Playing the Changes - Tracking Darius Brubeck

Playing the Changes shows the social impact of jazz music, by telling the story of jazz pianist Darius Brubeck (born in 1947), the eldest son of legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck. People quite often see him as 'the son of’ but he has used this distinction with idealism. This story examines why and how jazz had a transformative role in different types of societies such as Poland and South Africa and tracks Darius Brubeck’s involvement in both. Not only by embracing it - but also carrying on his father legacy in his own social, educational and musical way.

In 1983, during the apartheid-era in South Africa, he started the very first university degree in Jazz on the continent, which was open to everyone, regardless of social class or skin colour. Darius has inspired and taught countless talented musicians. Because of the programme’s success, Darius and his South African wife, Cathy, were able to create the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music, a venue where students rehearse, perform and gain exposure and where visiting international musicians play and teach. It brought people together and created hope.

Darius unfolds his explanation of the meaning of the Brubeck legacy. He shows how it influenced his life and career and the lives of many others. Using archival footage and interviews, the film highlights his part in a music department that stood at the forefront of cultural opposition to apartheid, and became a flagship anticipating the ‘new’ South Africa.

Darius and Cathy are on anniversary tours in South Africa as well as in Poland. In Poland the seed was planted when Dave Brubeck took his then 10-years old son Darius on the Jazz Ambassador tour, sponsored by State Department in 1958. The tour resulted in the writing and recording of the first no. 1 hit jazz album ever Time Out. War-torn Poland was a Communist satellite state for the Soviet Union and American jazz was embraced as the music of freedom. Dave exposed a very young Darius to a politically segregated country in which jazz was a relief to social oppression and a hope for a better future. This added to Darius’ view that jazz can unite people of all colour and creed.

Playing the Changes is a film about what it is like to grow up as a jazz musician in a turbulent time of racial segregation in the US, political tension during the Cold War and applying these experiences to living and teaching in South Africa, in a time when it was ruled under apartheid law.

Why did the unlikely hero Darius chose the path he took and how much of Dave Brubeck’s legacy is reflected in Darius’ career 100 years after Dave’s birth? And in what way can we benefit in our current days and in the future from the Brubeck legacy?

  • Michiel ten Kleij
    Portraits of a Jazz Artist, Steven Caught a Star, Steven Finds the Treasure, Hollow Bulging Gijs
  • David E Richardson, Jr
    Portraits of a Jazz Artist
  • Darius Brubeck
    Key Cast
  • Catherine Brubeck
    Key Cast
  • Michiel ten Kleij
    Portraits of a Jazz Artist, Steven Caught a Star, Steven Finds the Treasure, Hollow Bulging Gijs
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Music, Jazz, Cold War, Segegration, Apartheid
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 1 minute 28 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    June 20, 2023
  • Production Budget:
    138,860 EUR
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    Poland, South Africa, United Kingdom
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Michiel ten Kleij

Michiel’s love for story began when he saw The Neverending Story on VHS. A healthy addiction for storytelling has begun. He grew up in front of the television and developed a broad taste in film. He decided to make films for himself. He either creates very fictitious or very realistic films, usually divided between drama and documentary. It led him to the Utrecht School of the Arts where he experiment with different genres and narratives.

In his 3rd year he went to Costa Rica to film a jazz documentary called Un Mecato on the life of Robin J. Blakeman. Robin is an English jazz musician who moved to Costa Rica to develop his love for Latin Jazz. Somehow he was not accepted in the Costa Rican circle of music and soon he fell in love with a prostitute. Within a year he had spent more than 10.000 dollars to prove his love and to ‘keep her off the street’, but as soon as he didn’t pay, she went back to work. He hired a private detective to spy on her, whilst she could not get through to him to that she has a son to feed.

Michiel later made a drama film called Papier Hier, about a character called Holle Bolle Gijs, a boy who is eternalised as a trash can in fairy tale-themed theme park De Efteling, but is actually a very old children’s verse. As fairy tales originally were used as a parabel for warnings and to educate children with social skills, he did the same with this film. The film revolves around neglect, fat shaming and karma.

After that, Michiel decided he wanted to make a film about his youth. Growing up with divorcing parents has made an impact on Michiel’s life and probably was the main reason why he was in front of the television so often. He wrote and directed Stefan heeft een Ster gevangen (Steven caught a Star). A ‘broken home’ movie about a boy who grows up with divorcing parents. To get away from all the domestic fights, he catches a shooting star on his balcony. Fascinated by this star in a jar, he sets out on a journey to discover where it came from.

