Jazz great takes five from career as he fights Covid-19

Brubeck clan: Dan Brubeck, Dave O’Higgins, Chris, Darius and Cathy Brubeck. Brubeck Quartet Facebook Page

Brubeck clan: Dan Brubeck, Dave O’Higgins, Chris, Darius and Cathy Brubeck. Brubeck Quartet Facebook Page

Published Apr 19, 2020


DURBAN: IT WAS going to be a year to remember for the internationally acclaimed jazz music maestro who was on tour with his band and his brothers, until the coronavirus broke their rhythm.

American professor, Darius Brubeck, a pianist and composer, who previously headed the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, has been in a fight for his life since he contracted Covid-19 last month. Brubeck, 72, was placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the Conquest Hospital in Hastings, England, on March 19, and doctors, at the time, said he had a 50/50 chance of survival.

However, his large following of fans and friends from around the world were relieved to hear on Wednesday that he had been moved from ICU to the recovery and rehabilitation phase.

Brubeck’s doctor already advised him that it could take as much as a year before he regained full fitness, which effectively rules out the possibility of performing any time soon.

He and his crew had just completed a week of sold-out performances at Ronnie Scott’s in London, a world-renowned jazz venue, last month, and their tour was about to extend into Britain and elsewhere when he fell ill.

His three brothers, who were a part of the tour at the time, also became ill, with Dan, a drummer, in a critical condition in the US. This year was meant to beone filled with numerous celebratory events for Brubeck and his family. His late father, Dave, a pioneering American jazz pianist who composed Take Five, which is known to be the biggest jazz single of all time, would have turned 100 years old this year.

Professor Chris Ballantine, who is a long-time friend and the person responsible for hiring Brubeck at UKZN in the 1980s, said 2020 was supposed to be the “Brubeck year”.

“Darius’s illness fell at the wrong time. There were many international festivities planned and he would have been the headline feature.”

Ballantine said a huge Dutch-funded documentary, which is nearing completion, is due for release later this year. “The documentary is about Dave’s accomplishments and Darius’s 25 years in South Africa where he founded the first university-level jazz programme on the African continent.”

Ballantine said during his 25-year tenure, Brubeck was instrumental in taking jazz to another level in South Africa and producing some of the country’s best jazz musicians. “His greatest skill was to invoke what was latent in his students. When we took jazz bands abroad people always said they sounded like nobody else.

“That’s because the sound was cultivated partly from the South African legacy. It was a wonderful aspect of his teaching.”

Brubeck arrived in the country during the apartheid era, determined to make a contribution, and he had first discussed the move with the ANC that was in exile at the time, and got its blessing.

“We accepted students of colour at a time when it was not legal to do so and we found ways to accredit them by giving them UKZN diplomas. That was a huge thing.”

Ballantine said there were many poor students who were accommodated and fed at the Brubeck home that he shared with his wife Cathy.

“He is a man of enormous and unstinting generosity and who always saw the best in everyone,” said Ballantine.

Durban songbird Natalie Rungan said Brubeck was the reason she took up jazz singing when she joined UKZN as a classical music student.

Rungan credits Brubeck with having done much for music in the country with programmes he set up and the knowledge he brought.

“He also opened massive doors for me and enabled me to travel as an exchange student to places like the US, Germany and Sweden. Only when I became a professional did I realise what Darius had done for us.”

When Rungan completed her studies, Brubeck hired her as UKZN’s jazz vocal teacher.

“Our relationship grew stronger over the years and he became my mentor. When I heard he become ill, my heart sank. I am so relieved and thankful Darius is now out of ICU.”

Neil Gonsalves, UKZN’s director at the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, recognised the role Brubeck played in his elevation to the position and exploits as a jazz pianist. As a student, Brubeck directed Gonsalves to the piano. He said Brubeck had the ability to spot talent and didn’t impose his style on them.

“That was his gift”.


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