Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Houdini's - Kickin' in the Front Window [From The Archives]

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

“There is something very magical about this band called The Houdini's. The six young Dutch masters who first travelled to America in 1991 to record at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder stu­dio, appear to be, like that famous engineer, wizards when it comes to sound. The group combines sophisti­cated, often daring harmonies with clever juxtapositions of rhythms to create the sonic illusion of a much larger band than a three horn sextet.”
- Russ Musto, Insert Notes to Kickin’ in the Front Window [Timeless CD SJP 405]

“If one is trying to understand the everlasting debate about what is happening in the field of jazz nowadays, he will find that the 'know-it-alls', in their tendency of labeling and polarization, have two options available for the new jazz talent. Either the musician gets himself a hip outfit, a stage full of overly expensive electronic-equipment and accordingly a pile of debts, or he puts on a shabby face, dives into the past of bebop and proclaims it sacred. All of this is nonsense of course, since jazz is a very lively and independent form of music, giving its comment on events of its own time. Jazz should not move into rock music's place nor become the musical conscience of those who can't move away from Lady Nostalgia.

If you ask me, THE HOUDINI'S won't have themselves labeled in either way, and that alone is already worth mentioning. During their numerous live-performances this successful jazz-sextet proves that it is very well possible to combine certain acquisitions from the past with more recent musical developments and keep their own kind of music very much alive.

Exciting compositions (most of them are originals) and all soloists with a daring bravura make an unique event out of every live-concert for the audience as well as for the musicians. Therefore it has been a wise decision to record this first HOUDINI'S-CD live in one of the better jazz clubs in Holland. No colorless digital studio sound but a very fine live-recording of an astoundingly hard working jazz group with a more than enthusiastic audience. Thrilling music without boundaries, not made to have itself labeled whatsoever unless you want to label it for its high quality, and there is no harm at all in doing that.”
- Hans Dulfer, Insert Notes to The Houdini’s: Live at The Paradox [Timeless CDSJP 349;translated from the Dutch by Angelo Verploegen]

“The North Sea Jazz Festival every summer in The Hague is an enormous musical buffet. Hundreds of musicians play hour after hour all at once on thirteen stages around the Concertgebouw.  It’s impossible to listen to everything, so I meander from gig to gig. If the music doesn’t excite me I’ll venture elsewhere. If the music is good, I’ll stay a while. But there’s always so much happening that I almost never stay for a whole performance.

One delightful exception at the North Sea 1991 was the performance of a young Dutch band – The Houdini’s …. I was also amused by the name. I mean, whill The Houdini’s play magical Jazz? … [Listening to them play] It felt as though I had walked into a time warp.

What I heard was Village Vanguard in the 1960s [because] what The Houdini’s played was vintage Blue Note, or that’s what the music felt like.

They weren’t playing the actual Lee Morgan or Hank Mobley or Art Blakey tunes. They were playing original tunes, but with a groove and a spirit very much like the Jazz Messengers.

They weren’t imitating the Blue Note sound, they were refreshing it. And it was obvious that for them, playing this music is great fun. I felt the same and stayed to the end.”
Michael Bourne, Insert Notes to Headlines: The Houdini’s In New York [Timeless CD SJP 382]

There’s so much going on in the World of Dutch Jazz  that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles constantly finds itself returning to Holland for themes for its blog features.

The Houdini’s is a sextet that has become a recurring favorite since I first heard it about a dozen years ago thanks to a CD that a friend in Holland sent me.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the group’s recording debut under this name. Over this span of time, the Houdini's have undergone some instrumentation [trombone in place of tenor saxophone] and personnel changes in the bass and drum chairs, but its pulsating sound and driving rhythms have remained essentially the same. The group emphasizes very dynamic and well-balanced ensemble playing.

The three original horn players Angelo Verploegen (trumpet and flugelhorn), Rolf Delfos (alto sax and soprano sax) and Boris Vanderlek (tenor sax), started working together in 1986. That's when they recorded the soundtrack of the Dutch movie Blonde Dolly (WEA 242 084-1).

In 1987 they joined the Boulevard of Broken Dreams Orchestra with which they recorded the album Dancing with Tears in My Eyes (Idiot Records 832 714-1) and toured through Europe and Canada.

It was the musical director of this orchestra, Gert Jan Blom, who came up with the idea of putting a hardbop-sextet together for the 1987 Canada tour of Boulevard of Broken Dreams and named it “The Houdini’s.”

When the three, original horn players returned to Holland, they added a new rhythm section consisting of Erwin Hoorweg, piano and keyboards, Stefan Lievestro, double bass and Pieter Bast, drums.

With this line-up, The Houdini’s began performing at Dutch jazz-clubs [the Paradox in TilburgHolland] and festivals like HEINEKEN JAZZ FESTIVAL in Rotterdam and NORTH SEA JAZZ FESTIVAL in The Hague and appearing live on the radio-shows JAZZSPECTRUM and TROS SESJUN.

Thankfully, for those of us without ready access to The Netherlands, The Houdini’s have recorded many CDs on Timeless Records (Live At Paradox, Headlines: Kickin' In The Frontwindow), Challenge Records (Hybrid, Play The Big Five, Cooee, Live At Kiama Jazz Festival, Stripped To The Bone), Channel Classics (Porgy & Bess), Munich Records (Chasin' The General), Blue Note Records (Strange Fruit, with Trijntje Oosterhuis) and Social Beats Records (Unleashed and Remixed)

The band toured Europe, the USACanada and Australia and did co-productions at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with a string orchestra, the Amsterdam New Sinfonietta conducted by Richard Dufallo;  the Schönberg Ensemble conducted by John Adams; the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw conducted by Henk Meutgeert; the film score from Buster Keaton's silent movie The General.

