BOOK REVIEW: Playing the Changes

Jasper Cook reviews ‘Playing the Changes: Jazz at an African University and On the Road’, by Darius & Catherine Brubeck (UKZN Press, 2023). By way of background, the renowned pianist, composer and band leader Darius Brubeck was head of Jazz Studies and director of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music (CJPM) at the University of Natal from 1983 to 2006, when he moved to London and established The Darius Brubeck Quartet. Catherine Brubeck worked for political change as a student at the University of Natal before working in publishing, conference organising and music management in New York. On her return to South Africa, she initiated and arranged tours and concerts for students and professional South African jazz groups.

Memories are made of this

Let’s start this book review with a vivid jazz memory. This is the Grahamstown Jazz Festival, early 1990s. On stage is the Darius Brubeck Quartet (I can’t remember what the band was called on that programme). They are playing Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’. These up-tempo numbers are a challenge for any rhythm player, but demand the most from double bass players.

Victor Ntoni, staring straight ahead, exudes a supernatural calm, reminiscent of Lennox Lewis before a world championship fight. Then Barney Rachabane decides to stage a ‘cutting contest’. He launches a challenge, staring Ezra Ngcukana down as he fires off one hair-raising Afro-bop chorus after another. Ezra, affecting to be unimpressed, takes the stage, and looses off an extended chorus tenor explosion in response, somehow reminding me of the four-night bombardment at Delville Wood in World War I. As he winds down, Barney, equally unimpressed, responds with a further extended solo, full of triple-tongued chicken squawk octave tricks and other Barney wizardry. ‘Take that,’ his attitude says, as he steps back once again for Ezra.

The number has already been barrelling along for more than 15 minutes. Darius is not perspiring yet, but he does glance sharply at the reed-men from time to time. Victor has also not raised a sweat, still staring straight ahead, an ocean liner gliding along. Lulu is ticking along. He alone is raising a slight forehead sheen, switches from brushes to sticks, and begins to ‘bomb’ with cymbal crashes and desperate rim shots.

It doesn’t help. The gladiators continue. After 25 minutes, some celestial referee calls it. There are still rhythm section solos, and then they take it out. The audience erupts, standing, yelling, clapping, whistling. And that’s just the first number. Well, forgive me. It was the second time I had heard Darius perform onstage, but the first time without his father. Unforgettable. Back to the book.

The Changes

Most of us have sung this. ‘A-’ is on F chord, ‘-men’ is on C. It is said to ‘resolve’ from F to C. F to C is a ‘change’.

Jazz musicians ‘play the changes’. They start with a tune, and then improvise their own lines instead, but the idea is to play on the same chords and form as those of the song. A feature of improvising in jazz is that it lures one into careering through the changes into strange traps, sometimes beyond saving, ending in colliding ‘clams’. If one is lucky, before that, and from nowhere, one kind of pre-hears in one’s mind a way out, and our quirky ears and fingers rescue us. Or not.

No harm done, you may think. It’s just music. Nobody got hurt, right? Wrong! It doesn’t work that way: every gig is next week’s lunches, and every muso knows that.

The Brubecks felt they had to succeed. Their story is one of improvising, of diminuendos, crescendos, cadenzas and segues, signs and codas, inversions, repeats, jumps and turnarounds, in the real-life, illegitimate stew of apartheid South Africa, addressing a landscape of gotchas fashioned out of hundreds of years of legislated, enforced ‘reduced circumstances’.

It’s a story of ‘faking it’ through to our democracy. It reads to me like a sort of Fake Book of ‘slowly, slowly, catch a monkey’, something the vervet monkeys watching Darius in his workplace would approve of. It has an air of Peter Cheyney’s private eye, Slim Callaghan, about it: ‘We get there, and who the hell cares how,’ except the core staff quartet involved did care, greatly. For non-jazzers, the American English ‘faking it’ is not necessarily derogatory: it’s about improvising.


For the sake of context, specifically jazz education, what did we do if we wanted a jazz education, back in the fifties and on? There was none to be had in South Africa. Classical music, yes. Jazz, no. Even if our families could afford to ship us overseas for a music education, that meant only one destination: the USA. England and Europe might provide experience if you got into a band, but education? The US was it. ‘Jazz,’ said Lulu Gontsana, ‘is America’s mbaqanga.’ Many musicians I know had no help, and saved for years to get there. Many never returned.

