Growing up in the ’70s, I hated what seemed to me Louis Armstrong’s antebellum Uncle Tom antics. My opinion of Armstrong changed when I saw the brilliant 1956 documentary Satchmo the Great, featuring Edward R. Murrow, at Howard University in the early ’80s. Then and now, I was interested in black jazz artists who served officially and unofficially as cultural ambassadors, from Sidney Bechet to Dizzy Gillespie.
Murrow said, with reference to the Cold War, “America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key.” The documentary, which yielded a soundtrack of the same name, captures Armstrong’s historic May 1956 State Department trip as goodwill ambassador to Accra, the West African capital of the British Gold Coast colony, just before its emergence as capital of Ghana. Those writers who subscribe to the notion that jazz and African Americans have little or no connection to the Motherland, might have been surprised by the mutual admiration displayed by Armstrong and the Ghanaians, who played a spirited version of the Afro-Carib folk tune “Sly Mongoose” renamed for the occasion “All for You, Louie.” Armstrong delivered a heartfelt rendition of Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue” to the teary-eyed future prime minister Kwame Nkrumah, a jazz fan from his days at Pennsylvania’s all-black Lincoln University. After his concert, in a soccer stadium before 100,000 people, Armstrong called his first homeland sojourn the “second most exciting night of my life.” (The first had occurred when Joe King Oliver summoned him to join his band in Chicago.) Years later, he remarked, “After all, my ancestors came from here and I still have African blood in me.”
Armstrong was unquestionably a proud American, but no one could accuse him of being used as an unwitting prop for U.S. propaganda. He publicly criticized President Eisenhower for refusing to send troops to Little Rock in 1957, to protect black students who were trying to desegregate Central High School. During a gig in North Dakota, Armstrong declared that “the government can go to hell.” He also said that “Eisenhower’s got no guts,” and called Arkansas’s Governor Faubus “a fool” and “an uneducated ploughboy.” He canceled his State Department tour that year and had to endure cancellations as well as an attempted boycott of his recordings and appearances, called for by New York newspaper columnist Jim Bishop. When Eisenhower did send in troops, Armstrong praised the president’s actions. In a letter to the White House, he wrote, “If you decide to walk into the schools with the colored girls, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”
Armstrong’s State Department tours resumed, and he traveled to South America that same year, then performed in Western Europe and privately toured Egypt in 1959. In 1960, as the fever of independence engulfed the continent, he visited Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Togo, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Congo, and the Republic of Congo, later renamed Zaire. It was in the former Belgian colony’s main city, Leopoldville (renamed Kinshasa), that Armstrong’s Dippermouth diplomacy was put to the test. The young charismatic leader, Patrice Lumumba, had been assassinated a few days before Armstrong’s arrival, and his supporters were warring with the opposition forces led by future dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. With the country engulfed in civil war, Armstrong entered Leopoldville as a peacemaker and was welcomed by the Congolese. Several ancestrally clad young men carried the trumpeter atop their shoulders like a king. Armstrong later performed in that city’s soccer stadium, with the warring factions sitting side by side, cheering the brother from New Orleans. After he left, the fighting resumed. South Africa refused to admit Armstrong.
For this writer, Armstrong’s grins now take on a different meaning. His smiles and gestures project an affirmation of the humanity and history of all Americans—particularly the black, brown, and beige ones—to the world. He did that not through the empty tailored-for-the-evening-news rhetoric many of my ’60s and ’70s cohorts identified as power, but with the force of enduring art. The Ewe people of Ghana have a proverb that puts it another way: Shouting furiously is not strength.
More articles in this week’s Voice Jazz Supplement.