Remembering Dave Brubeck and The Real Ambassadors

Legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck passed away today, one day short of his 92nd birthday. The Internet is already filled with tributes from saddened fans recounting their memories of favorite Brubeck compositions such as “Take Five,” “Blue...
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Legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck passed away today, one day short of his 92nd birthday. The Internet is already filled with tributes from saddened fans recounting their memories of favorite Brubeck compositions such as “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “In Your Own Sweet Way,” and “The Duke.” But perhaps not as many remember “The Real Ambassadors.” What’s “The Real Ambassadors”? It was a musical production written by Dave and his wife Iola for the great Louis Armstrong in the mid-1950s. Armstrong was beloved around the world, so much so that he got the nickname “Ambassador Satch.” Brubeck, too, was no stranger overseas, making his share of historic State Department sponsored tours as well. Jazz musicians were being used as ambassadors of sorts…and in many instances, had greater impact on other cultures than regular ambassadors! In September 1957, Louis Armstrong put his career on the line when he spoke out against President Dwight Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus for the way they handled the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis. Brubeck—a Civil Rights advocate who performed with an integrated combo—and his wife were inspired by Armstrong’s stand. At a time when many young jazz musicians viewed the elder trumpeter as an out-of-date, “Uncle Tom” figure, Dave and Iola Brubeck saw something else: an American genius who broke down barriers for his race and who was America’s greatest Ambassador of Goodwill. “We sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing,” Iola Brubeck recalled.

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Brubeck and Armstrong. (Photos by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum)

Soon after Little Rock, Dave and Iola sat down and wrote a script and the score for what they envisioned to be a full-blown Broadway musical to be titled, “World, Take a Holiday.” Unfortunately, both Armstrong and Brubeck were too busy to tackle the project in 1957 or 1958. In 1959, the Brubecks sat down to record some “audio letters” to Armstrong, which survive today at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens and as part of the Brubeck Collection of the University of the Pacific. On the tapes, the Brubecks explain why they wrote the musical with Louis in mind and offered demo recordings of the original score. Armstrong was thrilled, but they had a problem: “All of the producers I took it, thought it was great, but they’d give me all these excuses,” Dave Brubeck recalled. “You weren’t supposed to have a message. I forget the word they used, but it meant you weren’t entertaining. We couldn’t lecture the American public on the subject of race.” Fortunately, Brubeck was riding high on a series of incredibly successful albums for Columbia Records. With that kind of success, the Brubecks hoped to record at least the score of the show—now titled “The Real Ambassadors”— for Columbia, and they would use the results as a demo record to help get the play off the ground. In September 1961, The Real Ambassadors was recorded, featuring an all-star cast of Dave Brubeck’s group, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, Carmen McRae and vocalist sensations Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. The recording sessions became legendary, with the 60-year-old Armstrong hitting one home run after another on material that was all new to him. After an emotionally touching “Summer Song,” session attendee Dan Morgenstern remembered, “Brubeck was totally overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, tears came to his eyes when he heard Louis do this thing, and the record of it is marvelous.” On other tracks, Iola Brubeck’s lyrics hit particularly close to him, as on “The Real Ambassador,” when Louis sang, “I’m my humble way, I’m the USA / though I represent the government / the government don’t represent some polices I’m for.” The highlight of the session was “They Say I Look Like God,” on which Armstrong turned in one of the most emotionally wrenching performances of his career. The Brubecks thought Armstrong would bring his usual good humor to the performance, with Armstrong wondering if God could be black, singing lines like, “If both are made in the image of thee, could thou perchance a zebra be?” But Armstrong delivered a deadly serious performance, his voice choking up on the final line, “When God tells man, he’s really free.”

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Brubeck, wife Iola, and Armstrong. (Photos by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum) When the album of The Real Ambassadors was released, it became the only one of Brubeck’s Columbia recordings to actually lose money. Brubeck’s fans weren’t pleased with their idol recording with old-fashioned Louis Armstrong; and Armstrong’s fans thought Brubeck was too modern for their tastes. On top of that, without any of the play’s actual dialogue, the songs sometimes seemed a bit disjointed from one another. And no songs about politics and race were going to make the pop charts. Undeterred, the Brubecks set up one live performance of “The Real Ambassadors” for the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1962. With little time to prepare, Iola Brubeck prepared a scaled-down, one-hour version of the show. She served as onstage narrator and the musicians read their lines and song lyrics from cue cards on music stands. Armstrong once again rose to the occasion, especially on “They Say I Look Like God.” “There wasn’t a smile in that audience; Louis had tears,” Dave Brubeck recalled of Louis’s performance of that song that night. “He took those lines that we thought would get laughs right to his heart, and everybody in that audience felt what he felt.” All the musicians received a thunderous standing ovation for their efforts. Unfortunately, Brubeck and Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, was scared to have the Monterey performance recorded. He didn’t think it was polished enough, and he was wary of the subject matter. Thus, with television cameras present and Ampex tape recorders sponsoring the festival that year, not one note of the one and only live performance of “The Real Ambassadors” was captured for posterity.

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(Photos by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum) Soon after, “The Real Ambassadors” disappeared. The Brubecks and Armstrong woke up to the reality that it would never become a Broadway play, especially with the trumpeter’s nonstop touring schedule. Brubeck continued to perform numbers from the show, but he and Iola never tried to mount a full-scale production of it because it was written specifically for Armstrong and they didn’t want anyone else to inhabit that role. For his part, Armstrong loved The Real Ambassadors album for Columbia and transferred it to his reel-to-reel tape collection numerous times. “It was five years ahead of its time and the big shots that buy shows for Broadway were afraid of it,” Armstrong recalled in 1962. “I had to learn all that music, and I’d never done nothing of this kind before. Brubeck is great!” However, in the last decade, The Real Ambassadors has begun a period of rediscovery. For the 40th anniversary of its only live performance, Dave Brubeck recreated the show at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Byron Stripling in Armstrong’s role. Earlier this year, for the 50th anniversary, Monterey featured a panel tribute to the work. And in recent years, before his health began to decline, Dave Brubeck would almost never give an interview without mentioning “The Real Ambassadors” and how it was one of the most important highlights of his career. So when you choose to honor Brubeck’s legacy in your own sweet way, play “Take Five” and play “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” but also check out “The Real Ambassadors” to here some of jazz’s greatest geniuses coming together to sing—and swing—about race, politics, and love. Louis Armstrong was right: Dave Brubeck is great! (Main photo by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum).