Photo by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
'The Real Ambassadors' At 60: What Dave Brubeck, Iola Brubeck & Louis Armstrong's Obscure Co-Creation Teaches Us About The Cold War, Racial Equality & God
'The Real Ambassadors' may not be among Dave Brubeck or Louis Armstrong's most essential albums — it's the soundtrack for a musical that never got off the ground. But as a cultural artifact, it contains dimensions we're still parsing 60 years on.
While a terrifying racial spasm rocked 1960s America, Louis Armstrong dared to ponder if God could be Black.
In "They Say I Look Like God," a staggering track from the 1962 album The Real Ambassadors, backing singers send an incorporeal chant into the rafters. "God created man in his image and likeness," they intone. "In the image of God created He them." Then, in comes Pops over a smoldering minor blues. "Could God be Black? My God!" he growls. "If all are made in the image of Thee / Could Thou perchance a zebra be?" To which the vocal trio responds with a triumphal "Hallelujah!"
Dave Brubeck's wife and creative partner, Iola, wrote the tune while Jim Crow still menaced much of America. While extremely weighty feelings about racial equality permeated The Real Ambassadors — a co-creation between the Brubecks and Armstrong — she meant the "zebra" line to be humorous. It didn't come across that way. Even today, the mere evocation of the song is liable to move musicians, scholars and the Brubeck family alike to their core.
It happened to Dave and Iola's daughter, Catherine Brubeck Yaghsizian. While discussing "They Say I Look Like God" for her father's centennial, she burst into tears. Over Zoom, saxophonist and jazz historian Loren Schoenberg's jaw drops at its mention.
Even Armstrong was emotional performing it at the Monterey Jazz Festival, during its sole performance featuring the original ensemble. "I looked over to Louis and he wasn't laughing at all," Dave recalled to author Philip Clark in 2020's A Life in Time. "There were tears flowing down his cheeks." To hear Brubeck tell it, the audience (and, backstage, Dizzy Gillespie) were visibly touched as well.
Despite the monumentality of "They Say I Look Like God," it appears on a Dave album that is, well, not the most essential. Nor the fifth most. Nor the fifteenth. Despite's Dave's intention for The Real Ambassadors to be something like his magnum opus, critics rarely cite it as one of his masterpieces. It was a commercial bomb upon release.
In a sense, this is understandable. As a front-to-back listening experience, The Real Ambassadors is a tad stodgy and undercooked. This is despite the tremendous talent of the people who made it: the Brubecks; Armstrong, with his All-Stars; singer Carmen McRae; the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Even the Brubecks' eldest son, pianist and educator Darius Brubeck, agrees. "I say this with a great deal of respect for what the record is, but if it had been treated as a priority and they'd been given more studio time and their own schedules had gelled together and so forth, it could have been better," Darius tells GRAMMY.com. "It's a miracle it's as good as it was, but really, it was a rush job."
That said, The Real Ambassadors is more than a lumpy-yet-rewarding obscurity with a few good songs — like "They Say I Look Like God," the radiant "Summer Song" and the exuberant "King for a Day." Taken with a few supplemental materials and an open mind, the album is something of a Russian nesting doll, revealing new layers of meaning the more you pull it apart.
And given that 2022 marks its 60th anniversary, now's as good a time as any to examine it.
Spreading Jazz Abroad
The Real Ambassadors was a direct response to the U.S. State Department-sponsored jazz tours of the mid-to-late 1950s and early '60s, in which world-famous musicians Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington — as well as Dave and Satch — were sent abroad to rehabilitate America's Jim Crow-tarnished image. Their experiences on these Cold War-era tours carved out tributaries of inspiration, which flowed into the album.
"[T]hey never dreamed that the musicians would bring their own agendas," author Penny M. Von Eschen wrote in her in-depth 2004 analysis of the “jazz ambassador” tours, Satchmo Blows Up the World. "Nor did they anticipate that artists and audiences would interact, generating multiple meanings and effects unanticipated by the State Department."
The Real Ambassadors wasn't just meant to be an album — it's the soundtrack to a stage show that never took off. A closer examination of its witty and evocative lyrics unveils much more than a what-we-did-on-tour narrative. It speaks to Dave and Satchmo's passionate commitment to civil rights, as well as their intergenerational connection. And Dave's relationship with Iola. And Dave's spiritual life. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
A Life in Time author Philip Clark agrees that The Real Ambassadors has a fractal-like quality that’s not immediately apparent from simply throwing on the record. "You have what’s called, in opera, a highlights album," he explains to GRAMMY.com. "It has some of the music with none of the narrative around it."
