Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pops – Dave and Iola Brubeck – The Real Ambassadors


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“… in 1961, when Dave and his wife lola wrote The Real Ambassadors, which featured Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross as well as the quartet, ‘lola wanted Carmen, and we were very flattered when she agreed to do it, because she chose her material very carefully,’ Brubeck said of the singer who recorded a subsequent album with the quartet.

‘But Louis' road manager wouldn't give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis' hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered “Hi, Louis” when the door opened. Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the sessions, he was the first one in the studio and the last guy to leave.’”
- Dave Brubeck

“Why was Pops’ performance in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors such a moving and meaningful experience for him? Does this project have a special significance in Pops’ life beyond the music itself?”

“I think it does.  First, there was the challenge of learning an entire score of new material, something he really had never done before.  Even on Verve albums with Ella such as “Porgy and Bess,” I’m sure he was at least familiar with some of those great songs.  But the Brubeck’s wrote all these new songs with Louis in mind and Louis rose to the challenge by nailing it.  Also, there was the subject matter, songs about race, politics, religious, etc.  This was deep stuff and Louis responded with more seriousness and sensitivity than even Brubeck imagined bringing tears to those who heard Louis in the studio or those who witnessed the only live performance of The Real Ambassadors at Monterey in 1962.  I really think he considered it one of the highlights of his life (he dubbed it many, many times on his private tapes, right up to the end of this life) and proudly told reporters that Brubeck had written him ‘an opera.’”
-response to JazzProfiles interview question by author Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years


I got so caught up in listening to the music on The Real Ambassadors [Columbia CK 57663], that I delayed writing this piece for days. Hearing the CD again after all these years just left me spellbound, and, at times, listening to Pops really tugged at my heartstrings.

The artistry on the recording is resplendent to such a degree that it becomes all-absorbing.

And, the music is in places very reminiscent as nine of the twenty songs that make up The Real Ambassadors were previously recorded by Dave’s quartets under the same, or, different titles. Dave and Iola later added lyrics and incorporated them into the larger framework of their Jazz opera [the libretto is there but the theatrical setting is missing].


So listening to The Real Ambassadors sends you off to the record collection searching for when you first heard these tunes by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. [Just to prove, of course, that either you’ve still got it, or you’re not losing it – depending on your point-of-view.]

For example: I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me, a feature for Carmen McRae with Pops harmonizing the ending, was originally Curtain Time from the quartet’s Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. about which Dave wrote:

Curtain Time is like a pencil sketch of Broadway, a mere suggestion of what the full-color painting should be with strings, brass and the full complement of a theatre orchestra. All we have here of the real pit band is the soft tinkle of the triangle in the opening bars. The rest of the or­chestration is for you to paint as the four of us try to conjure some of the excite­ment and glamour of a Broadway musical at curtain time.”

The piece retains its lightness and gentleness when Carmen performs it as I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me and having Pops do the harmony at the end is so unexpectedly perfect – a moment in time.

Carmen also is the primary vocalist on In the Lurch, which adds lyrics to Dave’s Two-Part Contention, previously performed on Brubeck Plays Brubeck [Columbia CK-65722] solo piano album and is also a featured piece by the quartet on their recording from the group’s 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival [Columbia CL 932; SRCS 9522].

Mercifully for Carmen, the structure of In the Lurch is revised a bit from this description by Dave of the more complicated original:

"Two-Part Contention is divided into three sections, marked by three tempo changes. The first is a medium tempo; the second, slow; and the last, a fast tempo. The written portion of this tune is heard in the opening 32 bars. These two melodic lines are repeated throughout the piece. In the second section (slow tempo) I introduced a pattern of answering the right hand with the left hand, abruptly changing the register of the piano. In the third (fast) section, I tried to improvise within the limitation of two lines in the first chorus.”

Everybody’s Comin’, the tongue-twisting, jaw-cracking opening track is based on Everybody’s Jumpin’ from the Time Out album [Columbia CK-65122] with the 6/4 time signature of the original replaced by a straight 4/4 call and response between Pops and the LHR that serves to summon the faithful to the celebration.

To my ears, one of the great surprises on The Real Ambassadors is Pops’ performance on Nomad. The original version of the tune is contained on Jazz Impressions of Eurasia [Columbia CK 48351] and features a sultry, very Middle Eastern sounding alto saxophone played by the late Paul Desmond over Joe Morello’s use of tympani mallets on tom toms.

