In January 1960, white jazz pianist Dave Brubeck made headlines for cancelling a twenty-five-date tour of colleges and universities across the American South after twenty-two schools had refused to allow his black bassist, Eugene Wright, to perform. This cancellation became a defining moment in Brubeck’s career, forever marking him as an advocate for racial justice. This essay follows Brubeck’s engagement with early civil rights–era protests, examining the moments leading up to Brubeck’s cancellation of his 1960 tour of the South. In doing so, I uncover new details in Brubeck’s steps toward race activism that highlight the ways in which Brubeck leveraged his whiteness to support integration efforts, even as he simultaneously benefited from a system that privileged his voice over the voices of people of color. While Brubeck has been hailed as a civil rights advocate simply for cancelling his 1960 tour, I argue that Brubeck’s activism worked on a deeper level, one that inspired him to adopt a new musical and promotional strategy that married commercial interests with political ideology. Brubeck’s advocacy relied on his power and privilege within the mainstream music industry to craft albums and marketing approaches that promoted integration in the segregationist South. Ultimately, this period in Brubeck’s career is significant because it allows deep consideration of who Brubeck spoke for and above, who listened, and for whom his actions as a civil rights advocate were meaningful.
In January 1960, white jazz pianist Dave Brubeck made headlines after twenty-two colleges and universities across the American South refused to allow his interracial quartet to perform. Initially, eleven of the schools backed out of their contracts with Brubeck upon learning that he and two other white musicians, saxophonist Paul Desmond and drummer Joe Morello, would be performing with African American bassist Eugene Wright. After Brubeck informed the remaining fourteen schools of Wright’s presence in his quartet, eleven more insisted Brubeck replace Wright with a white bassist, leaving only three willing to allow the integrated combo to perform. Brubeck refused to replace Wright, forgoing the $40,000 in revenue (worth nearly $400,000 today) he would have received had he instead performed with a white bassist. Representatives of the various schools insisted, one after the other, that their cancellations of Brubeck’s contracts were not based in prejudice, but on principle and policy. For the schools and their administrators, Brubeck broke his contract; for Brubeck, contracts requiring segregation had no legal or moral . . .