Dave Brubeck on the challenges of having an integrated band


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SS: I'd like to shift gears if we can back to the '50s and '60s because I definitely want to get your input on an event, I guess, a stand on your behalf that received a lot of attention, which is in 1960 when you had to cancel 23 of 25 scheduled dates -- colleges in the south because of a racial issue. Your bass player, Eugene Wright, was an African American, and once the schools found out about that, apparently most of them were not willing to have an integrated group perform at the universities. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience and what your thought process was, and basically refusing to compromise when it came to the membership of your quartet?

DB: Yeah, that was a surprise because you usually were hired by the students, and they're usually -- on every campus was a committee that hired people that they wanted to come in and perform. So, the students wanted this.

The teachers usually wanted this. And, when you get to the President, if he knew that there was going to be bad publicity, it's hard to believe because we have come so far in racial relationships that it's hard to believe that I'd have a police escort to a university.

And police cars stay outside. One night, a bomb was thrown back behind the hall where Louis Armstrong was playing. And, the term for a drum beat sometimes is a bomb. And, all Louis said, "Oh, that was a bomb."

SS: (laughter) That's a real bomb, right?

DB: Yeah, and he laughed and kept playing. But, he knew it was a bomb. So, it wasn't easy. And, we went through many things. And, what allowed us to go was the attitude of the quartet, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, and Paul. And, one time where Eugene couldn't stay in the hotel was in Salt Lake City. It wasn't always the south.

We had this happen to us above Minneapolis at Lake Minnetonka. And, in certain other cities I don't want to mention were in the north, and very tough on integration. But, Eugene, for instance this one night we were in Oklahoma. After the concert, we played at an Air Force base, and they couldn't allow us to stay there.

So, they said, "Go to the hotel in town," and when we went to register, they saw Eugene Wright was African American. And, they wouldn't allow us to register. So, Gene, Joe, and I stood in front of the hotel wondering, "Well, where will we sleep?" And we were just talking. And, Paul pulls up in a Cadillac with some guy that had given him a ride.

And, the guy said, "Why aren't you inside in the hotel?" I said, "Oh, they won't allow us because we're an integrated group, and they don't allow African Americans in this hotel." He said, "Let me go in and talk to him." I said, "You can't say anything I haven't already said." He said, "Do you mind if I talk to him?" and I said, "No."

So, he goes in. He comes back, and he points for us to go in. And I said, "What did you say that I didn't say?" He said, "I told him, I'm going to foreclose on their little old hotel unless you couldn't go in and stay here tonight. And another thing, if you want to get out of here tomorrow in a hurry, I have two jet airplanes, and you can have one of them for wherever you want to go." And, he owned a big oil company. (laughter)

SS: Sounds like a good friend to have down there.

DB: Oh, Joe Morello kept friendly with him for years.

SS: A similar incident that we've heard about is a story of how you cancelled an appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour television program after the producers objected, again, to having you play with Eugene Wright and an integrated band. Do you recall that incident?

DB: Very well. And, I told him that we weren't going to change. And, they said, "Well, then we can't have you." And I said, "All right, but I'm not going to do your television show." And, they got Duke Ellington to take our place. And, I remember Paul and I watching that show saying, "Well, at least they've still got one of the great jazz groups we've ever had."

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