Long before Take Five topped the charts, pianist Dave Brubeck, he of the horn rims, skinny tie, and infectious sound, seemed to be everywhere: People were bopping to the Dave Brubeck Quartet in clubs, college campuses, and outdoor festivals around America. Soon the State Department took notice, and Brubeck and his band were American jazz ambassadors to the world. And it was a trip to his mother’s Polish homeland that spurred the creation of one of Brubeck’s most personal songs.
In an interview with fellow jazz icon Marian McPartland for her Piano Jazz program from NPR, Brubeck recalled: “We were on tour, and they say we were the first group to go behind the Iron Curtain. In 1958, we did 12 concerts in Poland. And that day, earlier, I had been in Chopin’s house, a statue of him that was in the square, and on the train, I kept thinking of Chopinesque kinds of melodies, harmonies. That night, I’ll just take a chance and play this Chopineque theme, and there was a few seconds of silence, and I thought, oh, I’ve ruined the whole tour, they don’t like this at all…and then the place really accepted it."
The piece Brubeck played - to stunned silence, and then thunderous applause - was a piece he titled simply Dziekuje - Polish for "Thank You" - and modelled on Chopin's Prelude in E minor. Brubeck recalled listening literally at the feet of his Polish-born mother playing Chopin when he was a child - memories that came flooding back to him the moment he stepped inside Chopin's house.
Dziekuje - "Thank You" - has been a Brubeck favorite ever since. At the 2000 "Piano Grand" gala at the Smithsonian Institution, staged to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the invention of the Piano, Brubeck sole contribution was his Polish-inspired solo. And in 2008, fifty years after his first trip to Poland, Brubeck was back in Washington, DC, to receive the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy - a sort of “lifetime achievement” award for Americans going abroad. The award was initiated by the piano-playing then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who told Brubeck, “As a little girl I grew up on the sounds of Dave Brubeck because my dad was your biggest fan.” Overcome with emotion, the 88-year old Brubeck could only "put my cold hands on this cold [and slightly out-of-tune] piano:” and play just one piece: Dziekuje (Thank You)
View the University of the Pacific's Holt-Atherton Special Collection exhibit of the 1958 Dave Brubeck Quartet State Department tour here. There’s also a very nice article about Brubeck’s incalcuable impact as an overseas jazz ambassador during the ’50s and ’60s here. - Joe Brant & Benjamin K. Roe
Special thanks to ETV Radio of South Carolina, producers of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz.