Music

Papa Dave: Remembering Dave Brubeck

Darius Brubeck

Darius Brubeck reflects on his father's passing, as well as the jazz legend's South African connections.

Darius Brubeck with his father Dave Brubeck.

Dave Brubeck was still touring in the summer of 2011, but it was increasingly hard going and by early Fall it was clear that I should take over his two remaining commitments.

This was termed a ‘medical hiatus’ but he never played in public again. When Cathy and I arrived for an extended visit in November this year, we were sad to see how much weaker he was. Right up to his fatal heart attack, however, he was among the living and often played one of the two grand pianos in his studio.

People often become more devout or at least curious about ultimate things as they sense the end approaching, but this was not my father’s way. He took pleasure in watching the comings and goings of his vast, multi-generational family in his large, self-designed country house and reminiscing with friends, but his physical weakness and dependence on Iola, his wife of 70 years, frustrated him. I know he was ready to move on.

I asked him one day if something was irritating him and he answered, ‘life.’ Somehow the sense that Dave was nearing the end of a life well-lived reached beyond the immediate family. Herbie Hancock phoned out of the blue just for a chat. Wynton Marsalis came out from New York City for a long visit and to discuss what an all-Brubeck programme at JALC might consist of.

Dave’s near-contemporary George Wein (founder of the Newport Jazz Festival), whose long career and international brand began with Dave as his first headliner, dropped in with record producer Hank O’Neil. They sat at the white, oval Saarinen kitchen table drinking California merlot and talking about the recent US election (all life-long, fervent Democrats, of course) and the old days. There was no specific reason to expect Dave to die so soon afterwards but these occasions were goodbyes.

I lived in South Africa from 1983 to 2005, teaching jazz at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, and my wife, Cathy, is South African, so sometimes people assume Dave must have had a South African connection too. Actually there is no ancestral or other background connection, but through us, South Africa became important to him.

The New Brubeck Quartet (Dave, Chris, Dan and I) toured South Africa in 1976, of all years, albeit before the declaration of the UN cultural boycott. Dave had been an outspoken campaigner for civil rights in the American South in the 1960s and it didn’t take long for him to see that while coming to South Africa may have been a mistake, he could also make demands that might do some good.

He insisted on a local opening act, Malombo and hired Victor Ntoni to play acoustic bass with us. Even though we were self-contained with my brother Chris playing electric bass, this was a way to ‘integrate’ our group. Dave later sponsored Victor at Berklee School of Music in Boston and my parents came to visit us in Durban in 1984. They really loved the country and, as always, made lasting friends.

In 1988 our jazz programme made big news because we took the first South African student jazz band, the Jazzanians, out of the country where they appeared at the International Association of Jazz Educators conference and on two major US TV networks. My parents’ house in Connecticut was the home base for this large group of South African students (Johnny Mekoa, Zim Ngqawana, Nic Paton, Rick Van Heerden, Andrew Eagle, Melvin Peters, Victor Masondo, Kevin Gibson and Lulu Gontsana).

Subsequently Dave and Iola hosted four more South African student bands and helped them with logistics, donations and friendship throughout the years. It was really special for our family to receive condolence messages from some who referred to my father as “Papa Dave”. It makes us all feel like a family bonded forever.

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