A reticent donkey, a giant piñata, a jazz artist

Courtesy of Linda Mack Berven

Linda Mack Berven played the Virgin Mary in a 1987 performance of A Durango Brubeck Christmas: “La Fiesta de la Posada” at the Fort Lewis College Field House. Brubeck died Dec. 5.

By Robert Galin
Herald Staff Writer

When jazz master Dave Brubeck died Dec. 5 just hours before his 92nd birthday, several Durango-area residents revisited some personal memories of his performances in Durango. Brubeck and various incarnations of his groups played here several times in the 1980s and ’90s.

“He was a peace-bringer,” Diane Van Den Berg Estes said. “He was a man without guile.”

Brubeck was “a happy and gentle person” who “played like a tiger” and had audience members jumping to their feet, Van Den Berg Estes said.

“He was a very gracious man,” said Steve Blaylock, former director of the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College. Blaylock also was a choir member with the Durango Choral Society, which performed with Brubeck for the holiday concerts.

“When I heard that he died the other day, I started thinking ... it was nice to work with someone like him, very down-to-Earth,” Blaylock said.

That sentiment was echoed by Ruth Katzin of Katzin Music, who played her flute in the first two concerts.

“He was a gracious gentleman,” Katzin said.

She noted that unlike when artists played in bigger venues, Brubeck and some of the concert participants “get to sit around and visit.”

Big stars such as Brubeck may feel comfortable in Durango because “we’re small, but eclectic,” Katzin said. “We are sophisticated (because) we come from a variety of backgrounds.”

She said she has yet to hear of any major performer who came to Durango and didn’t feel welcomed.

Katzin gave Van Den Berg Estes credit for getting Brubeck to Durango and arranging for local musicians to be involved.

Van Den Berg Estes formed the Durango Children’s Chorale to back up Brubeck’s Durango Christmas performance of “La Fiesta de la Posada” (The Festival of the Inn) in December 1983, at the New Life Center of the Foursquare Gospel Church (at the current home of The River Church). There was a repeat performance in 1987 at the FLC Field House, she said.

Brubeck co-wrote the work in 1975 with his wife, Iola. Van Den Berg Estes said “la Posada” was written for a mariachi jazz orchestra. A 1983 Durango Herald report said more than 100 community musicians joined that 1983 performance.

For the 1987 performance, Brubeck forewent his usual fee of $30,000 and charged only $7,500 plus lodging and other expenses, Van Den Berg Estes said.

“He wanted to bring fabulous music to a small town,” she said.

She said she learned this from Brubeck’s longtime manager, Russell Gloyd, who also conducted. That second concert also was supported by local businesses and community members, she said.

Both concerts included performances by Brubeck’s jazz quartet, performing some of his famous compositions such as “Take 5” and other works.

The 1983 performance also was significant because it was just six months before Brubeck performed in the former Soviet Union, on July 4. That Russian performance became a significant piece in Russian-American détente.

In a similarly eerie coincidence, Brubeck came back to Durango in 1997 to perform his jazz mass “To Hope! A Celebration.” The next year, he returned to Russia to perform the Mass with the Russian National Orchestra. Some sources say Brubeck joined the Catholic Church after revising the Mass.

The “La Fiesta de la Posada” performances included, at times, the FLC concert choir and, in one case, a donkey with stage fright and a 26-foot piñata, Van Den Berg Estes said. While the piñata worked out well onstage, the stubborn equine did not.

Van Den Berg Estes said Linda Mack Berven, singing the role of Mary, was supposed to ride into the hall on the donkey while singing.

The animal apparently was fine in rehearsals, but when confronted with an audience, it froze and Mack Berven had to walk down the aisle to the stage. After the second time, the donkey froze, Brubeck nixed the animal’s continuing involvement.

Mack Berven is professor emerita at FLC and artistic director of the Durango Choral Society.

“He was so gentlemanly, loving and kind to everyone,” Mack Berven said. “His feet were always just bouncing under that piano.”

Katzin said of the performance of the first concert that she was “overwhelmed by the quality of the event,” noting that it included vocalists from Durango and Farmington.

“It was remarkable being on stage with that sound,” she said.

The 1983 concert almost didn’t happen. Van Den Berg Estes said Brubeck’s plane was talked down into Durango-La Plata County Airport by walkie talkies during a harsh snowstorm. But she said the storm didn’t slow down the audience, and about 6,000 people attended the three Durango concerts.

Van Den Berg Estes spent time with Brubeck off-stage as well, including going out to dinner with him. While those conversations remain private, she mentioned that at that time, Brubeck traveled every week and always with Iola, his wife and collaborator of almost 70 years.


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