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by Larry Tye

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

Exuberant crowds in New Orleans had crowned Louis Armstrong the pretend King of the Zulus during Mardi Gras in 1949. But in 1960 when he visited the Belgian Congo, not far from the fountainhead of the Zulu people, the Congolese feted him like the real thing. Tom-tommers drummed a greeting reserved for tribal chiefs and hailed him as “Ambassador Extraordinary of the United States.” Grass-skirted tribesmen painted in violet and ochre carried him through the streets of Leopoldville on a homemade throne mounted on poles, a company of police and soldiers leading the way. His hosts had hoped to draw 1,500 people to his concert at King Baudouin Stadium, but so popular was Satchmo that 10,000 churning fans packed the stands. While they chanted “Satcheemo,” he shouted back, in wretchedly accented French, “Merci beaucoup, beaucoup.”

His proudest triumph during his twenty-four-hour trip defied even the power of diplomats and kings. As he told it, “There was fighting, and they stopped the war because I played there that night.” That wasn’t merely Satchmo telling tales. The Congo was embroiled in a deadly civil conflict, with civilians caught between rampaging troops. But as one headline hollered, “They Called Truce To Dig Louis.” The Associated Press trumpeted, ‘“Wizard’ Satchmo Unites the Congo!” The warring sides, the AP explained, “joined forces to provide a heavily armed cordon ‘round Satchmo and his party.” They actually danced and cheered side-by-side at that night’s concert, although they resumed their bloody fighting once Louis left the country.

Like many less-developed countries at the time, the Congo stood as a proxy in the bitter one-upmanship between the Soviets and Americans. The US government helped underwrite his trip because, as the New York Times wrote, it saw the trumpeter as “a secret sonic weapon.” An earlier piece in Africa’s Drum magazine quipped, “Satchmo Blows Up the World.” He, more than anybody, made the blue note into a universal musical language and demonstrated that hot jazz could thaw the Cold War. Africans were especially stirred by this famous African-American returning to the continent from which his ancestors had been dragooned onto slave ships. “No other American attraction could [possibly] elicit same goodwill and publicise our interests in this area!” one US ambassador in Africa wrote of Armstrong’s two-month swing across the continent. But as Moscow Radio warned at the time, and we now know was true, the CIA exploited his Congo visits to divert attention from a US-supported coup by strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and the confinement, torture, and eventual assassination of nationalist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Satchmo’s situation “was far more sinister than he could have possibly realised,” colonization scholar Susan Williams writes. “[Armstrong] would have been appalled to know that the man from the embassy with whom he dined was actually a CIA official who was cold-bloodedly plotting the death of the democratically elected prime minister.”

For Armstrong, every foreign trip manifest a further evolution of his sensibilities, grasp of world affairs, and sense of humor. Told in 1956 that the foreign ministers from the Big Four wartime powers were meeting in Geneva at the same time he was playing there, and that unifying Germany was high on their agenda, he quipped, “Why, man, we’ve already unified it. We came thru Germany playing this ol’ happy music, and if them Germans wasn’t unified, then this ain’t ol’ Satchmo talking to you.” In 1957, to the delight of the US government, his sixty-seven concerts in five Latin American capitals knocked the Soviet Sputnik splash off the front pages and magazine covers and made clear, as Variety reported, that “as a goodwill ambassador [Satchmoismo’s] tour was surefire.” Two years later, following his performances in Israel and Lebanon, the Egyptian press accused Ambassador Satch of spying for Israel, and Lebanon said he couldn’t come back. Satchmo: “I don’t read the Egyptian newspapers. I speak every language except Greek and what they’re saying is all Greek to me.”

Duke Ellington

The Ellington orchestra embarked on its first government-sponsored tour in 1963, part of a Kennedy administration charm initiative, and the timing was ideal. The State Department targeted countries in South Asia and the Middle East that were close enough to the Soviet Union to be jittery in the wake of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, especially Turkey, whose US-supplied Jupiter rockets Jack and Bobby Kennedy secretly bargained away in return for Russia removing its warheads from Cuba. The trip also came as US racial violence was again making headlines worldwide. First there were bombings and riots in Birmingham, then civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down, and that June Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, vowing, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” The jazzmen’s “kind of cultural diplomacy, soft propaganda, was one of the ways that the foundation was laid for the thaw in Cold War relations that took hold in the 1970s, even as it undermined the Soviet dictatorship by demonstrating the vitality of American culture,” said Charles Sam Coutney, a young foreign service officer assigned as Ellington’s escort in Turkey. Duke “wanted to contribute to a possible lessening of tensions in any way that he could.”