Next to Playing the Changes, Michiel made another jazz documentary focussing on the life of Innokenty Ivanov. Ivanov is a Ukrainian jazz vibraphonist living and working in Russia. Explaining that having this career is tough in Russia, he sincerely doesn’t want his child to become a musician.

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Director Statement

The first time I met Darius was in London in 2016. I was there to film a promo for a documentary that I wanted to make about the Jazz Ambassadors program. I was an admirer of Darius’ father's music and when I shook his hand, I even thought: this is the son of the man who made Take Five, Rondo a la Turk and Unsquare Dance, among others. I also discovered that Darius was an impressive pianist when I listened to Years Ago on Spotify, but Darius' life story in South Africa was completely unknown to me. I was mesmerised by our conversations about his and Cathy's dedication to establish Jazz Studies at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (then University of Natal) during the apartheid- era, and realised how this resonates with the life of his father Dave.

To me it feels as if Darius wanted to make his mark by doing something different in the jazz world. When I interviewed jazz lovers in Poland, I realised that everyone spoke about Dave, but nobody spoke about Darius. Many films have been made about Dave, but the story of Darius has not yet been told. I want to change that with this documentary.

In a small way this is similar to my own experience. My older brother had the same education in media and entertainment as I did, and there was a time when colleagues confused me with him. It still happens sometimes today, even though I have a career and life of my own. This used to become quite frustrating at times. Now Darius may not have made the same impact on music as his father did, but he certainly changed people’s lives. He meant so much to his students and his achievements are of historic importance.

I see a strong connection between the two generations of Brubeck. They both swam against the tide in a socially and politically unstable world. For Dave it was the Cold War period and for Darius it was apartheid.

The link between is that when in 1958 the Dave Brubeck Quartet was asked by the US State Department to go on a government sponsored jazz tour through Eastern Europe and the Middle-East. They were sent in order to capture the hearts of neighbouring countries of the Soviet Union. Cultural warfare simply was cheaper than military warfare. Not only does 10-year-old Darius perform in Poland in front of an audience for the first time in his life, he becomes aware of the major role that jazz can play in the world. Darius was only allowed to miss school as long as he kept a diary and recorded his experiences. In this illustrated diary he described how Poland looked in 1958. It was a satellite state of the Soviet Union and until Stalin’s death in March 1953, playing jazz was prohibited. For musicians to play what they wanted freely, they had to play jazz in ‘illegal’ jazz clubs, called “catacombs”.

Now in South Africa, jazz wasn't really forbidden, however in certain places mixed jazz bands were. Black musicians sometimes had to play behind the curtain and were often not allowed to eat in the places they played at. Clubs such as The Moon in Durban and The Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown ignored those rules and were venues for everyone. You can see a parallel and, in a way, view them as the “catacombs” of South Africa.

I want to link Dave Brubeck's 1958 Jazz Ambassadors tour in Poland with the time Darius and Cathy spent in South Africa because it clearly had a strong impact on Darius. Dave, his greatest teacher, undoubtedly played a major role and has had a major effect on how Darius sees the world. Darius' life in South Africa was a lifetime in the making.

Darius did something that seemed essential at the time. He formed multi-racial student ensembles and encouraged students to focus on what really mattered for them, music. Ensembles such as The Jazzanians, The NU Jazz Connection and other bands like the Afro Cool Concept eventually toured internationally. Following the international, televised success of the Jazzanians, Darius and Cathy were able to found the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music on the university campus. A home for musicians to practice their craft and which served as a venue where funds were raised for students who couldn’t afford to pay the fees. Darius taught numerous South Africans across the country and many of them now have their own successful careers in the music industry and in education.

2020 was supposed to be a celebratory year for the Brubecks, which would’ve been Dave Brubeck’s centennial. The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled most of the performances and even worse, Darius was hospitalised with the coronavirus. I was afraid that we would lose him before he could see the finished product. Thankfully he survived and has recovered from this.

In 2020 the world also witnessed the inhumane death of George Floyd and a global march against racism by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has exposed once more the racial inequality in many parts of the world, making a unifying documentary like Playing the Changes ever so urgent.