The Houdini’s personnel today is made up of Angelo Verploegen on trumpet, Ilja Reijngound on trombone, Rolf Delfos on alto saxophone, Erwin Hoorweg on piano, Marius Beets on bass and Bram Wijland on drums.

If you are a fan of straight-ahead Jazz,  The Houdini’s is a group that’s well-worth checking out.

The following video features the group performing Kickin’ in the Front Window, one of their signature pieces.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Duke Ellington A Drum Is A Woman 1956

Lennie Niehaus - The Contemporary Years

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

I have always consider Lennie's five Contemporary LP's as masterpieces in miniature of the sound and style that permeated much of Jazz on the West Coast or, if you will, West Coast Jazz, during the middle decades of the 20th century.

Lennie's solos with their long lines which are beautifully interwoven with a series of fresh and original ideas makes his improvisations a unique joy to listen to, then as now.


For different reasons, the author Max Harrison and the alto saxophonist, composer and arranger, Lennie Niehaus have been people I have admired over the years, so what better way to celebrate them on JazzProfiles than to feature a Marx Harrison article on Lennie Niehaus that was originally published in the March, 1958 edition of Jazz Monthly.

Somewhat ironically, as Ted Gioia points out in his seminal West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 [p. 163]:“Despite the striking virtues of his playing, Niehaus never achieved more than passing notice from the critics. One notable exception, however, was Max Harrison,…, whose insightful essay on Niehaus captures the essential virtues of the altoist’s work ….”

Lennie’s plaintive wail on many of the Stan Kenton’s mid-1950s albums such as Back to BalboaCuban Fire and The Stage Door Swings, to my ears the quintessential sound of West Coast Jazz, and Max’s acerbic wit and unconventional views each had a powerful impact on my appreciation of Jazz at a very early [impressionable?] age.

If I may be so bold, Max and I do disagree on one aspect of Lennie’s career as I happen to very much enjoy Stan Kenton and Lennie‘s playing during his stints with the Kenton Orchestra. However, not to belabor the point, Max and I do agree that recordings that Lennie made for Contemporary Records in the 1950s which are the subject of his essay are wonderful, Jazz treasures.

I have taken the liberty of augmenting Max’s essay with the addition of

Volume 4: The Quintets and Strings [Contemporary C-3510; OJCCD 1858-2] which was not referenced in Max’s essay, as well as, with the inclusion of excerpts from the original Contemporary LP liner notes by John S. Wilson, Arnold Shaw, Lester Koenig, and Barry Ulanov, respectively. 

Lennie was also very gracious in granting me time to answer a few interview questions about these albums at recent events sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute at which he appeared.

Max Harrison:

“It was unfortunate Niehaus first became widely known as a result of the tours he undertook in the mid-1950s with Stan Kenton’s band, for the records he was then producing under his own name made it obvious that he had nothing in common with that master of the unintentionally comic bombast.

The second thing to be learnt from them was that Niehaus had little to learn about playing the alto saxophone. His ease and fluency conveyed a feeling of relaxation and security that is always rare, and his attack and swing were almost equally striking.

But the most notable feature of the twenty-six performances considered here is the consistency of his inventive power in improvisation. He never seems to be at a loss for a good melodic idea, and even though his phrasing is concise and pre-eminently logical, an element of the unexpected is never absent.

Lester Koenig noted: “He is a remarkable alto soloist, with a sense of flowing melodic line, lovely cool tone, and a strong feeling for rhythm. He is a thoughtful and serious musician, who composes in his own style, with definite ideas of where he is going and what he wants to achieve.”

In some ways, Niehaus first LP – Lennie Niehaus Vol. 1 The Quintets [Contemporary C-3518; OJCCD- 1933-2] – with a quintet instrumentation remains the most informative of his abilities as a soloist.

The scored passages are generally brief, and, apart from a few meandering contributions from Jack Montrose and Bob Gordon on tenor and baritone saxophones respectively, the leader fills all the available solo space with notable effect.

His consistency makes it hard to single out an performance as exceptional, though the quick-fire Whose Blues? Is a reminder that real spontaneity is less a matter of technical command than of a steady flow of ideas. Almost impressive in this respect are Prime Rib, with its double-time phrases, and the breaks of You Stepped Out of a Dream.

Niehaus wrote the arrangements for all the recordings dealt with here, and these show a nicely understated skill, nearly always being shorn of unnecessary gesture. As his was a musical family, he began his studies early and thus had a better chance of acquiring sound theoretical knowledge than many jazzmen. This places an agreeable variety of writing techniques at his disposal, but he is aware of the dangers of over-elaboration in the modest circumstances of small combo jazz.

The Original Jazz Classic CD tray plate notes offer this overview of the recording.“Lennie Niehaus’s first album is his most intimate. The music is rich in the colorful, complex writing that he would pursue on larger canvasses as his career progressed, while the compact sound of the quintet focuses attention on Niehaus, the fluent, Parker-inspired yet quite personal alto saxophonist. What emerges are well-balanced performances from two distinct ensembles.

Eight tracks recorded in 1954 … feature an inspired three-saxophone front line with Jack Montrose and Bob Gordon, plus the great Monty Budwig/Shelly Manne rhythm section. Four additional titles by a 1956 unit with Manne, Stu Williamson, Hampton Hawes, and red Mitchell were added for a 12-inch release, and represent Niehaus, a paragon of West Coast Jazz, in his most East Coast mood.”

On the sleeve of his second LP Zounds! The Lennie Niehaus Octet! [Contemporary C-3540; OJCCD- 1892-2] he [Lennie] writes: “With the more intellectual and academic approach there is a tendency for … work to become contrived and esoteric. It must be remembered that most modern jazz compositions written during the past few years are no more ‘modern’ than things Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg and others wrote twenty of thirty years ago.”

Such a viewpoint is healthy, first because it is historically and technically realistic, and second because it is a corrective to the attitude of many jazzmen who in the past have imagined themselves to be daring iconoclasts while purveying what actually was simple and conservative music.On the octet performances on his second LP Niehaus still occupies most of the solo space and is fully able to justify this. His arrangements are similar in general style to many others being written on the West Coast at that time, and what individual character they possess is due more to certain technical details than to an overall new approach. Such features most often arise from his concern with unity, and he is fond of deriving introductions, bridge passages and codas from the theme, or part of it, whenever possible. Instances are Night LifeHave You Met Miss Jones? and Circling the Blues; also typical of Niehaus is the way the introduction to The Night We Called It A Day recurs in sequential form to effect a modulation.

The first batch of octet scores have a pleasingly full texture, with the themes announced mainly in block chords. By the jazz standards of his time, Niehaus had a quite extensive, though in no way personal, harmonic vocabulary, so these parallel chords often are interesting, and are effectively distributed over the ensemble.The result, however, could easily have been a rather too consistent harmonic richness, so he occasionally scores a passage for the horns without the rhythm section, as in How About You?, or has the drums only supply interjections, as on Figure Eight. He has many similar procedures to ensure variety, such as the bridge to Night Life, first played in block chords then scored contrapuntally on its return.

Another example is the first section of the code on The Way You Look Tonight, where each horn plays a separate line based on a different part of the theme; the result is of considerable harmonic and contrapuntal interest, and one regrets this passage only being four bars long. Even drum solos are made to further the development of the piece, as in The Way You Look Tonight, where, the piano and bass silent, the percussionist for a while alternates bars with the front line. There is a similar episode on Seaside.Such devices, though, are very far from exhausting the scope of an ensemble … [featuring Lennie - alto sax, Jack Montrose - tenor sax and Bill Perkins - baritone sax, Stu Williamson - trumpet, Bob Enevoldsen - value trombone, Lou Levy – piano, Monty Budwig – bass and Shelly Manne – drums], and Niehaus appears to have been conscious of the almost unrelieved homophony of the above scores.

Since Max doesn’t discuss the four compositions featuring Octet No. 2, made up of Lennie – alto sax, Bill Perkins moving to tenor sax, Pepper Adams – baritone sax, Vince De Rosa – French Horn, Frank Rosolino – trombone, James McAlister – tuba, Red Mitchell – bass, and Mel Lewis – drums, that also appear on Zounds!, I thought perhaps the following comments from the original LP liner notes by Arnold Shaw might prove descriptive in this regard:

“ The fact is that the four new arrangements are less linear. The various horns do not have completely free, independent lines, and the drive is toward a coordinated swinging beat. ‘I still don’t go for blowing arrangements,’ Lennie said recently. ‘I like to write backgrounds and interludes, and my goal is a swinging line’ Whether the octet is taking an ensemble chorus or Lennie weaving, at break-neck speed around the ensemble, the Niehaus combo jumps and rocks and swings.”

In his third LP Lennie Niehaus The Octet #2, Vol. 3 [Contemporary C-3503; OJCCD 1767-2] there is a certain amount of section differentiation though not enough.

Alto saxophone and trombone contrast tellingly with the full band on Cooling It, as do alto and tenor in Bunko, yet such antiphony is infrequent, and counterpoint mainly conspicuous by its absence.I thought, since Max gives rather short shrift to this album in his essay, the following comments about the recording’s personnel and Lennie’s playing from John S. Wilson’s liner notes to the album might prove germane.

“The present bath of octet selections is played by a slightly different group than the preceding set. Newcomers to this octet, but familiar figures on the West Coast jazz scene, are Jimmy Giuffre on baritone saxophone, Bill Holman on tenor and Pete Jolly on piano. Along with the holdovers – Stu Williamson on trumpet, Bob Enevoldsen on valve trombone, Monty Budwig on bass, Shelly Manne on drums and, of course, Niehaus himself – they make up a select group of top-ranking Coast jazzmen.Niehaus’ playing has an ease, an unharried continuity which can only be accomplished by a musician who is beyond being consciously concerned with technique, whose feeling in performance is instinctively a swinging one and who can, consequently, devote himself completely to the creative requirements of his performance. There can be no doubt that these creative requirements are exceedingly demanding. ….

[Niehaus’] tone is almost unique among modern alto saxophonists. It is rich, rounded and warmly full-blooded and yet light enough not to clog up the quickly moving line of his style. It gives a vitality to his playing which is missing in some of the more wraith-like attacks adopted by current alto men.

A rich tone and a riding sense of swing would be of little use to Niehaus, of course, if his ideas were routine. Fortunately, his concepts are fresh and provocative not only in his individual solo performances but in his writing, too.”

As previously noted, not included in Max’s article was any reference to Lennie Niehaus, Vol. 4: The Quintets and Strings [Contemporary C 3510; OJCCD 1858-2] that tracks with strings and Lennie on alto, strings augmented by Lennie on alto, Bill Perkins on tenor and Bob Gordon on baritone and four cuts with a quintet fronted by Lennie on alto and Stu Williamson on trumpet with a rhythm section of Hawes, Budwig and Manne.

In his liner notes, Barry Ulanov offered the following reflections on Lennie’s playing:

“The alto is to the present jazz era what the tenor saxophone was to the one just before it; a great many musicians play it, and some of them inordinately well. As a result, the instrument currently enjoys much favor with the jazz public …. But if it has reached high jazz rank, it has also suffered: there is a terrible sameness about the work of all too many of these stars, a monotony based on the brilliant examples of a Parker, a Konitz or the like ….
All of which explains why I enjoy the playing of Lennie Niehaus as much as I do ….

One can say that it is his sound, a quite modern one, that makes him so welcome betwixt and alongside his colleagues; but others offer a not dissimilar sound. Perhaps, then, it is his beat; but that too, though not as familiar among present-day altoists, can be heard and felt on his horn. If not the sound and the beat, then the length of his lines. This, maybe, but not all by itself, for the long line is very much with us these days on alto, and good to have, but not any guarantee of identity.

No, not one of these things, but all of them in copious abundance, and held together, as he holds everything else in the proceedings in balance and bearing, by a widely resourceful musicianship. Thus diversity, thus originality; thus ripeness and no monotony and, for what it is worth, my very high esteem for Lennie Niehaus."

On his fifth record Lennie Niehaus Vol. 5: The Sextet [Contemporary C-3524; OJCCD 1944-2], Niehaus included well-paced duets between alto and tenor saxophones and trumpet and baritone saxophone in Thou Swell, and Three of a Kind has an adroit fugal introduction and coda.

There are effective dialogues between soloist and ensemble here, also, particularly on Belle of the Ball and As Long As I Live, some imaginative scored background to solos ….

The Original Jazz Classic CD tray plate notes offer this overview of the recording.

“In the mid-1950’s, Lennie Niehaus avoided clichĂ©, incorporated audacious harmonic ideas, and distilled the essentials of big band writing into arrangements for small groups. His recordings are still notable in the 21st century for their freshness and daring.

In this fifth of his series of albums for the Contemporary label, Niehaus sets himself the chamber music challenge of achieving proportion among four horns, bass and drums, without piano to cushion the sound, delineate the harmonies, and unify the ensemble.

The result was a collection of pieces performed with gem-like clarity by players who executed his writing perfectly and brought to their solos the creativity that made them star improvisers.

Niehaus’ alto saxophone was matched by Bill Perkins, Jimmy Giuffre, Stu Williamson, Shelly Manne, and the brilliant, underappreciated bassist Buddy Clark.”

Max Harrison offers these comments on the recording:

"In solo Niehaus is as good as before, although the only other improvisations of real merit on these recordings are by pianist Lou Levy in the first octet disc and by Stu Williamson on both trumpet and valve trombone in the sextet LP. Indeed, the assurance and conviction of the latter’s work on the former instrument in Thou Swell, I Wished on the Moon, Knee Deep and As Long As I Live mark it as being among his best on record. Bill Perkins, on tenor saxophone, is also heard to pleasing, if rather nonchalant, effect in Three of a Kind and As Long As I Live. The gulf (in terms of invention) between the leader and several of his other bandsmen, however, is rather clearly shown by the chase passages of Whose Blues? and Rick’s Tricks, and even more by the long series of twelve- and – twenty-four bar solos in Circling the Blues.

The point is confirmed in a different way by Niehaus’ success with slow ballads, particularly The Night We Called It a Day and Our Love is Here To Stay on the octet records. Best, however, is the quintet Day by Day, which begins and ends with some exceptionally subtle harmonic writing that creates a feeling of remoteness which is quite contrary to the original melody’s banality and exactly appropriate to Niehaus’ very sensitive improvisation.This can stand beside Jimmy Giuffre’s beautiful Lotus Bud recorded with Shorty Rogers or Art Pepper’s Jazz Chorale recorded with John Graas. The same side of Niehaus’ musical personality is also reflected in two compositions, Night Life and Debbie, slow lyrical pieces of some melodic distinction. Also attractive are Take It from Me, which has a forty bar chorus instead of the usual thirty-two, and Elbow Room, a blues with a bridge.Writing and playing like this did show perfectly explicit promise for Niehaus’ further growth. 

Despite a few excellent later recordings [I Swing for You, Mercury MG 36118; Lone Hill Jazz CD 10241], such as his striking version of Perkins’s Little Girl Blues and Benny Golson’s Four Eleven West, that promise was not really fulfilled, eventually he stopped making LPs, and, finally, dropped out of sight. Presumably Niehaus must be regarded as another casualty of the hostile circumstances in which jazz has always found itself."

As we know, the “hostile environment” for Jazz that Max refers to was to become even more hostile as the years rolled along, and Lennie was to survive it by taking his orchestrating skills into the Hollywood studies and to become a prolific writer for films. But we’ll save that part of Lennie’s story for another time.