We watched them go. Of the King Kong band, Mackay Davashe returned home. Gwigi Mrwebi did not. Next in my memory is Mike Gibbs, from then Salisbury, Rhodesia, to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The sixties saw off a whole bunch: Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela (said the grapevine, reaching PMB), then Abdullah Ebrahim left for Zurich. The Blue Notes left, too, for Antibes. Morris Goldberg headed for the Manhattan School of Music. Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu and Idris Hotep Galeta left. One after another, the Jazz lights were going out in South Africa.

Departures dried up for a decade or so. Victor Ntoni also went to the Berklee College of Music. The eighties came around, and it started again. Mike Faure saved up for years while running a signage business as his day hustle, and headed to the US. Gerald Stockton and Kendall Kay followed soon, bound for North Texas State University. They never returned. The core of the famous Branch Office band, Johnny Fourie, Johnny Boshoff and Hennie Bekker, came and went. Then, in 1983, things changed: people began arriving.

At an African University

I will never forget attending Dave Brubeck’s concert in Johannesburg: for some days prior, I had been subjected to extreme opinions from musicians who insisted that I boycott it (none of these were white), but with my raging thirst for good jazz, I could not pass it up. I recall how electric the atmosphere in the auditorium was at the realisation that there were blacks in the audience. They weren’t many, but Brubeck senior had contractually insisted on this, and I loved to see them there with us.

The concert duly knocked everyone’s socks off, and I personally was blown away by how accomplished they all were. As a trumpeter and trombonist, more especially so by Chris, jumping from electric bass to trombone and back. I thought, he would blow any local trombonist out of the room on trombone, and would casually give our best bass guitarists a hectic run for their money. The starkest experience to my ‘albo-centric’ eyes (thanks, Jeff Guy) was the sight of tall, dapper Victor Ntoni striding on stage to pick up his double bass. A fellow musician asked later: ‘I mean, like, where does that darkie come from?’ If he had chanced to ask where his preferred ‘local’ bassist (Bob Hill) came from, the answer would have been, ‘Glasgow, Scotland’. I later played in pit bands in many commercial shows in that venue, and I never saw a black performer on stage, until perhaps a decade later.

Darius and Catherine Brubeck returned to South Africa in 1983 with nothing but vision, hope, and the Brubeck name. As Darius writes in the prelude: ‘The joyous vibe I encountered in certain situations was what I imagine it felt like in Kansas City and Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. But, sadly, a crucial difference was that South Africa’s best musicians were overseas, while the local scene seemed sometimes stranded in the past.’

‘Stranded in the past’ is inarguable, and this whole book is full of wisdom and insights, especially about their student musicians, and what became of them. Darius is the only person I have ever known in conversation to nail the slight but convincing gestures that Zim Nqawana used on stage for what they really were. He articulates it even more profoundly in the book, and there is no shortage of other personality insights, all of them kind. I wish I could claim the same for myself.

The Name

Of course, we were thrilled by the Brubecks’ arrival. I had long wondered whether Catherine would resist the lure. Turned out, you can take a liberal out of South Africa, but you can’t take South Africa out of a liberal. And what about that name? Would it make a difference? It seemed impossible, as did seeing off apartheid, but that happened too. As for the name, the more famous Dave Brubeck, ‘Time Out’ just sneaked into the world before the 1960s. Stranded as we were in time, it took decades for us locals to work with ‘the Brubeck thing’, as a colleague referred to different time signatures, but we got there. I can think of Abdullah Ibrahim, using a 7-beat feel:

Ntemi Piliso, leader of the African Jazz Pioneers, told me one day that ever since hearing ‘Time Out’ he had planned to write a 5/4 number for the band. When we recorded the album ‘Shufflin’ Joe’, he slotted it into the album. It’s a 5/4 tempo, modulating to 6/8 time in the bridge. He would be the first to admit to being stranded in the 1950s, but I consoled him, saying ‘Take Five’ was also fifties music! He was open to fun and to ideas, and it was a hoot recording that number.

The Brubecks knew a number of South African jazz musicians and activists exiled in the US, and came to South Africa with a good idea of what they would be facing, but no ‘how-to’.

I read the book a second time to refresh my memory of how Darius and Cathy saw their task, specifically to verify that I had not, on the first reading, missed a plan, a blueprint. I was right: there was none. They arrived without one, armed with nothing more than than possibly ‘General Mojo’s Well Laid Plan‘. And why not? That would fortify anyone for any task. Darius did wonder what his musical life in the US had amounted to, not knowing at that moment that he was ‘modulating into a second life in a new key’ (I wish I had written that).

