A View from Glen Hill: Dave and Iola's everlasting love

The Brubeck family and many friends gathered from around the country and indeed the world for Iola Brubeck’s memorial service in St. Matthew’s sanctuary earlier this week. The service radiated a family’s love across the generations for Iola as wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother — the strong nurturing presence for all, even as she was also a powerful artistic force working with Dave in a close partnership of bold vision and creative energy.

Performing in the musical portions of the service with sons Chris, Dan, and Darius were some of those who have worked most closely with the Brubeck family: guitarist and vocalist Joel Brown, conductor Russell Gloyd, vocalists Cynthia McCorkindale and Diane Mower, and saxophonist Paul Winter.

Family members and friends offered remembrances. Elana Barnes spoke movingly of her grandmother’s wit and intelligence and her role as “the backbone” of Dave’s career, both “his biggest fan and biggest critic.” And Russell Gloyd, Dave’s producer and manager for 37 years, offered an example of the latter as he described how Dave and he would labor together at the Brubecks’ dining room table on Millstone Road long and in much detail over a difficult musical passage only to deliver it to Iola for her review and have it returned a half-hour later distinctly improved.

Iola was a student radio producer excelling in her liberal arts studies at the College of the Pacific when she and fellow student Dave met. He asked her to marry him at the end of their first date. She could have had her own professional career, but she chose instead to devote herself to what she viewed as her “best contribution to the world”: tending the garden of her family, nurturing and shaping each member — as her daughter Catherine eloquently expressed it.

In the lean, early years of Dave’s career, Iola immersed herself in that nurturing work, all the while accompanying Dave and his quartet around the country with a growing family in tow. Their eldest son, Darius, then a young boy, described this time on the road in lyrical terms, but he also freely acknowledged that it included long stretches living in hotels with the bottom drawer of their bedroom dresser serving as younger brother Chris’s crib. Staying in a hotel right next to, for example, a major railroad switching yard in Pittsburgh was young Darius’s dream location, with powerful locomotives moving past at all hours, but not so much for his parents.

During this time on the road, Iola followed up on her idea of writing to students’ organizations on college campuses across the country to seek to promote gigs for Dave and his quartet. Thus Dave and Iola worked together assiduously and methodically to build a devoted young following for him. Then in November of 1954, Dave made the cover of Time magazine and the rest is history. And what a history!

From the outset, Dave and Iola were determined they would do all in their power to fight racial segregation. So Dave had an integrated quartet and would not play in segregated venues. He and Iola also co-wrote the jazz musical The Real Ambassadors, about racial and social justice. It premiered in 1962 with Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae in the leading roles, and Iola used her acting experience to serve as its narrator. The musical was most recently performed earlier this month on the stage at Lincoln Center as part of a weeklong celebration of the Brubecks’ work. In a time when racial segregation was the order of the day, the Brubecks not only envisioned a better world but did all in their enormous artistic power to bring that vision to reality.

On the road traveling from club to club, Iola and Dave envisioned a professional life for Dave with family at its center and then worked together with enormous intellect and determination to create that reality. Wilton became their home base with the beauty of nature all around yet the world only a drive away to the airport.

Dave wrote a paean to Iola a half-dozen years ago, adding lyrics to his earlier instrumental piece: “For Iola I will sing … all the cheerful joy that she can bring … A greater gift could never, ever be. I thank the Lord for sending you — love to last eternally.” That love and joy extended from them not only to their family and their many friends but also to a world so much in need of love and joy. It will continue to do so through the ages.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.