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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Jazz Impressions of Eurasia

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When I was eight years old – I confess – I stole a long-playing record. In my defense, it was an American man that made me do it.

We were living in a house in London, my family and I, that had a central lounge shared by many different people. Pride of place in that common room went to an imposing record player the size and shape of a large sideboard. That giant wooden cabinet fascinated me, for it not only held a turntable and speakers, but also had a metal storage rack containing scores of albums with exotic names and inviting cover art, everything from Larry Norman to Hot Butter to Switched-On Bach. Over the months, I played them all.

But all those albums became like dross to me the day I pulled a beat-up sleeve from the far end of the rack and found myself staring at Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia.

On the album sleeve, Brubeck is resplendent in a purple short-sleeved shirt, buttoned up to the neck, with preppy, black-rimmed glasses, and a short haircut. He is standing on the apron of some far-off airport, with a whimsical turban-like headdress perched on his head, flanked by two smiling women in Middle Eastern dress. Behind him swoops the rounded tailfin of a giant Boeing Stratocruiser, adorned with the blue-and-white globe logo of Pan American World Airways. In his arms are five Pan Am flight bags overflowing with souvenirs from his international travels. This was the height of postwar travel chic. I was impressed!

But the visual impression was nothing compared to the sonic effect on my grade-school mind when I dropped the needle on Side A. Forget Jesus rock, moog Baroque, and popcorn frippery. From the opening notes, this album took flight into places I did not imagine could exist.

Brubeck composed the pieces on this album in response to the travels of his quartet across Europe and Central Asia in 1958. They had been sent out as cultural ambassadors by the State Department at a time, not so different from now, when tensions were high between east and west. The thinking was that music could make connections between peoples and ideologies, when politics and military might left us sorely lacking. They went through Afghanistan, East Germany, Poland, Turkey and India. On each leg of the journey, Brubeck sketched musical notes on the sounds and rhythms of the places and people they encountered.

The heart of the album is a piece called Thank You. In Poland, Brubeck had been deeply moved by the hospitality of the Polish people, and by the opportunity to visit sites linked to the composer Frederick Chopin. On the train to their final show in that country, Brubeck sketched out a new Chopin-like piece, based on the sound of the Polish words for “thank you.” There was no time to rehearse with the band, as they were going straight to the concert hall. So he just wrote out the chord changes and hummed his bandmates the tune. By Brubeck’s own account, that first performance of the piece was met with total and terrifying silence – followed by thunderous applause. Music had built a bridge between east and west.

Jazz Impressions of Eurasia is the first, and only album I ever stole. I just took it with me when we left that house. I kept it with me for years through many moves. Across the Atlantic, from home to home through the U.S. Until sometime in the last few years, it disappeared. Perhaps in my zeal for downsizing it went to the Goodwill.

I like to imagine it being found – again - in another stack of albums by some young kid exploring the thrill of vinyl. Who marvels at the strange curved tail of the airplane on the cover. And the goofiness of the man in the purple shirt with the five Pan Am travel bags. Then, as the music begins, is transported into a world where music expresses thanks, and brings a divided globe a little closer together.

Music: Selections from the album "Jazz Impressions of Eurasia" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet