Dave and Iola Brubeck on The Real Ambassadors and working with Louis Armstrong


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SS: Well, these large scale pieces all seem to have messages that are somewhat timeless. They seem current from the time they were created to the current situation. One other project that I'd like to cover is the Real Ambassadors project, which was, I guess you would call it a musical, really, that you two wrote and put on at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. How did the concept for the Real Ambassadors come about?

DB: Well, again, that's Iola.

IB: Well, it started not too long after we had done the State Department Tour in 1958. And, I think it was probably the following summer that I came to New York when Dave was working on the East Coast. And, we attended a number of musicals. There were some great ones on Broadway at that time. And then, there was a concert in Central Park.

And, at that concert was Count Basie and Joe Williams singing. And, when I came away from that I thought to myself, "You know, out of all these wonderful musicals and great productions we have seen, really nothing hit me quite so hard and really stayed in my memory as much as Joe Williams standing up there and singing in front of the band. Why couldn't jazz somehow be on Broadway?" a true version of what it was like to be in a jazz band, and be part of it.

And, so then we just discussed different ideas, and thought about a situation where we could have bands on tour. And then, why not take the idea of a State Department tour, because we had just had that experience. And, we just started writing.

SS: In the liner notes to the 1994 reissue of the CD, you are quoted as saying that Louis Armstrong, who played the lead role in the Real Ambassadors read the lyrics in a different light than you had conceived them. How did you feel about that?

IB: Well, it wasn't really different. It's just, he put his own stamp on it. But, the intent was the same. So, it wasn't a matter of it changing anything really. It was just, we were talking about that the other day about -- so, many of the things that we wrote for the show that once they were in the hands of the artists, if they're true artists, they make it their own.

And, that's what Louis did with everything that he was given. It ended up coming out as if he spontaneously was -- weren't words that were given to him or just handed to him, and then you sing it this way. It was his particular view and stamp on it.

DB: I can tell you, what I thought would get, see -- I was afraid to be too serious with the audience, that Monterey was a jazz audience, and been warned to not be preaching and trying to educate. So, Louis was supposed to take certain lines and make the audience laugh we hoped.

Now, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross are singing, "God created man in His image and likeness. In his image and likeness, created He them." Then Louis comes in with the blues, "They say I look like God. Could God be black, my God? If both are made in the image of thee, could thou per chance a zebra be?"

No laugh -- tears coming down from Louis. He takes it his direction. It isn't a joke. It isn't funny. And, that's what he did with a few lines. And, when God tells man that he's really free -- in other words, you know, it's not yet.

And then, again, Louis choked up, and critics were saying they'd never seen this side of Louis, the entertainer. And, that's the way he would read these lines, no joke.

IB: I think that's one of the important things about the Real Ambassadors is that Louis had been in many ways sort of dismissed at this point in his career as an entertainer, not to be taken too seriously. OK, he was great back then when he first began. But, there is a very serious and sensitive side of Louis that the rest of the world just didn't see.

And, I think this is why he was attracted to doing the show, because he felt he could make a statement that was important. And then, it's interesting. Many, many years later, Louis is now restored -- like he's (laughter) up there --

DB: Where he should be.

IB: Where he should have been all along. But, this was in a period where he was pretty much dismissed by critics.

SS: He seems like such a natural for that role, given his experience as an actual cultural ambassador through the same program that the State Department used on your 1958 tour, and his experience with civil rights and racism. Did you envision Armstrong from the beginning as the person for that role?

IB: Yeah, yeah.

SS: And, was he approached once it was written? Did you contact him as it was being written?

IB: Yeah, as I think it was in the process of being written when you first contacted him, right?

DB: Yeah.

IB: It took a long time to do it all, and a long time, or over a number of years of contacts with Louis. But, he knew it was in the process.

SS: Somewhat surprisingly, the Monterey performance is the only performance that was done of the piece, right? Why do you think that was? Why was it not picked up as, say, a Broadway performance or why did it seem to have such a short -- successful admittedly -- but just such a short performance life?

IB: Well, first, I think there were a lot of different reasons. And, there's one very common, ordinary, everyday reason: cost. I think that Joe Glaser, whom Dave has mentioned before, was the manager and agent for Louis Armstrong as well as for Dave, and a lot more money could be brought in by concert tours than the time that it would take to be in a production of a Broadway show.

I think that was a very fundamental reason that it didn't happen. And, other reason is that we did hit hard on the racial issue, and that was primarily it, and some other things that were critical of the government that I think maybe producers would be a little hesitant to take on that period. What do you think?

DB: I think so, and some of your lyrics might have turned him off. Like, "The State Department has discovered jazz. It reaches folks like nothing ever has. When our name is called as vermin, we sent out Woody Herman. That's what we called cultural exchange." And, it goes on and on what she wrote.

IB: And then, Louis sings as an ambassador from the State Department that I represent the government, but the government will represent things that I stand for. I mean, that's pretty blatant. So...

SS: It was a true commentary of Armstrong's experience with the program. He refused to go -- I think maybe it was the Soviet Union because of racial practices of the federal government. I think so.

DB: Then, one line that always broke me up was, "And, if the world goes really wacky, we'll get John to send out Jackie. That's what we call cultural exchange." (laughter) That's a good line.

SS: That's a great line. Yeah.

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