. By immersing ourselves in jazz recordings, we became independent during that hour, which was the only way to truly feel freedom at that time – through the music. There was really no hope of ever being able to travel. Jazz allowed us to dream, to retain some sense of idealism because we thought the limits on our freedoms might last forever.
Mike Wurtz: Before I start moving things up there. It is. Look at that, Paul Desmond was already out. So we’ll set that here. And then I think what we’re going to do is put these on this cart and now comes the fun part. Cause I gotta move the really heavy one that doesn’t work…Okay, one more time. This is the Brubeck Collection. It’s actually on either side of this particular range. Pretty much everything on this side is paper. Everything on the other side is audio and video. Do you need me to tell you who I am?
Brandi Howell: Yeah, If you want to introduce yourself here.
Mike Wurtz: I will do that. My name is Mike Wurtz. I am Head of Special Collections at the Holt Atherton Special Collections at the University of Pacific library in Stockton. Among the hundreds of collections that we curate, it includes the Brubeck collections. This is… let’s start with wait, and I’ll tell you what we’ll work backwards. This is actually good, cause this is the combination of civil rights and international diplomacy. Let’s rewind back to 1960, and this is a very famous story about Dave. He’s planning to do a trip of the South. And it turns out that the southern universities that he’s playing at will lose funding if they have an integrated band on stage. So Dave cancels much of that tour at a great financial loss. And we’ve got a really wonderful letter from his managers in New York saying, get a white guy in your band for this tour because you need this money. But Dave ends up canceling the tour. Dave is very clear that he’s not going to do that with his band. This is his band. It’s an integrated band. We’ve got another letter from the mid sixties where Dave is integrating audiences in Alabama. They had never had integrated audiences at the University of Alabama up until Dave played. And then after that, it’s always been integrated audiences. Let’s fast forward. 1976. Dave is asked to go to South Africa. He writes into the contracts that he will always have integrated audiences. This is apartheid South Africa. And so Dave goes down there and sure enough, after a couple of shows, one of the audiences was not integrated and Dave canceled the rest of that tour. No financial loss because it’s in the contract now. These are the kinds of things that we can have that support this whole idea of international diplomacy.
Dave and Iola kept a great deal of stuff and that having this material. It’s important for us to understand that the Brubeck Collection isn’t just about music. It isn’t just about Dave. It’s about these larger issues of civil rights and international diplomacy. If you kind of want to get into one last thing having to do with international diplomacy. I’m going to, I’m going to, I’m going to let you wait here. I’m going to run down here to the photographs, and now I’m going to bring that back here so we can set it back up on top of there. Again, these ones move by the way.These ones are working the way they’re supposed to. So now let’s go all the way up to 1988…
ARCHIVAL Dave Brubeck: There started to be cultural exchange…
Mike Wurtz: The Soviet Union and the United States are negotiating disarmament…
ARCHIVAL Dave Brubeck: Gorbachev and Reagan were starting to be friendly.
Mike Wurtz: President Reagan asks Dave Brubeck to join him and play a show at the Spaso house in Moscow.
ARCHIVAL Dave Brubeck: Like Eisenhower and some of the other presidents, cultural exchange. Russians were given a list of who they could choose to come. And the Russians wanted me and Nancy Reagan wanted me to go. So we went with Air Force One. It was a real experience.
Mike Wurtz: This is a photograph of Dave Brubeck at the piano, and you’ll see in the audience, Nancy Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev, all sitting there watching Dave perform.
ARCHIVAL Dave Brubeck: Believe me, that room was full of dissidents that Gorbachev had just let out of jail. Generals that had thrown these guys in jail. And they’re all sitting at this big room, some at the same tables and our top diplomats were there. It was kind of a tense thing. And then it was time for us to play. The room came together!
Mike Wurtz: And the story here, according to Dave’s manager at the time, he says that the Russians were kind of looking at the Americans and noticing that they were tapping their feet. And the Russians were looking at the Americans noticing that they were tapping their feet or whatever.
ARCHIVAL President Reagan: I was looking around the room and there were quite a few members of both delegations who just couldn’t resist taping their feet!
Mike Wurtz And they kind of said, Hey, You like Brubeck? We like Brubeck – We all like Brubeck. Now let’s go to the next room and let’s start negotiating the fate of the world.