In 1983, Darius and Cathy Brubeck moved from the USA to Durban and joined the University of (kwaZulu-)Natal, beginning a pioneering venture of faith. Recruited by Prof. Chris Ballantine, they initiated the first university jazz education program on the African continent. In so doing they contributed not only to South African music but to the cultural and material lives of hundreds of young artists.

The Jazzanians, Detroit, 1989. l-r Nic Paton, Rick van Heerden, Zim Ngqawana, Johnny Mekoa, Victor Masondo, Lulu Gontsana, Andre Eagle

I was privileged both to be enrolled in their first full year of operation, 1984, as well as part of the legendary Jazzanians group (see my memories here) who visited and toured the US and its International Association Of Jazz Educators conference in Detroit in 1989.

The quite remarkable story of Darius and Cathy Brubeck is now told in both a book and soon-to-be released film, entitled “Playing The Changes”. See the trailer here.

The book is a comprehensive and entertaining history of a wild ride starting in the darkest apartheid years and continuing to this present day, although the Brubecks themselves moved on from UKZN in 2006.

Written eloquently and accurately by both Darius and Cathy, it tracks just how inventive they had to be in the face of student poverty, academic bureaucracy, and apartheid state repression. The title refers to jazz improvising is a succinct summary of achieving the unforeseen, almost impossible, and a contemporary account of a heroic and yet highly entertaining sojourn.

Ann and Nic Paton, Cathy and Darius Brubeck, 1998

The roots of my connection to the Brubeck’s go back to the mid 1950’s when Cathy and my dad Jonathan attended university together; remaining lifelong friends. After competing my B Mus and later moving on from jazz as a primary focus, friendship between the Paton’s and the Brubecks remained strong.

When they started the book in 2018, I took part in the project based at STIAS (Institute for Advanced Studies) in Stellenbosch, and was reminded of how much I owe to the integrity and ingenuity of the Cathy and Darius phenomenon. The very darkest moment was Darius’ near-death Covid experience in 2020.

But their legacy is intact and as recently as this month I played my first jazz concert this century with Darius, Kevin Gibson and Bra Victor Masondo, at the launch of the book at the STIAS (Institute for Advanced Studies) in Stellenbosch. After fascinating remarks, readings and interview, we played 4 songs from the Jazzainans era, including Se Hamba Nabo, Bayete and The Rainbow, and my tune “Badisa”.

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