The Real Ambassadors (1962)
Music by Dave Brubeck, Lyrics by Iola and Dave Brubeck
The Real Ambassadors was first performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, in Monterey, California, on September 23rd, 1962, with the following cast:
Hero, Louis Armstrong
Girl Singer, Carmen McRae
Side Man, Trummy Young
CHORUS (ambassadors, priests, citizens)
Davey Lambert, John Hendricks, Yolande Bavan
NARRATOR, Iola Brubeck
BAND I (Modern)
BAND II (Traditional)
Musical Co-ordinator, Howard Brubeck
The Real Ambassadors Liner Notes can be viewed here in its entirety.
The Real Ambassadors was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Dave and Iola Brubeck, in collaboration with Louis Armstrong and his band. The jazz musical addressed many themes essential to the era, including the Civil Rights Movement, the music business, America’s role in the Cold War, and the nature of God. The story is set in a fictional African nation called Talgalla, with its central character based on Armstrong and his time as a jazz ambassador.
In writing this work, the Brubecks drew upon experiences they and their friends and colleagues had touring various parts of the world on behalf of the US State Department. The Brubecks and Armstrong (among many other musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington) were part of a campaign by the State Department to spread American culture and music around the world during the Cold War, especially into countries whose allegiances were not well defined or that were perceived as being at risk of aligning with the Soviet Union. Inspired by this, The Real Ambassadors was about the important role that musicians play as unofficial ambassadors for their countries.
Among the events referenced, directly or indirectly, were the 1956 student riots in Greece in which stones were thrown at the US Embassy, which dissipated following performances by Dizzy Gillespie; Louis Armstrong’s 1956 visit to Ghana as the guest of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah; and Armstrong’s dispute with the Eisenhower Administration and President Eisenhower personally over the handling of the 1957 Central High School Crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The musical’s soundtrack album was recorded in September and December 1961 in the Columbia Records recording studio on 30th Street in New York City, and was released the following year. It was produced by Teo Macero. Performers included Dave Brubeck and his band (including bassist Gene Wright and drummer Joe Morello, but not including saxophonist Paul Desmond); Louis Armstrong and his band (including trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Billy Kyle); vocalese group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; and vocalist Carmen McRae. Its most recent release was on compact disc on June 14, 1994, by Sony’s Legacy label.
The musical was performed in a cut-down version of 10 tunes, with Iola Brubeck narrating live, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962 by Brubeck and his band; Armstrong and his band; Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan; and Carmen McRae. Television cameras, though present, did not capture the performance. 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.
It was performed in New York City for the first time, in 2014, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, featuring original vocalist, 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. The Real Ambassadors was able to capture the often complicated, and sometimes contradictory politics of the State Departments tours during the Cold War Era. Addressing African and Asian nation building in addition to the US civil rights struggle, it satirically portrayed the international politics of the tour. The musical also addressed the prevailing racial issues of the day, but did so within the context of witty satire. Below is an excerpt of Armstrong’s opening lines to the piece “They Say I Look Like God”.
They say I look like God. Could God be black? My God! If all are made in the image of thee, Could thou perchance a zebra be? He’s watchin’ all the Earth. He’s watched us from our birth. And if He cared if you black or white, He’d a mixed one color, one just right. Black or white… One just right…
Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors, “They Say I Look Like God”.
Despite Iola Brubeck’s intention for some of her lyrics to be light and humorous in presentation, believing that some of the messages would be better received if presented in a satirical manner, Armstrong saw this performance as an opportunity for him to address many of the racial issues that he had struggled with for his entire career, and he made a request to sing the song straight. In one 2009 interview with Dave Brubeck, he remarked on Armstrong’s seriousness: “Now, we wanted the audience to chuckle about the ridiculous segregation, but Louis was cryin’… and every time we wanted Louis to loosen up, he’d sing ‘I’m really free. Thank God Almighty, I’m really free’.” After years of demeaning roles in his public performances, the collaboration in The Real Ambassadors offered Armstrong material that was closer to his own true sensibility and outlook.
The studio recording was finished in just one take, and everyone in the studio was “crying their eyes out” by the end of the performance. Armstrong’s straight performance of Iola’s lyrics, combined with Brubeck’s subtle piano and gorgeous background vocals performed by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross created a powerful, emotional musical experience for all involved.
Later, at the live performance of “The Real Ambassadors” with Armstrong at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival, Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan put sackcloths and hoods over their heads (which they lifted before singing) just before beginning “They Say I Look Like God”. The performance was not filmed, and Brubeck still regrets not having had the cash on hand to pay the festival’s $750 fee to record the performance, stating that it was a “terrible goof” that the live performance wasn’t filmed.
The Real Ambassadors Record Cover
1962 Monterey Jazz Festival Program