While preparing this feature on Lennie Niehaus, the editors of JazzProfiles couldn’t help but agree with Ted Gioia’s following assessment of Lennie Niehaus:

“His powerful technical command of the saxophone, his intuitive linear approach to improvisation, and his sweet tone made Niehaus a likely candidate as the next alto star on the coast.” West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 [p. 163]:

And while a Niehaus star did ascend, it would take on a different form. He would go on to become one of the more successful writers of extended compositions and movie scores, particularly noteworthy among the latter were those he did for films director by Clint Eastwood, whom he had met during their days in the army together in the early 1950s.

The following video features Lennie Niehaus performing his arrangement of "Annie's Dance" with Stu Williamson [tp], Bob Enevoldsen [vtb], Bill Holman [ts], Jimmy Giuffre [bs], Pete Jolly [p], Monty Budwig [b], Shelly Manne [d].

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Real Ambassador

The Real Ambassadors - Cultural Exchange


The Real Ambassadors - Penny M. von Eschen

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

At present, the best overview of 'The Real Ambassadors is found in Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2004), 79-91. Much of this material also appeared in Penny M. Von Eschen, "The Real Ambassadors," in Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, ed Robert G. O'Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Farah Jasmine Griffin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 189-103.
- Stephen A. Crist, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out [Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz], footnote 69, chapter 10.

lola Brubeck, liner notes to The Real Ambassadors, Columbia LP (1962). The Real Ambassadors, book by lola Brubeck, music by Dave Brubeck, lyrics by lola and Dave Brubeck, premiered on September 23, 1962, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, California, with the following cast: Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Carmen McRae, lola Brubeck. Trummy Young. Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Yolande Bavan, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Joe Darensburg, Billy Kyle, Willy Kronk, and Danny Barcelona. Howard Brubeck was the Musical Coordinator. A folio of fifteen songs and related narration from The Real Ambassadors was printed in 1963 and published by Hansen Publications. That folio is no longer available. Twenty songs from The Real Ambassadors were recorded in September and December 1961 by Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Carmen McRae, Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, and additional musicians, most of whom later pertonned at the 1962 premiere. Fifteen of those recorded songs were released by Columbia Records in 1962 on an LP entitled The Real Ambassadors (COL CL 5850). That LP is no longer available. In 1994 all twenty recorded songs were released by Sony Music Entertainment on the Columbia/Legacy label on a CD entitled The Real Ambassadors (CK 57663)
- Penny M. von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War [Harvard University Press, 2004], footnote 77, chapter 3

One of the many what-might-have-been moments from Jazz history that has always fascinated me was what it might have been like to see the pairing of Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck in the latter’s The Real Ambassadors staged as a Broadway musical.

Regrettably, Dave’s music and Iola Brubeck’s librettos and lyrics for what Pops’ claimed at the time to be “an opera that the Brubecks wrote for me” was performed by the original cast which included the Armstrong Sextet, the Brubeck Quartet, vocalist Carmen McRae and the vocal group of Lambert Hendricks and Bavan only once at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Since both Pops and Dave were managed by the powerful and influential Joe Glaser of the Associated Booking Company, the Brubecks had hoped that he would use his clout and resources to bring The Real Ambassadors to the Broadway stage as a continuously running musical.

Instead, Glaser took a very dim view of this idea mainly because he thought that the fees from concert and club appearances by Armstrong and Brubeck would far exceed anything generated by a Jazz-themed Broadway play with political and diplomatic overtones. To add insult to injury, Glaser even barred TV crews from filming it!

But given my fascination with the obvious reverence and respect that the Brubeck’s had for Pops in bringing off The Real Ambassadors in the first place, including getting Columbia to record the full soundtrack in 1961, a year before it was performed, and issue the music as in LP in conjunction with the performance at the 1962 MJF, I am always on the lookout for more information on the subject.

Which brings me to this section on The Real Ambassadors contained in Penny M. von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War [Harvard University Press, 2004]. At the time of its publication, Dr. von Eschen was a Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan.

The Real Ambassador

“A half-decade after the beginning of the jazz tours, the jury was still out as to their achievements and effects. In the words of the writer and lyricist tola Brubeck, "The entire jazz community was elated with the official recognition of jazz and its international implications." Yet jazz artists who had participated in the tours had experienced first hand the uneasy juxtaposition of the arts and less than transparent foreign-policy agendas. And as members of integrated bands, they were uniquely steeped in the ironies of the export of jazz ambassadors at a time when America was still a Jim Crow nation and civil rights activists were faced with violent resistance and the inaction of the federal government. 

Following their own tour through Eastern Europe and the Middle East in 1958, Dave and lola Brubeck addressed these ironies in the satirical musical The Real Ambassadors, a 1961-1962 collaboration between the Brubecks and Louis Armstrong. The bands of both leaders came together for the production, and many of the musicians — including drummer Joe Morello, trombonist and vocalist Trurnmy Young, and pianist Billy Kyle — had been on the State Department tours. A jazz musical revue performed to critical acclaim at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1962 — with Brubeck and Armstrong, joined by vocalists Carmen McRae and Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Yolande Bavan — The Real Ambassadors satirized State Department objectives, personnel, and protocol, and voiced a powerful and unequivocal indictment of Jim Crow America."

