Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong and the Story Behind a Groundbreaking 1962 Civil Rights Jazz Musical

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black and white photo of a group of jazz legends seated, smiling, looking at sheet music while one man holds a trombone
Taking a break during their daylong rehearsal at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco a week before the premiere of 'The Real Ambassadors' are (left to right) Trummy Young, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, Dave Lambert and Yolande Bavan. (VM Hanks, courtesy of Brubeck Collection, Wilton CT Public Library)

As the Monterey Jazz Festival kicks off again this weekend, The California Report Magazine goes back in time to a chilly evening at the festival 60 years ago.

On Sept. 23, 1962, a groundbreaking musical premiered its first — and only — performance there.

It was called "The Real Ambassadors," and it featured a glittering array of jazz titans, including Louis Armstrong.

This was the height of the civil rights movement, and the musical cast artists of different races, challenging racism and social injustice through jazz.

"The Real Ambassadors" was written by two Californians influential in moving jazz into the mainstream: Dave and Iola Brubeck. He grew up on a cattle ranch in Ione in Amador County; she, in Redding. They met in Stockton at College of the Pacific in 1945, and went on to become a couple and lifelong collaborators. They were living in the Oakland hills when they first came up with the idea of "The Real Ambassadors," as a Broadway musical.

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The musical gets its name from the “cultural ambassador” title bestowed on Brubeck, Armstrong and other jazz musicians the U.S. State Department began sending abroad in the 1950s to share American music and culture.

Many of the Black musicians on the tour were treated as heroes abroad. But when returning home to segregation in the U.S., they were often forced to enter the venues they played through the service door. "The Real Ambassadors" questions this hypocrisy.

The Brubecks' musical was a chance for Louis Armstrong to speak out about his deep feelings about racism and segregation in this country — feelings he rarely expressed publicly.

"The Real Ambassadors" never made it to Broadway as intended, and there’s no recording of its one performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. But Columbia Records did record the bulk of the score, with lyrics that, in the words of arts critic Andrew Gilbert, “confronted Jim Crow segregation and racial prejudice with radical theology and a strikingly melodic score.”

Find the play button at the top of this page to listen to this audio journey, rich with original music, rare archival recorded letters back and forth between the Brubecks and Louis Armstrong about the project, and rehearsal recordings and interviews with Dave and Iola Brubeck. The documentary duo The Kitchen Sisters, in collaboration with Brandi Howell and the Echo Chamber podcast, brought us this project. Other voices include: the Brubecks' sons, Chris Brubeck and Dan Brubeck; Keith Hatschek, author of the newly released book "The Real Ambassadors”; Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum; and singer/actress Yolande Bavan, the last surviving performer involved in the project.