Iola Brubeck, a Christmas Woman

Iola Brubeck, wife of famed jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, was featured in Sisters in Song.  Since its publication, she died of cancer in March, 2014.  My book didn’t give justice to the great contributions she made to Christian music using the jazz genre.  Let’s give her another try.

Iola Whitlock was born in 1923 in Corning, California where her father was a forest ranger.  After graduating as valedictorian of her high school, she enrolled at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton studying drama and radio production.  It was there that she met Dave Brubeck and they married in 1942.  While he was shipped out to the European Theater in WWII, she honed her management skills and knowledge of jazz by working in radio. Their 70 year marriage was fruitful both personally and musically.  Though they started out dirt poor, literally living for a while in a tin shack with a dirt floor and washing in a nearby stream, she propelled Dave’s career.  In 1950, she developed one of the country’s first courses in jazz appreciation at the University of California at Berkeley.   Iola lectured while Dave, who was shy, played the piano.  This brought them $15 a week and started Iola’s role as lyricist.  She suggested that his newly formed quartet do concerts at college campuses.  She wrote to every college on the West Coast.  Her work as manager, booker and publicist launched Dave’s career.  She also was Dave’s chief librettist and lyricist.   By the mid 1950s, they were doing well. As champions of racial justice they refused to play at colleges where black musicians were treated differently.   In 1958, the State Department sent them on a people to people cultural exchange tour of Eastern Europe, the first time jazz musicians were used as emissaries of the U.S. behind the Iron Curtain.  Four years later, Dave and Iola co-wrote a musical, The Real Ambassadors starring Louis Armstrong, a reaction to racial segregation in the U.S.  It premiered in 1962 at the Monterrey Jazz Festival to critical acclaim, but it never reached Broadway.

As time went on, she collaborated with Dave on several oratorios and cantatas, including La Fiesta de la Posada (Festival of the Inn) in 1975.  Included within this Christmas Choral Pageant is “God’s Love Made Visible.”  In a PBS interview, Dave said, “My wife was driving, and I said, ‘I’ve finished this (La Posada).’ And she said, ‘No, you haven’t finished it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what did I leave out?’ And she said, ‘God’s love made visible. He is invincible.’”   Her lyrics resonate well with me, from the very title of the piece to the emphasized phrase, “His love shall reign.”  Though it could be sung any day of the year, it is still a Christmas song for a Christmas pageant, as it declares, “Open all doors this day of his birth.”