The Dave Brubeck Quartet's 1958 tour on behalf of the U.S. State Department, part of the grand Cold War project of propagating American-style democracy in opposition to communism, did not advance in an orderly and self-evident manner. Rather it was an extremely contingent enterprise enacted through countless individual actions and statements by a motley assortment of bureaucrats and businessmen, and frequently teetered on the brink of chaos. The story of Brubeck's tour, including its evolution and impact, is complex and multifaceted, involving overlapping and conflicting agendas, governmental secrecy, high-minded idealism, and hard-nosed business. The narrative also raises issues of race and race relations in the context of the Cold War struggle against communism and brings into focus the increasing cultural prestige of jazz and other popular genres worldwide during the period when the ideological premises of the Cold War were being formulated.
Thirty years later—in 1988, as the Cold War was waning—the Quartet performed in Moscow at the reciprocal state dinner hosted by President Ronald Reagan for General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev during their fourth summit meeting. The sequence of events leading up to this occasion, including the Quartet's long-anticipated tour of the Soviet Union during the previous year, reveals Brubeck to have been not only a talented musician but a canny entrepreneur as well. By the late 1980s the cultural and political landscape had shifted so dramatically as to be virtually unrecognizable to the Cold Warriors of the 1950s.
By all accounts, Brubeck's tours in the 1950s and 1980s were among the most successful of their kind. Though Brubeck attributes their efficacy primarily to the power of an influential idea that came into its own toward the beginning of the Cold War—namely, jazz as democracy—the documentary record makes clear that the impact of his travels involved a multifarious nexus of other factors as well, including reputation, personality, and marketability.