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Springfield Regional Opera Presents Missouri Premiere of "The Real Ambassadors"

(Poster design courtesy Springfield Regional Opera)

Springfield Regional Opera will provide a rare opportunity next Friday, June 4th, at the Gillioz Theatre, with their one-night-only Missouri premiere performance of “The Real Ambassadors,” the jazz musical written early in the civil-rights era by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola, with the collaboration of another iconic jazz figure, Louis Armstrong.  Playing the Armstrong-inspired character “Pops” in SRO’s performance will be bass-baritone Dr. Todd Payne of the Missouri State University music faculty. He, and SRO Business and Education Director Sean Spyres, joined us on KSMU’s “Arts News.”             

There have been scattered productions of “The Real Ambassadors” since its 1962 debut—and Dr. Payne has been involved with four of them—but it began, and has largely survived, as an original-cast studio recording released by Columbia Records in 1962.  “It’s virtually unknown,” said Sean Spyres. “Even people who like Brubeck and like jazz music, they don’t know about this work.”

One reason for its obscurity was that, besides the LP, there was only one live performance of the original production starring Louis Armstrong, at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival in California.  The Brubecks intended for “The Real Ambassadors” to go to Broadway, but it never made it.  Dave Brubeck “ran into some challenges” in trying to mount this show on Broadway during the civil-rights era, according to Dr. Todd Payne. “Some people didn’t think it was appropriate for Broadway.” It finally made it to New York in a performance by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2014, thanks to the efforts of Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis.

Springfield Regional Opera will provide what they call a “concert performance” of “The Real Ambassadors” on June 4 at the Gillioz, but as Sean Spyres noted, “the idea of this musical is that it normally takes place in a  small jazz club, so it’s a small, intimate” kind of show. 

Todd Payne described the plot. “You have a narrator who comes in and reads information about what ‘The Real Ambassadors’ is and where it takes place. In the story, Louis Armstrong is called ‘Pops’, and basically it’s a story around who Louis was—what was his life like as a musician out on the road. And so the narrator will read a script regarding the play, and singing will follow.”

“The Real Ambassadors” is not a straightforward biography or docudrama about Armstrong—it’s set in a fictional African nation called Talgalla.  It should be remembered that Armstrong was appointed America’s first “Jazz Ambassador” by the U.S. State Department in a program begun in 1956, along with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and other American jazz artists—including Dave and Iola Brubeck themselves.  “There were a lot of jazz musicians who were sent out by the State Department, thus the title ‘The Real Ambassadors,’” said Sean Spyres. “They were ambassadors for the United States. I mean, we’ve got jazz here, nobody else had it. ‘Everybody—hey, people behind the Iron Curtain!  Check this out!!’ But the other interesting thing about the production is, when Dave and Iola Brubeck wrote this, it was for progressives. This was for people who were in the know and thought that segregation was ridiculous. And it was kind of done in a tongue-in-cheek manner. But after the studio album, when they were ready to perform it in front of an audience, Louis (Armstrong) really wanted to make it true. He said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna play this straight, it needs to be played straight.’ And that’s the way they went with it, not tongue-in-cheek in any way, because he had things that he had experienced as possibly the only black performer for decades that was accepted by white culture. This was something that he insisted upon, and it really made this musical what it is.” Todd Payne added, “And that’s why, some of the numbers that you will hear—for instance, there’s a number called ‘Lonely.’ And there’s no singing, there’s just music, and Louis Armstrong narrating. And the first thing he says is, ‘All my life I’ve been lonely. I go way back in my past.’ So to me, that’s him being ‘real.’”

The show calls for a 6-piece jazz band, and SRO will bring the Steve Jones Sextet, a group of jazz professors from Texas Tech University, to Springfield to perform in the show. Dr. Todd Payne plays “Pops”, Johnnie King is the “Singer” (all the characters have generic archetypal names or titles), and there’s a vocal trio inspired by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, played by Dawn Zahralban, Isaiah Bailey and Robert Gibson. “They’re doing all the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross stuff, and it’s fast, it’s fun, with tight harmonies,” said Sean Spyres. Acting as the Narrator is Ruth Barnes, Coordinator of the Bachelor of Fine Arts Dance program in the Missouri State University Theatre and Dance Department. Spyres said he believes Iola Brubeck was the original Narrator in the Monterey Jazz Festival production of 1962, so he selected Barnes because he “wanted a sure voice, who would really look at this text and spend time with it. And Ruth has been wonderful.”