As described by Dave, the effect he was trying to achieve in Nomad was “the intricacies of Eastern rhythms … suggested by … superimposing three against the typical Jazz four.”

This Nomad is taken at a slower tempo to give Pops a chance to enunciate its clever lyrics. Clarinet replaces the alto and Joe’s tom toms are subdued while the beat is carried on a tambourine. Pops sings the first and third choruses and then takes an instantly recognizable Satchmo trumpet solo on the middle chorus which switches to straight 4/4 time.

Yet, despite these changes, The Real Ambassadors’ Nomad still evokes Dave’s intent when he originally wrote the piece: “I tried to capture the feeling of the lonely wanderer. The steady rhythm is like the ever-plodding gait of the camel, and the quicker beats are like the nomadic drums or the clapping of hands.”

It’s a credit to Pops’ genius that he could take music that is so recognizably Brubeckian and make it his own without changing the inner spirit of the piece.

Other previously recorded tunes that were converted by Dave and Iola for use in The Real Ambassadors include My One Bad Habit [My One Bad Habit is Falling In Love from The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe]; You Swing, Baby [The Duke from Jazz Red Hot & Cool, Brubeck Plays Brubeck and The Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival]; Swing Bells [Brubeck Plays Brubeck], One Moment Worth Years [Brubeck Plays Brubeck]; Summer Song [Time Signatures].

The music on The Real Ambassadors was performed once – in September, 1962 at the Monterey Jazz Festival – which would make this year’s MJF bash at the Fairgrounds in Monterey, CA the 50th anniversary of that momentous event.


The 20 tracks that comprise this “musical production by Dave and Iola Brubeck” [5 of them previously unreleased] were recorded exactly one year earlier in September 1961 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios in NYC.

Can you imagine – Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, Carmen McRae, Lambert Hendricks and Ross and a rhythm section made up of Dave Brubeck on piano, Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums – all gathered together in a recording studio?

Talk about a fantasy come true!

For various reasons, The Real Ambassadors almost didn’t happen and, given the circumstances under which it eventuated, it is a miracle that it came off so well.

We wanted to do justice to a feature on The Real Ambassadors so we asked Ricky Riccardi, author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years [New York: Pantheon, 2011] for permission to use the following excerpts on the evolution of the concept behind its recording and performance.

It is the most detailed description about the event that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has been able to reference.

You can locate order information for Ricky’s What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by going here.

© -  Ricky Riccardi/Pantheon Books, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with permission.


“In September, the All Stars settled in New York to make one of the most challenging records of Armstrong's career. Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck and his wife, lola, had collaborated on a musical project titled The Real Ambassadors, which was informed by social protest suggesting that jazz musicians would make better politicians than those then in charge. It touched on many issues of the day, especially race, and the Brubeck’s had conceived of the project with Armstrong in mind after his incendiary Lit­tle Rock comments. "I think that's what we really tried to overcome when we wrote The Real Ambassadors," lola Brubeck remembered, "because before we got into this project we didn't really know Louis that well, but we sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing, and I think that's why he took to it."

While they intended eventually to stage a play, the Brubeck’s wanted to record the score first. Singer Carmen McRae and the vocalese group Lam­bert, Hendricks and Ross agreed to participate, but Armstrong proved difficult to get hold of, as Dave Brubeck related. "Louis's road manager wouldn't give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis's hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered, 'Hi, Louis' when the door opened . . . Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the session, he was the first one in the studio and last guy to leave."

Brubeck's demo tapes of the material are at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Listening to them today, one hears a very polite Bru­beck explaining the nature of the project and what Armstrong means to it. It is possible, that Brubeck gave Armstrong the demo tapes of the songs in the summer of 1961 before an All Stars' four-day tour of Germany, for Brubeck is heard saying, "I've just talked to Joe Glaser and he's told me how difficult it will be for you to record any of these things before going to Europe. But I'm hoping you can figure out the backgrounds with my group playing and me singing the songs like you asked me to do."