The narrative for The Real Ambassadors musical predated the State Department tours — Iola had been kicking around the idea for a stage show for a few years before it crystallized. And Armstrong's biting and righteous words directly informed it.
Back in 1957, Armstrong canceled his state-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union after President Eisenhower refused to enforce court-ordered desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. "President Eisenhower should take these little children by the hand and lead them into that school" he erupted. "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." (After Eisenhower eventually acquiesced, Armstrong participated in the program.)
Spurred by Armstrong's impactful words, Iola began sketching out the musical in embryonic form. "Everywhere my mother was driving us around, to piano lessons, and just in life, she'd always had a clipboard and a notebook with her, always working on ideas," Darius says.
Originally called World, Take a Holiday, the musical centered around two couples: bandleader "Pops" Anderson and vocalist Rhonda Brown, described as a "far-out chick," and Pops' manager, Saul Hoffman, and his wife, Ellie.
In the original script, "Pops" — essentially Louis — and his band arrive in the fictional African nation of Talgalla. Believing him to be the ambassador sent by the Americans, they declared him king for a day and carried him on a throne. (Bizarrely, this actually came to pass during Armstrong's "jazz ambassador" tour in 1960, when he stopped in the Congo during its civil war, both sides declared a 24-hour truce, and fans carried him on a throne.)
Acutely aware of Armstrong's music, attitude and public statements, Dave and Iola Brubeck increasingly blurred the "Pops" character with the real-life trumpeter — who embodied the title in music, word and deed.
Wit, Emotion & Swing
Released in 1962, The Real Ambassadors was a vibrant mix of humor, social commentary and swinging music. And it couldn't have existed if Dave hadn't taken over the world with Time Out — his epochal 1959 record with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello — because The Real Ambassadors was a passion project and almost certainly a money loser.
"Once 'Take Five' had radio airplay and was a hit single, Columbia basically let him do whatever he wanted to do," Ricky Riccardi, a Louis Armstrong expert who won a GRAMMY in 2022 for album notes on Satch, tells GRAMMY.com. Even though there was a years-long buildup to the project, "It wasn't until 'Take Five' brought in the cash that he was like, 'Pay for Louis Armstrong. Pay for Carmen McRae. Book the studio."
Although the album is but one facet of the overall The Real Ambassadors project, it catches a great deal of the light. "The whole thing is laced with irony throughout," Darius says, citing the riotous "Cultural Exchange."
He also calls "Remember What You Are" one of the cleverest moments on the record, explaining that it recalls the briefing — or, perhaps, lecture — the State Department gave the musicians. "It ironizes the contrast between the directness and honesty of the jazz musicians,” he says, “versus the very circumscribed way that they're supposed to present themselves."
Darius goes on to quote one of his mother's sardonic lines: "When controversy enters, you retreat!" And while "controversy" may not be the best word to describe the difficulty of getting The Real Ambassadors out there, it was pockmarked by unfortunate miscalculations and roadblocks.
Armstrong's wife, Lucille, a trained dancer, initially rejected the idea of her husband's participation in the stage show, thinking he wouldn't be able to prepare and would embarrass himself as a result. But her fears were eventually assuaged — it mostly involved just plain singing, not unlike in a recording studio.
After several false starts with marginally interested producers, the ensemble got a break from Monterey Jazz Festival co-founder Jimmy Lyons, who booked all the performers involved as standalone acts so they could perform the The Real Ambassadors musical together.
"When they finally stepped on stage, I'm sure Dave probably almost had a heart attack of joy: 'Oh my god! We're finally doing it!'" Keith Hatschek, who authored 2022’s The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, tells GRAMMY.com.
While there was a camera crew present at the Monterey Jazz Festival, they, astonishingly, didn't film The Real Ambassadors. The lack of film was partly because Dave didn't have $750 — the equivalent of approximately $7,500 today — immediately on hand.
What else set the stage for The Real Ambassadors' long march into obscurity? For one, Armstrong's and Dave's manager, Joe Glaser, threw a wrench in the works. He didn't want his headliners tied up for months on Broadway when they could be making money on the road.
As Hatschek points out, such an ambitious project in 1962 would be precluded by the bottom line. "It would basically reduce everyone's income dramatically," he says. "Carmen McRae was a headliner. Louis was a headliner. Dave was a headliner. So, they would all be out touring on their own, and their booking agents would all be getting commissions and whatnot."