The Real Ambassadors received much praise in the music world for its swinging juxtaposition of disparate musical styles. As Leonard Feather described it: "Often witty, sometimes poignant words fare] eloquently matched with melodies that are simple, totally suited to the artists, and generally of unusual melodic charm." But it was also an important work of cultural and social criticism and a provocative political intervention, lauded by critics for its powerful "social message" that avoided propaganda and pretension." The Real Ambassadors brilliantly captured the often complex (and contradictory) politics of the State Department tours at the intersections of the Cold War, African and Asian nation building, and the U.S. civil rights struggle. On the one hand, the Brubecks saw many of the State Department personnel with whom they had worked as their allies in the promotion of the arts. For these government cultural workers, like the musicians, the State Department tours offered a unique opportunity to follow in the best traditions of countries (such as France) that made culture, and not simply defense, a fundamental part of their foreign relations. In satirizing the tours, lola Brubeck guessed that "we were saying things a lot of the cultural personnel would probably have liked to say themselves."

On the other hand, as in Gillespie's tour of the Middle East, not all U.S. foreign-service personnel were as enlightened as those encountered by the Brubecks. Despite the overarching State Department strategy of supporting civil rights, individual officials abroad often mirrored the racial views of President Eisenhower and his segregationist allies, who were profoundly uncomfortable with the presence of African Americans. Thus, honoring the perspectives of the musicians, the Brubecks allude to the ways in which the tours, like world events, could sometimes spin out of the control of the State Department.

Set in a mythical African country named Talgalla, The Real Ambassadors opens with the narrator explaining how the hero, modeled on and played by Armstrong, had "spoken to millions of the world's people" with his horn. He and other musicians had "inadvertently served a national purpose, which officials recognized and eventually sanctioned with a program called cultural exchange." We are reminded that the tours were fundamentally a product of Cold War foreign policy. The foreign policy of the tours, as well as the ironic background of racial unrest in the United States, is captured in the song "Cultural Exchange" (lyrics by tola Brubeck):

Yeah! I remember when Diz was in Greece back in '56.
He did such a good job, we started sending jazz all over the world.
The State Department has discovered jazz. It reaches folks like nothing ever has. Like when they feel that jazzy rhythm, They know we're really with 'em; That's what they call cultural exchange.

No commodity is quite so strange
As this thing called cultural exchange.
Say that our prestige needs a tonic,
Export the Philharmonic,
That's what we call cultural exchange!
. . . And when our neighbors call us vermin,
We sent out Woody Herman,

Note the telling observation that "no commodity is quite so strange / as this thing called cultural exchange." Indeed, in the tours by Armstrong and the Brubecks, cultural exchange was a commodity that closely paralleled the quintessential Cold War commodities, oil and uranium. An appreciation of the musicians' critique of State Department notions of cultural exchange must begin with the fact that both artists had participated in the tours. They had deliberately been sent into the front lines of major foreign-policy crises.
lola Brubeck's lyrics indicate that the scope of these programs involved many realms of the performing arts, yet emphasize that jazz was the pet project of the State Department. That U.S. officials could claim jazz as a uniquely American art form gave it more diplomatic cachet than classical music, theater, or ballet. And the inferiority complex of government officials and supporters of the arts toward the classical music and ballet of Europeans and the Soviet Union could be used as an argument to fund the arts, and thus could be turned to the advantage of the American arts.

In The Real Ambassadors the Brubecks addressed the glaring contradiction in a U.S. strategy that promoted black musicians as symbols of the triumph of American democracy when America was still a Jim Crow nation. Brubeck was concerned that Armstrong's contribution to the civil rights cause was being largely overlooked even though official attempts to showcase Armstrong as a symbol of racial progress had imploded when Armstrong denounced President Eisenhower during the desegregation crisis in Little Rock in 1957. Despite Armstrong's outspokenness, as the struggle for equality accelerated he was widely criticized by civil rights activists as an Uncle Tom, and compared unfavorably with a younger, more militant group of jazz musicians. 

Written as a tribute to Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors recovered his submerged militancy and paid homage to him as a political actor. It also expressed Brubeck's own commitment to desegregation. Throughout the 1950s, Brubeck had refused to play before segregated audiences in the South or to accede to segregationist demands that he replace his African American bassist, Eugene Wright."*

The musical opens with a suggestion of the militancy concealed behind Armstrong's mask, countering the perception that Armstrong hewed to whites' stereotypes of black cheerfulness and docility. The narrators claim that the hero possesses the "ability to keep his opinions to himself," is challenged when a voice (Armstrong) declares, "Lady, if you could read my mind, your head would bust wide open." Moreover, the audience learns precisely what was on the hero's mind: "Look here, what we need is a goodwill tour of Mississippi." And in a sharp reminder of Armstrong's denunciation of Eisenhower: "Forget Moscow — when do we play in New Orleans!"

Nevertheless, the hero is persuaded to begin yet another tour. "The morning of their departure, members of the President's Committee . . . for Cultural Exchange appeared to give the musicians a last minute 'briefing.'. . . When you travel in a far-off-land / Remember, you're more than just a band. / You represent the USA / So watch what you think and do and say." Here, as well as in the song "Remember Who You Are," the Brubecks evoked and evaluated the briefing they received before embarking on their tours:

[Armstrong]: Remember who you are and what you represent.
Always be a credit to your government.
No matter what you say or what you do,
The eyes of the world are watching you.
Remember who you are and what you represent. . . . 

[Trummy Young]: Remember who you are and what you represent.
Never face a problem, always circumvent.
Stay away from issues.
Be discreet — when controversy enters, you retreat.