Darius credits Chris Ballantine with the idea of forming a jazz education department at UKZN, and Cathy describes their university contract as ‘two years, which turned into almost a quarter of a century of improvisation’. Some agile little strategies emerged, like creating diplomas first. This allowed them three years to kick an academic can down the road, placating higher academia and gaining the time to implement something software critics would call ‘feature creep’, by adding another year to full degree status later on. Another strategy was ‘smuggling students into classes, which they were ostensibly taking for non-degree purposes, proved a good way of circumventing administrative barriers and of financial requirements and of pushing the limits’. But I found no blueprint.

That said, their ‘almost a quarter of a century of improvisation’ created a large and lasting legacy of music education in Durban, one that spread to all the major cities in South Africa, such that Catherine can recall thirty past student degree holders who now run their own programmes elsewhere in the world. I can’t, without concentrating, reel off thirty names of any people I have worked closely with in my life, let alone thirty who are leaders in their own right. The author couple played much bigger changes: those from apartheid to democracy, and education came to be as good a struggle vehicle as any: As Darius puts it in the prelude, ‘playing the changes that people yearned for’.

Brubeck senior made ‘Jazz Goes to College’ in 1954. This was the first Brubeck album I heard as a youngster, long before the famous ‘Time Out’ album that played with tempos like 5/4 (‘Take Five’), 9/8 (‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’) and 7/4 (‘Unsquare Dance’). It staggers me still to know that there are more than 5 000 universities and colleges in the US. That translates into a lot of gigs, and a lot of teaching. Darius plays down his academic qualifications, but with the Brubeck name being synonymous with colleges from his childhood, educating must never have been more than a step away.

Cathy was no stranger to organising, academia and huge tasks. When I met her at our house in 1957, I  was a kid playing penny whistle for a hobby. She was then national secretary on the executive committee of the (long since disbanded) Liberal Party, and one of the campus intelligentsia. There are similarities between the ways she tackled a backlog of correspondence for the secretary to Bertrand Russell, accumulated during Lord Russell’s nuke protest jailing, and the way she tackled the task of creating a listening library out of the record collection of Malcolm Hunter, a famous PMB collector and jazz broadcaster. Tons of mail, thousands of records. It takes attention, analysis and dedication, and she stared both tasks down, and so many more. Not the least of such challenges was opening their home to people in need.

My life having been close to snuffed out as a teenage trumpeter in Umkhumbane (another story) naturally means that I regard Durban as a deeply karmic place in my life as a whole, and so it turned out to be, each of the times I lived there. I feel lucky that one of those times consisted of precious weeks trying to join the CJPM as a student to gain at least a diploma. For me, entry was not the barrier it was for other older students: I had gained a university pass in matric, plus I had first-year BA credits from the PMB campus. But those credits were too old to count, and my life was almost unbearably complicated at the time. The Brubecks kindly put me up in their home, while trying to get me on the programme. But I was married, with children; it became too much of a financial big hit for me, and I returned to Johannesburg.

Quite by chance. I had also long known Chris Ballantine, having spent the summer of 1968 sharing a house with him and a bunch of other Maritzburgers in Newnham, Cambridge. I was doing manual work, and the other tenants were all graduates. He, Darius, Cathy and Glynis hustled along in a very different Brubeck quartet.

How does one teach jazz? Darius brought with him the basic bottom-line approach, and down the line, a lot more than that. What, you may ask, is the bottom line? Ben Webster, asked how he approached playing ballads, said: ‘It’s EASY, man! First, you learn the song, in piano, in all twelve keys. Then, you learn it on the horn, in all twelve keys. Then, you learn the WORDS. It’s easy, man’.

That’s the difference between the standard of musicianship in the US and my own, while growing up. That all changed in the early 1980s when the Brubecks arrived in Durban. Any student of jazz needs to learn a melody instrument, usually a horn; a harmony instrument, usually a keyboard or a guitar and a rhythm instrument, usually drumkit or bass. Is this not also a requirement of traditional classical teaching? Well, two thirds of it is: but what classical musicians think is rhythm and what jazzers think is rhythm are like chalk and cheese. So, no. Classical education was big on melody and harmony, but not on rhythm.

All students in the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, as it came to be named, were encouraged to learn two of these disciplines. The book doesn’t make a huge feature of this. After all, it’s a bottom line. For the majority of students, however, it had large implications. Surviving apartheid, as most did, struggling along, it would be rare to find anyone living in a dwelling spacious enough to fit a keyboard, a (double) bass, and a horn, let alone afford all three instruments. So, these had to be available somehow, swelling the funding needs of new entrants to the Centre. As I write, there are 19 high school big bands in Cape Town alone. That would never have happened without the ground laid so astutely by the Brubecks in Durban. For a start, they first brought Mike Rossi, long-standing professor at UCT, and now retired, to South Africa.

