Dave Brubeck on performing to segregated audiences and facing apartheid in South Africa


Media is loading


SS: Well, it's clear that you refused to compromise, and rightly so, on replacing Eugene Wright when asked to because of his race. But, I do think the quartet performed for segregated audiences. Is that correct, venues where the audiences were segregated by race?

DB: By rope down the middle.

SS: A rope?

DB: Yeah.

SS: How did that work?

DB: It didn't work. (laughter) But, we played at the WaLaHaGe Hotel, and I could play three black African clubs where no other white groups were playing. Why? I don't know, but we could play there.

SS: So, you were booked in predominantly black nightclubs pretty regularly?

DB: They would ask for me, and we'd go. Now, the WaLaHaGe -- the owner of the WaLaHaGe -- it was called the WaLaHaGe because Walter was one of his sons -- W-A. "La" was Lawrence, -LaHaGe -- Harold, and George, WaLaHaGe. And, he was a well-known African American architect in Atlanta, and well respected.

And, his hotel was well respected. But, he could not have us play there unless he had a rope down the middle, whites on one side, and blacks on the other. So, he made an announcement that this would cause a lot of trouble if people crossed over that line.

And, as the night went on, there was a lot of crossing over the lines, and he went and said, "Now, I want you people to know that that rope's there, and I've obeyed the law. You're the ones that aren't doing this." And he started laughing. So, we played the WaLaHaGe once in a while.

SS; And, was that pretty common where they would try to artificially segregate a crowd that once the music started, people would just integrate themselves?

DB: I would insist I wouldn't play if only blacks were in the balcony. And, I wouldn't go on until the first few rows turned out to be black. They moved seats around, and people, because I just told them, "I won't play. That's not in my agreement with you. Supposed to be integrated..."

Often times, they would sign a contract. And, it wasn't always just the United States. It wasn't so easy in South Africa. But, it was a signed contract that the audience would be integrated. And, the first night we were there, Iola got a call from an organization saying, "We're going to gradually murder or kill your husband or your sons if you play tonight."

SS: This was in South Africa?

DB: Yeah. So, I'd rather have Iola answer what she felt. She said it's the first time she ever got cold feet and couldn't get warm was hearing this conversation, and knowing that I was going to play. And, I told our sons, "Don't stand too close together. If we take a bow, just spread out, and Daniel, whatever you do, don't hit a rim shot on the drum." That's when you put the stick across the snare drum, and it sounds just like a rifle shot. I said, "If you hit that, I'll probably pass out." (laughter)

SS: Or duck for cover, right?

DB: Yeah. And, the police came and searched the building with dogs. They were scattered through the crowd. The police of that town was the main town where Soweto had just --

SS: It was Johannesburg.

DB: Johannesburg. And, on each side of the curtain were detectives to pull the curtain in, and their eyes were on that crowd all night. And then, he had told Iola, "If we don't shoot one of them or murder one tonight, we'll get them tomorrow night."

So, I had in my contract so I knew it would be integrated that I have a black bass player -- a South African bass player. And, I said, "You don't have to go on and go through this. But we'll go on." And he said, "No way. I'm going out there with you." So, I played a duet with just Victor Ntoni was his name -- Ntoni. And, he said, "You know, my brother was killed in Soweto, and I know certain things they'll do. But, they won't do anything. They'll be afraid to do anything to you. So, don't be afraid."

SS: So, it was really an attempt to intimidate you into canceling the performance?

DB: The whole tour.

SS: Which was in 1976 right, the South African tour?

DB: Yeah. So, you know, you run into these things and you can't give in. Now, when we got to Cape Town -- no, it was Durban, South Africa. They wouldn't honor my agreement with them, and it was going to be white only.

SS: In the audience?

DB: Yeah, so I cancelled. And, we had a full house but I just said your agreement. Now, what's wonderful about that, both of my sons have played in that auditorium with mixed groups. Their groups and the symphony orchestra with Matthew. But Darius had a mixed group that you had to admire. He's been a great pioneer in bringing racial relations together in South Africa.

Date Original


Resource Identifier


Rights Management

To view additional information on copyright and related rights of this item, such as to purchase copies of images and/or obtain permission to publish them, click here to view the Holt-Atherton Special Collections policies.


Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library in conjunction with the Experience Music Project