To his meeting in Chicago, Brubeck had brought along the lyrics to a song called "Lonesome." Without knowing the melody, Armstrong gave an impassioned reading that greatly affected Brubeck. "Now I told my wife about the way you read the song 'Lonesome' in Chicago," Brubeck says in the tape. "You didn't sing it, you just read it, and it was such a mov­ing job that I thought maybe you would be able to read this on tape and send that back to us because this wouldn't involve you singing or trying to match your voice with the backgrounds that I've sent you by my combo." Brubeck went on to tell Armstrong about lola's regard for him: "She's always considered you the greatest ambassador we've ever had." lola herself then tells the trumpeter: "I saw you tonight on [the television program] You Asked for It and I was very, very impressed with your performance on the show. It thrilled me particularly because I heard you deliver some lines in a way that I knew it was possible for you to do some of the scenes in the show I had written for you. Now, I had the feeling all along that you could do them, but I had never heard you do anything like that before, and when I saw you tonight and saw the sincerity with which [you spoke] some various lines, it impressed me terrifically." The rest of the tape fea­tures Brubeck and his trio playing the show's originals with Brubeck sing­ing the melodies ("I'm ashamed of the horrible way in which I sing," he tells Armstrong at one point).



Armstrong practiced the Brubecks’ material whenever he had the rare luxury of free time. "Louis told everybody that we had written him an opera," Brubeck remembered. The only problem was finding someone who wanted to record it. "All of the producers I took it to, thought it was great, but they'd give me all these excuses . . . 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."

Eventually, Brubeck's own label, Columbia, agreed to take on the project, which was completed over the course of three sessions in Sep­tember 1961. The first song recorded was "They Say I Look Like God," a mournful piece that pitted Armstrong's blues-infused singing against Gregorian-chant-like lines delivered by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The Brubeck’s intended the song as satire, with Armstrong wondering if God could be black. "If both are made in the image of thee," he sings, "Could thou perchance a zebra be?" Expecting Armstrong to deliver the line with his usual jocularity, they were shocked and moved by Armstrong's chilling seriousness. Armstrong had tears in his eyes when he got to the song's final line, "When God tells man he's really free"; he repeated "really free" with haunting sincerity. "Goose pimple, I got goose pimple on this one," Louis said after recording it.  For me, this is arguably the most emotionally wrenching recording of Armstrong's career—a performance that dispels any notion of Armstrong as merely a clown in his later years.

Not every song on The Real Ambassadors is quite so serious; some, such as the romping "King for a Day," are full of good humor. The first session ended with the title tune, "The Real Ambassadors," on which Armstrong sang autobiographical lyrics:

I'll explain, and make it plain, I represent the human race And don’t pretend no more.

The next day, Armstrong was joined by Carmen McRae for heav­enly vocalizing by both singers. "I Didn't Know Until You Told Me" is mainly McRae, but Armstrong harmonizes with her sublimely at the end. Next up was a vocal version of Brubeck s well-known instrumental "The Duke," re-titled "You Swing Baby." The performance was left off the original album, but it contains some stunning trumpet, with Armstrong interpreting the tricky melody made famous by Miles Davis after his own fashion. "One Moment Worth Years" features an absolutely gorgeous mel­ody, Armstrong and McRae demonstrating deep chemistry, in one of the most charming performances of Armstrong s later years.

The highlight of the day, however, was "Summer Song," a heartbreak­ing ballad that would become the album s most lasting track. "On his poi­gnant performance of 'Summer Song,' you can hear the elder Armstrong accepting the inevitability of death and looking ahead towards his final peace, even as he casts a parting glance at all of his remarkable achieve­ments," writes Chip Stern in the liner notes to the CD reissue.56 Dan Morgenstern was present at the recording session and vividly remembered that "Summer Song" was accomplished in one take, before which Brubeck at the piano had played the song for Armstrong as he mastered the lyrics. In the documentary The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, Morgenstern said, "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." Jack Bradley, who was also present, described the session as a "a love fest, especially between Dave Brubeck and Louie. Dave would run up and hug and kiss Louie after every take. It was a wonderful session, and it went well, considering they didn't have time to rehearse."

The lack of rehearsal led to Armstrong having trouble with some of the Brubecks’ tricky lyrics. One song, "Since Love Had Its Way," required fifteen takes to get the lyrics right. After take one of "King for a Day," Armstrong remarked, "That was a real tongue twister." Brubeck asked, "Pops, what do you want to do next?" A game Armstrong replied, "I don't care, you call ‘em." Brubeck said, "I was thinking of your lip." Armstrong answered, "It ain't the lip, it's the lyrics. You don't have to worry 'bout my chops." After another tricky lyric on "Nomad," Bradley remarked to Arm-
strong, "You'll get your tongue worn out with those lyrics." Armstrong replied, "More than that, I’ll get my brains worn out."

