Everybody recognizes Dave Brubeck's recording of "Take 5," with its enticing two-chord vamp and bluesy, sax-driven melody. Not only is it the best-selling jazz single in history, for many years it was the frequently repeated theme for NBC's Today show. But Brubeck's career was long, and his catalog runs deep, as this week's Brubeck Festival will show with performances of the late composer's sacred and classical works, in addition to a jazz concert by his sons and a concert musical called The Real Ambassadors, which was originally developed as a collaboration with Louis Armstrong and his band.
Like most music fans, conductor, professor, and pianist William Skoog came to know Brubeck by way of his jazz recordings and performances. Then, as Skoog's career evolved in a more classical direction, he discovered a "marvelous compendium" of choral and orchestral works.
"People don't know that he wrote these major oratorios," says Skoog, who became personally acquainted with Brubeck as the result of his interest in the lesser-known work. Skoog also conducted one of Brubeck's major works for the Rhodes College Master Singers, which led to a relationship with the composer's son Darius, and eventually to the creation of Memphis' Brubeck Festival 2016.
"A lot of people don't know this, but Dave was a major civil rights activist in his lifetime," Skoog says, relaying the story of how, in the 1950s, Brubeck, then the leader of an integrated ensemble, refused to play the Monterey Jazz Festival because of a "whites only" rule. The Real Ambassadors is a loose retelling of the Louis Armstrong story with an emphasis on "cultural exchange" and how doors opened to the great jazz "ambassador" remained closed and locked for other African Americans.