There are as many people playing musical instruments in the US as South Africa has people. The Brubecks must have realised that for jazz to flourish, there has to be a jazz scene. Whether they openly set out to create one or not, that is ultimately what they did. How you do things, any things, can ultimately be judged on the basis of a simple question: is it good for the business at large? The Brubecks were not only good for the business, but also created a music and teaching scene.

The book is a success story in itself, but it needs saying that their achievement is part of everyday music life these days. A friend said recently: ‘I tell you, the musicians coming out of universities and school jazz programmes these days are unbelievably good. They have no vices, they sight-read like a bitch, they solo like freaks, and groove all night long.’

If the pianist Duke Ellington’s band was his true instrument, so was creating a music and education scene the Brubecks’ ‘other instrument’. They lay no claim to this, but to me it is one of their great achievements.

Throughout the book they credit many people  but especially Professor (now Emeritus) Christopher Ballantine, as well as Glynis Malcolm-Smith, who was every student’s fairy godmother. I recall Glynis as exuding a supernatural poise in the face of crushing pressure. They comprised the core that created a new jazz happening in Durban, out of a dream and 23 years of relentless work, through most of which Cathy was not paid. It spread to every major city in South Africa. As with anyone learning an instrument, Darius and Cathy put in their ‘ten thousand hours’, and got better and better at it.

The book even includes examples of documents like a funding letter template, and a collection of ‘Out Takes’, snippets and quotes from people they knew through their time at the centre, all written with tolerance, wisdom and insight. I always admired the Brubecks’ world view.

On the Road

The book is subtitled ‘Jazz at an African University and on the Road’. Performance was learning was performance, and everyone was on the road a lot. Every gig there for the taking was snatched up. What is life on the road like? Anybody who has been on the road as a musician will know how strange things can be. What do you do when travelling for ten or twelve hours, cooped up in a combi or minibus? Remarkably, I found the jazz students were able to sleep through almost anything, but that wasn’t true of all genres.

Darius mentions one (of many?) frustrating gigs. At this outdoor concert, there were 102 performing musicians, from all over South Africa. I counted 62 in the audience. This turned out to be quite the nail in the coffin for sponsorship for some time, and did nothing to aid Darius and Cathy’s quest for student funding and expenses. As a learning thing for students, it was a hard lesson in how destructive a useless promotor can be. You never know where the next gotcha will come from. In time, the Centre raised money from student performances and from an on campus bar, among other sources.

As a South African pioneer of the PC revolution, someone who has typeset a few books in various word processing applications, and the son of a woman who ran The Natal University Press alone on the PMB campus for many years, I sought to appease this ancestor by casting an eye over the book from a technical standpoint. To quote that ancestor, I had found the book ‘un-put-downable’, but ‘this is a review, innit?’ asked my London self. So, casting aside that euphoric glow, and leafing through once more, it is staggering to see how much material and how many images were noted and recorded through two decades. Concentrating only on people I know, I meandered through the index. The book is close to faultless. I came up with only one, tiny thing: Bra Jerry Kunene is ‘Gerry’ on page 33, but ‘Jerry’ on page 55.

For no other reason than to give readers an idea of what the Brubeck rhythm section faced in that earlier recollection, let’s end this review, appropriately enough, with a reprise of Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’, also at an express tempo, with Mr Joan Chamorro’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band, a student band of young straight-ahead, swing and bop burners. Like the Natal University Jazz Ensemble, there’s a mix of student youth and seasoned professionals. This time, the number is booted along by the speeding double bass of Magali Datzira, echoing Victor Ntoni’s calm and grace under pressure. Trumpeter Andrea Motis, who swops happily between alto sax and trumpet (Benny Carter would approve) and voice, steps up and takes the number out with a vocal.

I dream of ‘Brubeck Goes to Sant Andreu’. What a night that would be! Wondrous educative outcomes aside, Spain is closer than travelling to South Africa for a bit of sunshine (Darius and Cathy now live in England, where Darius enjoys gigging there and in Europe, after a surviving a close call with Covid in the early days of the pandemic).

I never heard anyone saying the authors were quarrelsome or petty, and they definitely had more patience with difficult rascals (guilty) than my other friends. I once asked a CJPM alumnus if the Brubecks had any vices.

‘Oh, yes!’ Fierce frown. ‘That team.

I had no idea what he was on about. ‘Team? What team?’

‘Yes’. Total disgust. ‘Manchester United’.

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