Dave and Iola Brubeck, Louis Armstrong and the Civil Rights Musical That Never Happened

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The cast of 'The Real Ambassadors' at their daylong rehearsal, Monday, Sept. 17, 1962, at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. Back row, left to right, Howard Brubeck, Danny Barcelona, Eugene Wright, Joe Morello, Billy Cronk, Dave Lambert, Yolande Bavan, Jon Hendricks, and Iola Brubeck; front row, left to right, Trummy Young, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck. (Photo by V.M. Hanks, courtesy of the Brubeck Collection, Wilton, CT Public Library)

The civil rights movement produced some of the last century's most powerful songs and images—but it also bristles with roads not taken. On the cultural front, few projects offer a more tantalizing possible alternate history than The Real Ambassadors, a thwarted jazz opera that confronted Jim Crow segregation and racial prejudice with radical theology and a strikingly melodic score.

Intended for Broadway and designed to showcase the genius of trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong, the project was the brainchild of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and his wife, the lyricist and actress Iola Brubeck; the couple conceived of the work while living in the Oakland hills in the late 1950s. An ardent integrationist, the Concord-raised Brubeck was known for putting his wallet on the line: he lost the modern-day equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars when his tours in the South were canceled because Brubeck refused to replace Eugene Wright, the commanding African-American bassist who anchored his quartet.

A new book by Keith Hatschek, also called The Real Ambassadors (University Press of Mississippi), tells the frustrating but briefly triumphant story of the musical’s creation. On Monday, July 25, Hatschek is scheduled to speak at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in San Francisco, where he'll appear in conversation with pianist Simon Rowe, former executive director of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific.

Inspired by U.S. State Department-sponsored international tours that deployed Brubeck, Armstrong and other jazz musicians as cultural ambassadors representing the freedom and creativity of American culture, the musical confronted the U.S. government’s hypocrisy: how could it celebrate African-American music abroad while not fighting racism at home? The emotional climax of the musical arrives with Armstrong’s anguished vocals on the Brubecks’ “They Say I Look Like God,” a song that envisions God as Black.

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The Brubecks were never able to bring a full production of The Real Ambassadors to the stage—Armstrong’s rapacious manager Joe Glaser strung the couple along for years without committing to a concrete plan. But Columbia Records released the bulk of the score on a 1962 album featuring the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, Carmen McRae and the hugely popular vocalese combo Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. A few weeks later, the music premiered with largely the same glittering cast at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Brubeck’s star was still ascending when he and Iola started working on The Real Ambassadors, though the media had already tagged him as the face of modern jazz; Time Magazine put him on the cover in 1954. The fact that Brubeck’s label agreed to record the music reflected just how much higher that star had risen by 1962, following the success of the 1959 album Time Out, featuring the monumental "Take Five."

“No way does Columbia underwrite the $10,000 cost if 'Take Five' isn’t on top," says Hatschek. "Brubeck got one freebie from Columbia, and this is the thing he chose to do.”

A trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, smiles onstage with another musician, Dave Brubeck, laughing behind him
'The Real Ambassadors' premiere at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 23, 1962. Pictured, left to right, are Iola Brubeck (lower left background), Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Trummy Young (partially obscured). (Photo by Jerry Stoll, courtesy of Brubeck Collection, Wilton CT Public Library © Dave Brubeck )

Hatschek, a professor emeritus of music management and music industry at the University of the Pacific, came upon the largely forgotten story of The Real Ambassadors while sifting through the massive Brubeck Archives at UoP, the pianist’s alma mater (he also studied composition at Mills College). Plunging into the extensive files for the musical, he found a story that unfolded largely in the Bay Area.

“Dave and Iola are living up in Montclair when they’re working on the music and lyrics, between driving their kids up and down the hill for music lessons,” says Hatschek. “And in the days before the Monterey performance, Armstrong is staying at the St. Francis Hotel while he’s playing at the Fairmont, where they did their one rehearsal in the ballroom.”

four seated musicians practice in a black and white photo from the 1960s
Taking a break during their daylong rehearsal at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco a week before the premiere of The Real Ambassadors: pictured, left to right, Trummy Young, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, Dave Lambert and Yolande Bavan. (Photo by V.M. Hanks, courtesy of Brubeck Collection, Wilton CT Public Library)

As for that alternate possible history: Would a Broadway production have hastened the advent of civil rights legislation? Probably not. But it’s hard to overstate the impact The Real Ambassadors could have had on the national conversation. Armstrong was the most highly paid Black entertainer of the era, an international superstar who radically reshaped jazz in the late 1920s and essentially invented the American vocal idiom ushered into pop culture by Bing Crosby.

While his ebullient stage persona started to strike younger African-Americans as passé in the late 1950s, Armstrong never pulled punches when asked about racism. Queried by a high school journalist about the 1957 crisis over integrating Little Rock’s Central High School, he bitterly denounced President Eisenhower’s inaction. Pressured to say he was misquoted, Armstrong refused and his remarks reverberated around the world for weeks.

The combination of Armstrong's profile and The Real Ambassadors' politics alone would have made a theatrical run a major story. But the music was also inspired, with several songs that were more than standard-worthy. Iola Brubeck’s lyrics for the exquisite melody “Summer Song” inspired a transcendent performance that ranks among Armstrong’s very best.

In fact, what stands out in Hatschek’s account—almost as much as the Brubecks’ herculean efforts to bring the musical to the stage—is the role that Iola played in her husband’s career. Drummer Dan Brubeck, one of their six children, launched an effort to reappraise her contributions with his 2015 album Live From the Cellar: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Dave and Iola Brubeck. More than a skilled lyricist, she was the force that guided his career, transforming him from an idiosyncratic jazz cat interested in classical music forms into an iconic figure.

“I think she really genuinely believed that he had something really special to say,” says Dan Brubeck, who performs with bassist, trombonist, composer and older sibling Chris Brubeck in the Brubeck Brothers at Los Gatos’s Jazz on the Plazz (Aug. 10), San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest (Aug. 13) and the Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept. 25). “She got behind him and used all that intelligence, thinking out of the box. When they started having kids and she was seeing him struggling professionally, she came up with the ‘Jazz Goes to College’ idea. She started calling universities to set up concerts, and making dates at radio stations, which provided free publicity.”

a black and white photo of a man and a woman, smiling with their arms around each other in front of a tree
Iola and Dave Brubeck shown in September 1942 just prior to their wedding. He was a U.S. Army private stationed at Camp Haan in Riverside, and Iola was finishing her second year at College of the Pacific in Stockton, from which Dave graduated in June of that year. (Courtesy of Brubeck Collection, Wilton CT Public Library)

Hatschek agrees with Dan’s assessment, crediting Iola for Dave’s prolific career. The Real Ambassadors was their first major collaboration, and while it never quite took flight, it's an important part of her legacy: it provided a template for a string of successful creative ventures from the pair.

"One thing I’m anxious for people to learn is that [Iola] was an incredibly astute business woman with the soul of an artist," says Hatschek. “She was an actress, writer and director who started on stage in high school. She always kept an ear open for creative ideas. The later works they did together, the oratorios, the Christmas cantata—she was guiding the direction.”

“I’ve been known to say that were it not for Iola Brubeck, we would probably not know who Dave Brubeck was."

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Keith Hatschek will be in conversation with pianist Simon Rowe, former executive director of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific, at 7:30pm on Monday, July 25, at Bird & Beckett Books in San Francisco. Details here.