The stage production aside, the record represents a cultural strand that was nearing its end — two years before a certain, explosive "Ed Sullivan Show" performance in 1964.
"The Real Ambassadors is a little before Beatles time, and it's that funny moment in American popular culture where jazz was about to disappear, in terms of being a flavor in popular music," GRAMMY-winning musician and scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is the Founding Director and Senior Scholar of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, tells GRAMMY.com.
"People say jazz was once America's popular music, and I always react negatively to that. But it was a spice, a taste, a flavor that was omnipresent for about 30 years."
A Multidimensional Artifact
Where else can The Real Ambassadors lead you? Even if it only reminds you of Iola's incalculable importance to Dave's life and art, it's worth the price of admission.
"My mom was hilarious, and this is a real chance to show them as a creative team," their son, multi-instrumentalist Chris Brubeck, tells GRAMMY.com. "She was a mother of six and the person who invented the whole circuit of jazz being played in colleges. I think it was really important to Dave that Iola's talent as a lyricist and smart, smart person would be recognized."
At the end of the day, The Real Ambassadors is an invitation to commune with the deeper things of the Book of Brubeck. Jazz shorthand mostly bundles Dave with Time Out and his penchant for what he called "odd time signatures," but his discography goes so much deeper than tranquil tones and tricky meters.
The Real Ambassadors can also send you down the road of Dave's transportive religious offerings, like 1968's The Light in the Wilderness and 1969's The Gates of Justice. In fact, Christian themes ran deep in his and Iola's careers and private lives. In an era where religion and politics — much less the nexus of the two — were verboten at the dinner table, the Brubecks operated on a different plane.
"As the eldest of six children, politics and religion were about the only thing we discussed around the table," Darius says with a laugh. "Dave shut down trivial conversations when he had the chance to be with his family. He wanted to test his ideas; he wanted to challenge ours; he wanted to detect and stamp out any conditioning toward prejudice of any kind we might have been getting from our peers."
Want to shed more light on Dave's conquest for civil rights, which completely dovetailed with his Christianity? Look up the myriad instances where he stood up for his bassist, Eugene Wright, when he was mistreated and locked out of opportunities due to being Black.
Also, cue up the scene in "Ken Burns Jazz" where Dave bursts into tears, recounting his childhood experience of meeting a Black cowboy who showed Dave a brand on his chest. The Real Ambassadors wouldn't exist without that experience. "My dad said, 'These things can't happen,'"Dave remembered in the clip, his voice cracking with emotion. "'That's why I fought for what I fought for.'"
The Brubecks and Armstrong didn't just take on that fight; they lived it until their dying days. The album also proves that, in his later years, Armstrong wasn't a washup going through the motions — as decades of baked-in, unfair and untrue characterizations, busted in Riccardi’s 2011 biography What a Wonderful World, would have him.
"The Real Ambassadors shows him at 60 years old, challenging himself in a way he had never previously done," Riccardi says. "He's learning really challenging original compositions by Dave and Iola Brubeck with tongue-twisting lyrics and deep emotion."
In the past two decades, The Real Ambassadors has taken on new resonance in academia, as typified by Hatschek's, Von Eschen's and Riccardi's scholarship. Over the decades, it was performed and celebrated a few more times — albeit not with the original participants, sans one performance with Dave. And with both a modern-day civil-rights struggle and the Cold War back in public consciousness, The Real Ambassadors oddly feels riper than ever in 2022.
"It's like a plant you think is dead because there's nothing on the surface, but it keeps putting up shoots in unexpected places," Darius observes. "It's because it contains truths that are sadly relevant a whole generation later."
But that sadness aside, your journey into the center of this lopsided musical artifact is guaranteed to bring a whole lot of joy. Because at the heart of it, beneath the layers of cultural significance, a simple directive powers this music, one that you don’t need to pick up a book to understand: blow, Satchmo.
Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry
Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation
The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.
“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”
The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:
National Recording Registry Selections for 2020
Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
“Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)
“Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)
“When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)
Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)
“The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945
“Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)
“Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)
Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)
“Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)
“Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)
“Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)
“Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)
“The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)
“Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)
“Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)
“Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)
“The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)
“Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)
“Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)
“Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)
“Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)
“Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)
“This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)
Sounds Of Change: Chris Stapleton Performs An Aching Version Of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World"
Shrouded in amber fog and accompanying himself on sonorous electric guitar, Chris Stapleton performed Louis Armstrong’s paean to a better Earth, "What A Wonderful World"
Featuring stars from Patti LaBelle to Andra Day to Gladys Knight, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" was a decades-spanning celebration of the iconic songs that inspired social change and left an everlasting imprint on music and history.
