Atlantic Cities

How Dave Brubeck Used His Talents to Fight for Integration

How Dave Brubeck Used His Talents to Fight for Integration
Wikimedia Commons

The Internet is abuzz with videos of Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist and composer who died today, a day short of his 92nd birthday.

His most famous piece, "Take Five," with its cascading melody and jaunty 5/4 time signature, became the first jazz record to sell a million copies, and has served as an introduction to the art form for millions of young Americans. In 1954, he became the first modern jazz musician -- and second overall, after Louis Armstrong -- to appear on the cover of Time magazine: "The joints are really flipping," it read.

Despite his talents, it was at times tempting to view this success through a racial lens. Brubeck was white; most of his peers were black. Black musicians -- to say nothing of black patrons -- were consistently spurned by the media, concert venues, and the recording industry, often living from gig to gig while their white colleagues enjoyed commercial acceptance.

But Brubeck was as aware as anyone of the advantages afforded to a white musician, and, like Benny Goodman before him -- another white musician at the helm of an integrated band -- he used them to fight for civil rights. He led his group through the South in the tumultuous years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Riders, refusing to compromise the group's identity for the prejudice of Jim Crow.

It was a theme of his career. When he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, his Wolfpack Band was the only integrated jazz group in the Armed Forces.

Like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, Brubeck was sent around the world on the State Department Jazz Tours, whose purpose was in part to counter the idea, widespread in the Third World and happily reinforced by the USSR, that the United States was a land of institutionalized racial prejudice.

Like Diz and Duke, he agreed to do so for the love of jazz, but the irony did not escape him: as black musicians were sent to spread American racial goodwill abroad, federal troops were necessary to desegregate Little Rock High. He and his wife Iola channeled those contradictions in their musical, The Real Ambassadors, whose only performance -- at Monterrey in 1962, featuring Louis Armstrong -- was, sadly, not filmed.

In the late 50s, riding the success of "Take Five," the Dave Brubeck Quartet was, alongside the Modern Jazz Quartet, the most famous jazz group in the country. It was also, thanks to the introduction of bassist Gene Wright, who is black, easily the best-known integrated act. (Wright is pictured above, with Brubeck, Joe Morello and Paul Desmond.) Yet despite their fame, the group was turned away from hotels even outside the South, in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and elsewhere.

But the worst trouble for the integrated band was in the segregated South. Even at university gigs, they required a police escort. A bomb had been thrown at a Louis Armstrong concert in Knoxville in 1957. ("That's a bomb," Armstrong quipped.)

In 1958, Brubeck's manager began to receive letters from Southern universities insisting that the Quartet drop Wright in order to perform. "We have no integration down here," the president of LSU told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It wasn't easy," Brubeck said in 2007, recalling the sense of danger, of being sought out for music but rejected as people. "And we went through many things."

Brubeck refused to compromise. He cancelled gigs at Georgia Tech, Memphis State, and elsewhere. He took a similar stand on the Bell Telephone Hour, a musical TV program, when the producers made a similar ultimatum. "I told him that we weren't going to change," Brubeck recalled. "And, they said, 'Well, then we can't have you.' And I said, 'All right, I'm not going to do your television show.' (Later, he refused $17,000 to play in South Africa under apartheid.)

"Jazz stands for freedom," Brubeck said. For him, it also stood for loyalty and principle.

In 1960, after colleges demanded again that Brubeck substitute a white bassist for Wright, Brubeck cancelled 23 of 25 dates on a tour of Southern universities, a decision that cost the group an estimated $40,000. (The average annual U.S. income at that time was around $5,000.)

Another time, also in the South, before a gym of college students whose enthusiasm was approaching a riot, the governor and the college president came to a last-minute agreement to allow the band to play. "Now you can go on with the understanding that you'll keep Eugene Wright in the background where he can't be seen too well," the governor said to Brubeck, making sure the bassist's mic was off.

But Brubeck had other ideas: "I told Eugene," he recalled in conversation with Hedrick Smith, "You gotta come in front of the band to play your solo." The crowd went crazy.

"Nobody was against my black bass player," Brubeck said. "They cheered him like he was the greatest thing that ever happened for the students."

"We integrated the school that night."

A few years later, Brubeck told Smith, the band returned to play those same gigs with no trouble.

Image: Don't Worry, via Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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