Dr. Payne talked about portraying Louis Armstrong onstage for what is now his fourth production of “The Real Ambassadors.” “The first time that I performed it,” he said, “was in Memphis, Tennessee about four or five years ago. It was a collaboration between Opera Memphis and Rhodes College, during their ‘Jazz Week.’ The department head at Rhodes College had asked me, would I consider this role. And of course, when I was awarded it, I got the music, I had a recording from the 2014 (Jazz at Lincoln Center production). And I learned it. But I didn’t know a lot about Louis Armstrong. I have a great friend who taught jazz at a community college, and he taught a class on Louis. And I just called him and said, ‘Can you give me some information on Louis?’ And he said, ‘Well, how long do you have?’ So I basically had to learn about Louis through the music at that time, because I only had about two, three months to learn it. So we performed it at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, Tennessee, but it was in a small lounge area in the Playhouse, which I thought was really nice and really intimate. But what was nerve-wracking for me at the time was that all of Dave Brubeck’s children were sitting on the front row! And I thought, ‘This is not the time to mess up!’”

Given Louis Armstrong’s familiar gravelly voice, Dr. Payne didn’t feel comfortable trying to directly imitate it. “I didn’t try to sing like Louis Armstrong,” he said. “Being an opera singer, I don’t think that would go well on my voice, I wouldn’t want to do that to myself for too long. But the Brubeck family really appreciated my interpretation of Pops. And so, as I always tell my students, the more you sing a song, the more you go through a role, the more you learn about it. So, this being my fourth time doing the role of Pops, I’m excited, because it’s as if all of those words that I’m singing, now they’re much deeper—they have a personal meaning to me.” He said he now feels much more comfortable in Pops’s skin. “Oh, yes, I get to do some scatting too! I can’t wait.”

Sean Spyres said this production would not be taking place were it not for Dr. Payne’s participation. “Todd had told my brother (SRO Artistic Director Michael Spyres) about it two years ago.”  During the pandemic, Michael’s thriving international career as a leading operatic tenor was on hold. “Mike was just home for a long time, and the pandemic was going on, and ‘Black Lives Matter’ and all the protests. And Mike was like, ‘Okay, this is the time to do this.’ And we had to push it back a little bit, but we’re so glad to be able to do it. And we got the blessing from the Brubeck estate because they had seen Todd. It’s going to be real special.”

Spyres turned to Dr. Payne while we were on the air and said, “You could probably call them (the Brubecks) right now!” “Oh, I called them up last Saturday,” said Payne. “We were rehearsing and one of my colleagues had a concern about some music. And I thought, ‘You know what, guys…?’ And I don’t try to brag about this or anything, but I picked my phone and I called. Chris Brubeck (Dave and Iona Brubeck’s son, a composer/performer/educator in his own right) picked up the phone. And I said, ‘Chris, this is Todd, how are you? Did I catch you at a bad time?’ ‘Oh no, Todd, I’m just out here at my granddaughter’s softball game,’ and he took a moment to answer my question!”  Dr. Payne’s personal connection with the Brubeck family provides SRO’s production of “The Real Ambassadors” with an extra authenticity.

Will there be an online streaming option in addition to the live performance on June 4th? According to SRO’s Sean Spyres, “We’re going to have an option for the week after. We want to get a good (video) recording of this, because there is no good video that exists of this. And we are still working with the Brubeck estate on how we might be able to distribute that. Again, you can find the (1962) album (now a CD reissue), but it’s still not well-known.”

“The Real Ambassadors” will take the stage at the Gillioz Theatre, 325 Park Central East, Friday June 4 at 7:30pm. Tickets range from $35-$45 and are available at the Gillioz box office, 863-9491 or at Masks and social distancing will still be required of audience members, and concessions will not be available for this performance. SRO’s Sean Spyres said they “decided to stick with that” because the production was scheduled well before the recent lifting of the local COVID-19 mask mandate. However, he said balcony seating in the Gillioz will be opened up “because ticket sales are going so well. So if you want to attend this, I would get tickets right away.”