But in the end, the hard work was worth it. At the time of the sessions, Brubeck exclaimed, "This is a miracle that it came off. I didn't think it would come off, without even any rehearsal." On the final night of the ses­sions, Bradley watched as every musician left until the only ones left in the empty studio were a satisfied Brubeck and Armstrong. "Boy, oh boy, what a night we've had," Brubeck said. "We've done everything on schedule. God, boy, we had such a ball."

While in Germany the following year, Armstrong was interviewed on television by Joachim-Ernst Behrendt. "The latest thing I've done is with Brubeck," he told Behrendt. "It turned out nice. Yeah, I told a guy, I just made a record with Brubeck.' 'Brubeck!?' I said, 'Yeah! I'll play with anybody, man, you kidding?' That's my hustle. Good, too!" (Nor was Armstrong kidding about playing with anybody. Only two weeks after the Brubeck session, he had reunited with trombonist Kid Ory at Disneyland.)

Having recorded the tracks for The Real Ambassadors, the Brubeck’s set about staging the play, but could not get it off the ground. But by the time Armstrong was interviewed by Behrendt, things seemed more promising. "We're going to do a concert with everybody that was in this session, right from the stage," Armstrong said. "It even might be on TV. . . And we're going to have the ranks and everything, same as opera, you know what I mean. It's going to be all right. We're doing it at the Monterey Jazz Festival."

On September 23,1962, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, The Real Ambas­sadors had its first and only performance, complete with costumes and scenery. The performance opened with a speech read by a narrator that showed no doubt that this work was written with Armstrong in mind:

Our story concerns a jazz musician not unlike the musicians you have seen on this stage the past three days. The personal history of our hero reads like the story of jazz—up from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to Chicago and beyond—from New York to San Francisco, London to Tokyo and points in between. The music which poured from his horn became his identity—his passport to the world—the key to locked doors. Through his horn he had spoken to millions of the world's people. Through it he had opened doors to presidents and kings. He had lifted up his horn, as our hero would say, and just played to folks on an even soul-to-soul basis. He had no political message, no slogan, no plan to sell or save the world. Yet he, and other traveling musicians like him, had inadvertently served a national purpose, which officials recognized and eventually sanctioned with a program called cultural exchange.


Brubeck remembered a funny story about the Monterey performance. "At dress rehearsal, I said to Louis, 'You're the real ambassador, will you wear this top hat and carry the attaché case? The audience will imme­diately identify you as the real ambassador,' and he said, 'Dave, I'm not wearin' a top hat and I'm not carrying that case.' It came time to open and it was time for the concert to begin, Louis to make his entrance, and he came in, there's the top hat, the attaché case and he struts right by me and he says, 'Pops, am I hammin' it up enough to suit you now?' " There was no hamming when Armstrong reprised "They Say I Look Like God." Before an audience, Brubeck still expected the lyrics to get a laugh, but once again Armstrong remained completely serious. "There wasn't a smile in the audience, Louis had tears," Brubeck remembers. "He took those lines that we thought would get laughs right to his heart and everybody in that audience felt what he felt."

The Real Ambassadors was a triumph for Armstrong, but because of Joe Glaser no film of the live performance survives. "Well, the reviews were fantastic," Brubeck said. "[Ralph] Gleason and [Leonard] Feather—to give you an example of two people who weren't too kind to me—they flipped over it. They had tears in their eyes after the concert, and said they felt it was the greatest thing ever done at Monterey. But Glaser wouldn't allow me to have the TV crew turn the cameras on—and they were stand­ing right there."62 Glaser's insistence on not filming The Real Ambassadors has deprived jazz fans of the chance of witnessing one of the most impor­tant evenings in the careers of both Armstrong and Brubeck, but the stu­dio recordings are still in print and grow in stature with each passing year. Armstrong remained proud of the project, telling Feather, "It was five years ahead of its time and the big shots that buy shows for Broadway were afraid of it... I had to learn all that music, and I'd never done nothing at this kind before. Brubeck is great!"  And Brubeck wrote: "When The Real Ambassadors was performed . . . the most critical jazz audience in the world rose as one body to give Louis Armstrong and the cast a standing ovation. It was an electrifying moment.

With the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles developed the following video montage which has as its audio track, Pops’ beloved Summer Song as sung by him to the accompaniment of Dave Brubeck on piano, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. [Click on the “X” to close out of the ads should they appear.]