As we have seen with Quincy Jones's scathing indictment of the Gillespie Band's briefing, musicians were often quite taken aback by the directives they received. But if Gillespie was able to dodge his, briefings were an inescapable part of the tour, providing, in the words of Brubeck, "a long list of how we should act." With briefings so focused on the prevention of potentially embarrassing behavior, the Brubeck Quartet had had no warning about the turbulent politics they encountered. Moreover, like the Gillespie band, the musicians sometimes encountered unsympathetic cultural personnel, and in those circumstances they could be overwhelmed by the politics of the tours. Expressing a frustration with the emphasis on elite audiences, trumpeter Clark Terry, who toured India and Pakistan in 1978, explained that they "coined a phrase to describe the official receptions musicians were expected to attend: 'time for us to go to the grinner.'" Terry added that "our escort officer was very uptight, very strict about time, appearance, and behavior. . . . 'If these guys blow it, it's my neck.”
Indeed, the last stanza of "Remember Who You Are" alludes to the musicians' allegiance to something other than the American government —
namely, jazz and the history that gave birth to the music. Armstrong sings:

Remember who you are and what you represent. 
Jelly Roll and Basie helped us to invent 
A weapon like no other nation has; 
Especially the Russians can't claim jazz. . . .

Here, the artist's burden of representation is to remember Jelly Roll and Basie and to represent jazz, even as the lyrics celebrate the gift of that music to America and proclaim pride in the music's status as a unique Cold War weapon.

As the tour, free of political drama (no wars, no political assassinations), comes to a close in The Real Ambassadors, the hero's story has just begun. In his travels throughout Africa, the hero had heard stories of Talgalla, "the newest of new African nations." Talgalla's portrayal in the musical satirizes the political motives for the African tours. "It had been unknown and unrecognized as a nation until the two great superpowers simultaneously discovered its existence. Suddenly Talgalla was a nation to be reckoned with." The Russians had built roads; "U.S. equipment had cleared the airfield."

On the one hand, Talgalla is imagined as a product of super-power rivalries. Its mythic status as a repository of "tradition" and Utopian dreams displaces actual African politics, just as the revue's subplot, a love story, displaces the story of U.S. interests in Africa and other formerly colonized areas (Armstrong's actual trip through Africa as well as Brubeck's actual trip through the Middle East). Yet Talgalla is also a place where a new social order can be ushered in — a symbol of democratic and Utopian aspirations. The hero has been drawn to Talgalla by tales of an annual ceremony in which the social order in this "tiny tribal monarchy" is "turned upside down" for a week. Thus, as they approach Talgalla, the hero dreams of being "King for a Day.

Despite the hero's superficial aspiration to be king, the song "King for a Day" unfolds as a satire on authority and a critique of political (civil rights) gradualism; the hero affirms a revolution in social relations against a voice that tells him, "You're expecting too much too soon." The opening passage illuminates the inspiration for the collaboration between the Brubecks and Armstrong and the fact that the Brubecks wrote the revue specifically for Armstrong. Constantly rewriting the libretto over a period of nearly five years to keep it topical, and writing with Armstrong in mind, the Brubecks incorporated Armstrong's playful statements before embarking on his six-month African tour in 1960. Armstrong was quoted in Down Beat commenting on the chance that the trip might extend behind the Iron Curtain: "Yeah, I'd like to slip under the Curtain. Let all them foreign ministers have their summit conferences—Satch just might get somewhere with them cats in a basement session.”

[Armstrong]: Man! If they would just let me run things my way, this
world would be a swingin' place! 
[Trummy Young]: Yeah, Pops! What would you do? 
[Armstrong: The first thing I'd do is call a basement session. 
[Trummy Young]: Uh, Pops, you mean summit conference. 
[Armstrong]: Man, I don't mean a UN kind of session. I mean a
jam session.

Presenting jazz as a model for democracy, the lyrics move deftly between civil rights themes and international relations:

[Armstrong]: I'd go and form a swinging band
With all the leaders from every land. 
[Young]: Can't you hear that messed up beat?
I'll tell you now you'll meet defeat. 
[Armstrong]: Why they will fall right in a swinging groove
And all the isms gonna move.
Relationships is bound to improve.

As the debate between the hero and the skeptic continues, it alludes to symbols of monarchy and authority. In the playful discussion of the oppositional black politics of self-naming, lola Brubeck is referencing bassist Eugene Wright's sobriquet "Senator," a nickname that stuck from the time of their 1958 tour, as well as riffing on an Armstrong interview where he explained his attitude toward the title of "Ambassador."' During his 1960 Africa tour, Armstrong told New York Times Magazine reporter Gilbert Millstein: "We used to call one another that when we was broke and hungry. That's where the Duke got his name, Duke Ellington. And the Count — Count Basie."

[Trummy Young]: Pops, you got eyes to wear a crown? 
[Armstrong]: I might enjoy being king.
After all, Buddy Bolden was king. 
[Trummy Young]: And there's King Oliver. 
[Armstrong]: There's Count Basie. 
[Young]: And Duke Ellington. 
[Armstrong]: And Earl "Fatha"Hines. 
[Young]: Man, quit jiving me! You know that cat ain 't no Earl.
That's his first name! 
[Armstrong]: No? Man, he had me fooled all these years!

The United States has recognized the importance of Talgalla by appointing an ambassador, due to arrive momentarily. When the hero arrives — trumpet in hand — he blows his horn as a sign of greeting. Mistaking Armstrong for the officially appointed American ambassador, the Talgallans ask, "You are the American Ambassador aren't you?" The hero replies: That's what they call me, Ambassador Satch." The Talgallans are thrilled that "out of all the Americans such a wondrous man should be chosen as their Ambassador." Everyone is happy for several days, but the arrival of the U.S. ambassador sparks a flurry of confusion: Who's the real ambassador?