Stapleton accompanied himself on electric guitar, shrouded in amber fog, showing how the old chestnut easily transmutes into a variety of American idioms.
Watch the performance above and read a full recap of the event here.
SXSW Attracts Record Numbers
SXSW Attracts Record Numbers
The recently concluded 2010 South by Southwest Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas, attracted a record total of more than 13,000 industry professional registrants, according to Billboard.biz. The festival, which launched in 1987, featured performances from approximately 2,000 musical artists representing more than 40 countries, a slight .05 increase from last year's event. According to a previous report, SXSW 2009 injected approximately $100 million into the Austin economy. (3/25)
Music Matters Reinforces Value Of Music
Music Matters, a UK-based collective of artists, songwriters, labels and retailers, is educating consumers regarding the value of music, intellectual property and legal music consumption. The campaign includes educational video vignettes featuring artists such as Louis Armstrong, Kate Bush and Nick Cave, among others, and a digital certificate designed to help consumers identify legal music sites. The certificate is available across legal online music outlets supporting the campaign, including Amazon, iTunes, MySpace Music, and Spotify, among others. (3/25)
Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns
"Savoy Blues": 5 Facts About Louis Armstrong's Recording | GRAMMY Hall Of Fame
Explore how one track's sound helped mold the music scene more than 90 years after it was recorded
From 1925 through 1927, the original ensemble known as Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five made a series of recordings in Chicago that spread a new awareness of jazz as an art form. Like other new musical art forms, many listeners didn't find the sounds appealing, but for others it awoke a curiosity and a hunger for more. One such track, "Savoy Blues," has long been a favorite gem among these.
Inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2018, "Savoy Blues" joined two other Hot Five singles in the Hall, "Heebie Jeebies" (1926), which popularized scat singing, and "West End Blues" (1928). Composed by the band's trombone player Kid Ory, the track was recorded on Dec. 13, 1927, during the only Hot Five session to include Lonnie Johnson on guitar. Come in for a closer look with five facts that only begin to tell the story of what makes this track stand out.
1. Savoy's Chicago Namesake
"Savoy Blues" is indeed named after a Savoy Ballroom, but it's not the famous one in Harlem, New York. Armstrong celebrated Chicago's Savoy Ballroom, which opened in November 1927. It was the hot new place for jazz artists and Kid Ory immortalized it as the song's title, less than three weeks after it opened. The ballroom hosted a who's who of jazz artists of the day, but it also held events such as boxing, skating and basketball exhibitions.
2. Meeting Mrs. Louis Armstrong
Lil Hardin became one of the go-to pianists on the Chicago scene, including regular work with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. When Armstrong got the invitation from Oliver to come play cornet in Chicago in 1922, he and Hardin met. By 1924 the two were married. Not only did Hardin stay on as the pianist in his band, but Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five ensemble began practicing in 1925 in the house the couple shared on East 41st Street.
3. Who Were The Hot 5?
Armstrong and Hardin were joined by some of the best of all time for the 1927 Hot Five line-up, which included trombonist Kid Ory, clarinet player Johnny Dodds, banjo/guitarist Johnny St. Cyr, and guitarist Lonnie Johnson. The instrumental combination, complete with Hardin on piano and Armstrong on cornet/trumpet, drew from the classic New Orleans sound. In addition to their pioneering work with the Hot Five, these band members earned a pedigree in their own right, lending their sounds to their own bands or joining other notable ensembles, including King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers.
4. Soloists Take The Stage
In the opening bars of "Savoy Blues," Armstrong's solo performance power is interwoven with the Hot Five's inspired accompaniment. Those first powerful notes showed that instrumentalists could take the performance spotlight typically reserved for vocalists like those he had accompanied in the past such as Bessie Smith. Like the rest of his legendary Hot Five sessions, "Savoy Blues" moved away from the New Orleans style jazz and, as The Guardian wrote, "almost single-handedly transformed the music from a group art into a medium for the pioneering soloist."
5. A Lasting Legacy
"Savoy Blues" and the Hot Five sessions' influence could be felt in fellow jazz artists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby who each commanded the stage throughout their own influential careers. But Armstrong's work is also notable because his new sound and musical approach paved the way for the birth of entire genres that would follow. "You don't need to read around the subject," Jon Wilde writes in The Guardian. "You only need to listen to draw a straight line from Armstrong to Louis Jordan's Tympany Five to Fats Domino, Elvis and everything beyond."