Dave Brubeck, right, and Eugene Wright, on the bass, played with the quartet in Copenhagen in 1961. (Lennart Steen/JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images)

Dave Brubeck’s fight against segregation

Dave Brubeck, born in the Bay Area in 1920, was a wildly popular jazz pianist in the 1950s and 60s, best known for his jaunty, oddly-metered song “Take Five,” included on the first jazz album to ever sell a million copies.

Brubeck, a white man, recognized that his success stood in contrast to that of many Black jazz musicians, whose paths were impeded by racial animus from the media, concert venues, and the recording industry.

He became a forceful opponent of discrimination, famously canceling a tour of Southern colleges in 1960 after they demanded he swap out his Black bassist, Eugene Wright. The decision cost the group $40,000. “That was a blow,” Brubeck later told an interviewer, “because I needed that work at that time.”

Two years earlier, in 1958, when Wright was a new addition to the band, Brubeck’s quartet came to East Carolina University in North Carolina at the invitation of students. During a sound check, an administrator caught sight of Wright.

“What’s he doing here?” he said.

“He’s my bass player,” Brubeck responded.

Informed of a university policy barring Black performers, Brubeck refused to go on without Wright. They came to an impasse. As the concert was delayed, students in the packed auditorium began pounding their feet. The university president, John Messick, phoned the governor.

“We don’t want another Little Rock,” Messick said, referring to the segregation standoff that had unfolded in Arkansas just five months earlier. The band could play, he told Brubeck finally, but only on the condition that Wright stay in the background. Brubeck agreed, lying.

Early in the show, the pianist brought Wright up front to the announcer’s mic, where he played a solo that sent the crowd into a frenzy. “We integrated the school that night,” Brubeck said.

That’s hardly an exaggeration. The performance so galvanized the students that they pressured the university trustees into reversing the ban on Black performers. East Carolina’s first Black student was admitted four years later.

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