In the studio performance of the number "Who's the Real Ambassador?" the singers Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross make appropriately stiff and sanctimonious State Department personnel, with the lyrics repeated a second time at breakneck tempo, parodying the uptight frenzy perceived by many musicians.

It is evident we represent American society, 
noted for its etiquette, its manners and sobriety. 
We have followed protocol with absolute propriety. 
We 're Yankees to the core. 
We're the real Ambassadors, 
Though we may appear as bores. 
We are diplomats in our proper hats.

Fortunately, Armstrong steps in and clears up the confusion. But in doing so, he challenges the legitimacy of government policy and asserts his authority, grounded in something deeper than mere state sanction.

I’m the real Ambassador!
It is evident I wasn't sent by government to take your place.
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face to face.
I'll explain and make it plain I represent the human race and don't
pretend no more. 
Who's the real Ambassador? 
Certain facts we can't ignore. 
In my humble way—I'm the USA. 
Though I represent the government, 
The government don't represent some policies I'm for. 
Oh, we've learned to be concerned about the Constitutionality. 
In our nation segregation isn't a legality. 
Soon our only differences will be in personality. 
That's what I stand for. 
Who's the real Ambassador? Yeah, The real Ambassador.

With the central political tension of the drama resolved, the narrative turns to a romantic subplot, yet continually revisits the animating theme of civil rights. The poignant number "They Say I Look Like God," singled out by the Saturday Review as "moving and daring" and by critic Ralph Gleason as "one of the most moving moments in Monterey's history," opens with the lines:

They say I Look like God. 
Could God he black? My God! 
If all are made in the image ofThee, 
Could thou perchance a zebra be?

Brubeck praised Armstrong for his ability to transform some of the more trivial lyrics — those written for a laugh — into pathos or political commentary. The Brubecks had written the lines for a laugh, "to show how ridiculous" a religious conception of racial hierarchy was. But, Brubeck continued: "Louis had tears in his eyes. He didn't go for a laugh, and the audience followed him away from our original intentions. And all through the night, he took those lines that were supposed to get a laugh and went the other way with it. And at the record session he cried. You can hear it at the end, when he says 'Really free' for the last time. He broke down a little.” 

After years of demeaning roles, the collaboration in The Real Ambassadors offered Armstrong material that was closer to his own sensibility and outlook. And while Armstrong had often managed to rise above racist material by the sheer force of his artistry, the production allowed him a chance to make a statement about a life-long struggle for control over his own representation — a struggle that had hardly ended with the Little Rock incident. For Armstrong, freedom remained an aspiration, not an achievement. And the power of The Real Ambassadors, which was performed during the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement, lay in its articulation of that yearning, as well as in its satirical wit and musical accomplishments.

After the Monterey Jazz Festival, The Real Ambassadors was never again performed. (The studio production, released on LP and reissued on CD, was recorded before the festival.) At Monterey, Joe Glaser, Armstrong's longtime manager, prevented the TV crews from filming it. Attempts to get it produced, including plans for a Broadway production, failed; it was consistently viewed, at the height of violent resistance to the civil rights movement, as too political and controversial." In the Utopian finale, "Swing Bells, Blow Satchmo" — rich with Old Testament biblical imagery of black Christianity — the hero's horn ("Joshua had just a horn") has announced a new world:

Ring out the news! The world can laugh again. 
This day — we're free! We're equal in every way. . . . 
Lift up thy voice like a trumpet
And show thy people their transgressions and their sins. . . . 
Let the oppressed go free. . . . Blow Satchmo! Blow Satchmo! 
Can it really be, that you set all people free?

That day had certainly not yet arrived in 1962 — a year marked in the United States by the deaths and casualties inflicted by those protesting James Meredith's registration at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, and in the Belgian Congo by the start of many decades of U.S. -backed dictatorships. And it would appear no closer in the following year, when dogs and hoses were turned on demonstrators in the campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Birmingham, Alabama, and when four children were murdered in the bombing of that city's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Even as the U.S. government recognized the power of jazz and African American culture and tried to harness it to Cold War foreign policy by projecting abroad an image of racial progress, the State Department jazz tours also provided a global platform from which to celebrate the subversive wit of jazz, and to announce to the world: "Been waitin’ so long for ... the day we'll be free." 

The international power and appeal of jazz did not lie in the fact that it represented the music of a free country, as the State Department would have it. Rather, as brilliantly and forcefully articulated in The Real Ambassadors, it was conveyed through the instruments and voices of the jazz ambassadors. The epitome of these, Louis Armstrong, expressed his aspirations for freedom in a world where he, like so many of the people for whom he played, was still awaiting the day when he would be "really free."”


Forty years later, in 2002, The Real Ambassadors returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival, this time featuring the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lizz Wright, Roy Hargrove, and Christian McBride. Archival footage of this performance is available through the Monterey Jazz Festival Collection at Stanford University. The first revival of the musical was presented at the 2013 Detroit Jazz Festival with Bill Meyer using the same format of a concert performance with narrator as the Brubecks had staged at Monterey. It was next performed in New York City for the first time, in 2014, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, featuring original vocalist who performed at the Monterey premiere, Yolande Bavan, this time in the role of Narrator. Connecticut jazz vocalist Dianne Mower has been making efforts to bring about a Broadway revival of the show.