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Darius and Catherine Brubeck

The Jazzanians

by Howard Lawes

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Left to right: Mark Kilian (occasional dep for Melvin Peters), Victor Masondo, Melvin Peters, Johnny Mekoa,

Andrew Eagle, Darius Brubeck. Sitting: Lulu Gontsana, Zim Ngqawana. (Photographer: Ted Brien)

The 1920s and 1930s, known for F Scott Fitzgerald's 'Jazz Age', crashing stock markets, and the great depression also witnessed a movement called the 'Harlem Renaissance'.  This flowering of African American culture occurred as the apartheid-like Jim Crow legislation precipitated a great migration of African Americans from southern states to the northern cities of Chicago and New York.  African Americans had distinguished themselves fighting in the Great War and their military band had become the toast of Paris where the servicemen revelled in a society that was free of the racism prevalent back home.  The experience of post-war Paris was one element that motivated African Americans to believe that their artistic endeavours in music, poetry and theatre would find a ready market. 


In 1947, to celebrate the centenary of his country's founding, the president of the African Republic of Liberia commissioned two renowned  African American artists to create works representing its history and potential.  Melvin B Tolson, the famous black poet was commissioned to write an epic poem on the founding of Liberia that he titled, “Libretto for Liberia”  and Duke Ellington composed "The Liberian Suite".  Both these artists grew up during the Harlem Renaissance and perhaps President Tubman was looking to inspire artistic development in his country; Liberia already possessed Cuttington College, the only independent liberal arts college in sub‐Saharan West Africa.


Chatting to Darius and Catherine Brubeck via Zoom they described how, on 29  April 1976, both Cuttington College and Duke Ellington were celebrated at a concert in the huge, Gothic cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  Duke Ellington's funeral had taken place in the same cathedral two years previously so the concert, performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra was led by his son, Mercer.  Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams were among the musicians who joined the Ellington orchestra in the concert, which included the American premiere of Duke Ellington's last work, "The Three Black Kings." The New Brubeck Quartet played a tribute to the late composer which Dave Brubeck had written 18 years previously; the quartet comprised Dave Brubeck with his sons, Darius (on Rhodes and keyboards), Chris (bass guitar, bass trombone, piano) and Dan (drums).  Part of the team organising the concert was a young South African woman called Cathy and on that enchanted evening, she met Darius for the first time.


Later in 1976 the New Brubeck Quartet controversially toured South Africa, shortly after the Soweto Youth Uprising, a protest about issues with their education that ended in tragic deaths at the hands of the police.  The Brubecks had significant misgivings about the tour but cancelling at a late stage would have been contractually difficult.  Cathy accompanied the tour and she and Darius made a memorable journey into the Xhosa homeland of Transkei, meeting local musicians and their families.  Cathy and Darius went to South Africa again in 1982 to visit Cathy's mother, Dorothea.  While there Darius performed several gigs with local musicians and also renewed acquaintance with the academic, Chris Ballantine, who was looking to recruit a new member of staff for the music department at the University of Natal in Durban. Chris had become friends with Darius and Cathy in New York previously, partly through a mutual love of football. 


The 1980s saw an escalation of violence in South Africa, some predicted civil war while others thought that the days of apartheid were numbered.  Darius and Catherine married on New Year's Day, 1983 and together they arrived in Durban on St. Valentine's Day the same year. As Darius explains in the book Playing the Changes  (2024, by Darius and Catherine Brubeck) accepting a job and living in South Africa was fraught with problems, however, he goes on "Supporting the anti-apartheid cause and an unprecedented opportunity to design a programme not only at a university, but within a country on a continent that didn't yet offer a degree in jazz, really appealed to me", and as Cathy relates, their action did have the blessing of anti-apartheid organisations as it was seen as building for a future free of apartheid. 


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So began a university career for both Darius and Catherine at the University of Natal (renamed the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in 2004) that lasted until 2006. One of the pillars of UKZN’s international status was the establishment in 1984 of the first Jazz Studies degree programme in Africa, followed in 1989 by the creation on campus of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music (CJPM). Catherine, whose South African roots in the area proved to be very valuable, turned her hand to any work that needed doing - fundraising, departmental administration, event production and band management. Not long after the Brubecks arrived the reality of apartheid was laid bare when the audience of around 6,000 at a Concert for Academic Freedom at the university, was ordered to disperse as it was deemed an "illegal gathering" under the Riotous Assemblies Act.  However real progress was made, both musically and socially and as Darius relates, the the university experience was life-changing for both white and black students, studying together for the first time.


