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THE REAL AMBASSADORS – LIVE, AT LAST!

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During April 2014 Jazz At Lincoln Center presented a TRIBUTE TO DAVE BRUBECK.  His family participated as well as guests playing his music.

Amongst the gems was a longtime fave of mine called The Real AmbassadorsOriginally on vinyl, later a CD, this 1961 loosely sketched bauble with lyrics and libretto by Iola Brubeck was supposed to be headed for Broadway but backers evaporated for what might have become a controversial show..

The live presentation at JALC was only the second time it was aired anywhere.  The first was in Monterey in 1962.  It was loosely based on the fact the Armstrong, no small thanks to his manager Joe Glaser, had already garnered the sobriquet “Ambassador Satch” for his friends-making tours overseas.

The original cast were Louis Armstrong and His All Stars featuring Trummy Young’s vocals, the composer Brubeck and his famous trio –the quartet sans Paul Desmond– Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross of the L-H-R singing troupe, and Carmen McRae.  The limited playing time of the lp format left it woefully incomplete, as we were to find out.  And it remains thus with now-released outtakes nowhere to be found.

The well-rehearsed albeit a bit stiff JALC cast of –Peter Martin, Music Director, piano; Roberta Gamborini and Brian Owens, vocal soloists; Vivian Sessoms, Russell Graham, Ty Stephens, vocals; James Zollar in the unenviable position of replacing Armstrong –who can?– trumpet; Ulysses Owens, drums; Robert Hurst, bass; Yolande Bavan –who later replaced Ross in the L-H-R vocalese group– was the narrator reading Iola Brubeck’s libretto– did yeoman efforts to flesh out this incomplete yet masterful work.  Brubeck’s longtime friend and manager Russell Gloyd served as creative adviser as both Dave and Iola left us.

As the Playbill Notes by Will Friedwald reminded us there had been some alterations to the original tunes.  Brubeck’s “The Duke” became “You Swing Baby”; “I Didn’t Know Till You Told Me” was based on his “Curtain Time”; “Nomad” found its way to the Eurasian album; another familiar phrase and line became “In the Lurch.”  And the longest-lasting “hit,” “Summer Song” came along in 1956.  In all there were pitifully fewer tracks on the lp; the CD came closer with 20.

In the well-oiled JALC production of a fabled political cabinet presuming control of a Caribbean Island prior to the “real” ones showing up you needed the libretto to explain things and move the narrative along.  Not that it mattered; the music spoke for itself.  And if you remembered the original recording you smiled knowledgeably sharing the insiders’ view.

As the Brubecks explained in the film “Satchmo” it was Armstrong who changed things around turning a light moment into a serious one intoning a line “Could God Be Black?” giving it new meaning, “Could God Perhaps A Zebra Be?”  After all, the bible says we were created in His/Her image.

I was sitting in the same row as Annie Ross glancing over at her periodically.  She seemed misted over.  I asked her immediately afterwards what she thought about not being up on the stage and she offered me some boilerplate that she enjoyed seeing it again.  On a more recent occasion I had the fortunate opportunity to spend a bit more private time with her.  She then offered that she found the entire piece a bit sketchy.  She claimed she didn’t have much input but you can hear her prominently vocalizing background spots.

As I mentioned above there are outtakes which have surfaced.  There is a repeated couplet at the conclusion of “Good Reviews,” a cutesy take on jazz musicians who only read critics’ good reviews.  After a few rhymes, McRae sings, “Who reads every bit of all that well-worn s—?” Armstrong interrupts her good-naturedly with the stern rebuke of “Carmen!”

The JALC presentment as important as it was to be performed live could have used more of that humor.

© arnold jay smith June 2014


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