The CJPM was run by the redoubtable Glynis Malcolm-Smith and each Wednesday it became a proper jazz club.  Generous donations from liberal-minded local organisations created a well-appointed venue that was a joy for both black and white musicians and audiences alike.  Another popular local venue was the legendary Rainbow Restaurant which from 1983 held regular Sunday afternoon concerts for mixed, black and white audiences. These concerts became vehicles to highlight the injustice of the apartheid regime in defiance of the laws of the time.  By 1987 there was a band good enough to be invited to the National Association of Jazz Educators conference in Detroit, USA, but it fell to Catherine to raise the bulk of the money needed to pay for the trip.  The band was called The Jazzanians and it is the restored and remastered 1988 recording of their music, We Have Waited Too Long,  that was released by Ubuntu Music in April 2024. 

Listen to the title track:

Darius and Catherine Brubeck's overriding ambition in setting up a jazz course in Durban was to provide equal opportunity for all, irrespective of race, but as Darius points out in Playing The Changes the lack of music education for black Africans at school meant that most did not meet the basic standard to enter university.  The Jazzanians were one of five multi-racial bands created via the CJPM during the apartheid era with Melvin Peters (piano), Johnny Mekoa (trumpet), Zim Ngqawana (alto sax/flute), Nic Paton (soprano and tenor sax), Andrew Eagle (guitar), Victor Masondo (bass) and Lulu Gontsana (drums/percussion).  They were a unique band of exceptionally talented South African students, some of whom were already professional musicians and by no means young.  As Darius Brubeck says "Their recording is a jubilant expression of the creative interaction that apartheid tried to stifle.  Compositions by the band members represent the quintessential sound of South African jazz which is infectious.  The Jazzanians were invited to the National Association of Jazz Educators Conference in Detroit, USA in 1988, a trip that was described by Andrew Eagle in a newspaper interview. He says "The tour was seen as an ideal opportunity to project the image of a future South Africa and highlight the University's stand against apartheid and commitment to a more comprehensive culture.  The visit to America implicitly strengthened the case against academic boycotts by drawing attention to Darius Brubeck, the American founder and leader of the University's jazz programme."

Here is film of the visit made at the time:

  In 1989, Darius was appointed Professor of Jazz Studies and Director of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, where he taught until 2005.  In 1990, South African president,  F W de Klerk, in a move that surprised observers, announced in his opening address to Parliament in February 1990 that he was lifting the ban on the ANC and other black liberation parties, allowing freedom of the press, and releasing political prisoners. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and in 1994, became president himself.


There are similarities between how African Americans were treated in the USA and how black Africans were treated in South Africa and education is a central plank of a discriminatory society.  If the educational opportunities for black children are inferior to those of white children then black children begin with a disadvantage that most will never recover from.  The Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. American jazz musicians played their part in raising awareness,  such as the composition by Charles Mingus called Fables of Faubus, highlighting the injustice suffered by African American pupils at Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.  In a similar vein, the song Soweto Blues by Hugh Masekela and sung by Miriam Makeba commemorates the Soweto Youth Uprising of 1976.


Darius Brubeck, with the support of his wife Cathy, was instrumental in encouraging that vital self-belief in aspiring South African jazz musicians and facilitating through music a multi-racial South African renaissance.  In some ways, Darius and Cathy have followed in the footsteps of Dave and Iola Brubeck who themselves embraced the cause of racial integration and equality and, together with Louis Armstrong, composed a jazz musical play called The Real Ambassadors, that addressed political issues.  Another example was a tour of Poland in 2018 by the Darius Brubeck Quartet (more about it here) commemorating the 1958 tour by the Dave Brubeck Quartet (that Darius accompanied) that was greeted by ecstatic audiences in Poland still suffering Soviet repression .  As an aside the Darius Brubeck Quartet recently helped the Polish Social and Cultural Association in London celebrate its 60th anniversary with a splendid concert at Tomasz Furmanek's Jazz Cafe POSK.


The release of We Have Waited Too Long coincides with the publication of the book Playing The Changes by Darius and Catherine Brubeck (2024, to be published by the University of Illinois Press) and a film of the same name (watch the trailer below) that will be shown at selected film and jazz festivals over the coming months.  All three elements commemorate the remarkable contribution that the Brubecks have made to the social and musical development of people in South Africa and in the manner of the Harlem Renaissance provided the foundation for the joyous celebration of African culture through jazz, popular music and dance.

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