He did contribute, in ways the Foggy Bottom planners couldn’t have imagined. In Pakistan, the embassy reported that “no other American visitor except Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy received such a popular ovation from the press in recent years.” In Iraq, both shows sold out despite an ongoing coup that sent the city into curfew, saw air force jets attack the presidential palace, and interrupted phone service. As with Armstrong in the Congo, Ellington’s performances provided calm amidst the chaos and were, the State Department attested, the “one cultural event that had the power to suspend the curfew.” When journalists asked for an eyewitness account of the violence that would claim 250 lives, Duke lit a cigarette, then reported, “Those cats were swinging, man!”
Ellington eventually made two State Department trips to Africa and ones to Eastern Europe and South America, all of which would help him win a Presidential Gold Medal in 1966 for his “unofficial ambassadorial duties around the world.” His transcendent trip, however, wasn’t until 1971, to the Soviet Union, the hottest of hot spots. Again, the timing was fortuitous: a decade after Nikita Khrushchev had begun opening Russia to Western ideas and music, and a year before President Nixon, an Ellington fan, would travel to Moscow for a red-letter summit. While it was Ellington’s first visit to the USSR, he was already familiar to tens of millions of Russians, Ukrainians, and other Soviets, many of whom had been tuning in – for an hour a night, every night year-round, for nearly twenty years – to Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour over Voice of America radio. While Conover routinely aired tunes by Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, his opening theme song was Ellington’s signature, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Now lucky listeners got to hear and see him live. The Ellington band played in five cities from Moscow to Minsk, at venues ranging from 1,300 seats to 10,000. In Kiev, tickets were so hard to come by that the local police band decided, as one confided, to “put our uniforms on and then there was no trouble getting in.” The tour was “an immense success,” wrote Joe Presel, Ellington’s official embassy escort. “A success for the Ellingtons, most of whom genuinely enjoyed their stay in the USSR, a success for the Soviet State Concert Bureau which obviously made a great deal of money out of the tour, a success for the American Government, in that the audience reaction was extraordinarily good, that a top American presentation had performed well as cultural ambassadors and that there were no major incidents, and a success to those Soviet citizens, about 115,000 of them, who were able to see Ellington perform.”

The world was so embracing that Ellington, like Armstrong and Basie, considered not just visiting but living overseas. But all three were patriots and, despite the indignities they endured, they were too American to live anywhere else for long. Jazz, Duke told the world, was “the American Idiom,” and he demonstrated his stars-and-stripes spirit during World War II and after by performing at military bases, helping Uncle Sam peddle war bonds, and taping shows for Armed Services Radio. While any musician could do that, few could compose music that, like the freedom-loving anthems of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, was unmistakably spawned by and true to these United States. In Duke’s case, it grew out of a belief that the American promise of a more perfect union – one that included Blacks like him – was both possible and inevitable.

“That’s the Negro’s life,” he said. “Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part.”

Count Basie

Count Basie jetted around the world for thirty years but flew so far below the radar that his adventures got none of the fanfare of Duke’s and Satchmo’s. Like all comparably aged American men during World War II, the Count had to register for the draft. But like Ellington and Armstrong, Basie wasn’t called to fight. That’s likely because all three were too old, although for a brief time the upper age for draftees was raised to 45, which made all of them eligible. Yet whereas in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Armstrong said, “I’m ready willing and able,” Basie was more reticent. “Somebody kept trying to tell me everything was going to be all right because I’d most likely be brought in as a musician and wouldn’t have to do any fighting,” the Count wrote later. “I said I ain’t going to take all that training and stuff. I ain’t going out on them maneuvers jumping in foxholes with them goddamn snakes and things out there in them swamps. I said I wouldn’t, and I meant that. There was nothing they could do to me that was going to be worse than what them snakes were going to make me do to myself.”

He made up for that hesitancy by performing for GI Joes and reminding them of the cultural as well as political freedoms for which they fought. Even more, he brought an upbeat view of America to our friends overseas and to our foes. Hitler and his minions banned jazz, which they dubbed “nigger music,” and they especially loathed its Black performers and Jewish enablers. But forbidden fruit is always more tempting, and Basie became an underground

favorite. “The most esteemed members of the Nazi hierarchy were the Luftwaffe pilots and they were the ones that Hitler promoted as the Aryan ideal. But to Hitler’s consternation their favorite music was American jazz. They loved Count Basie. They didn’t want to listen to Nazi German beer hall songs,” said jazz historian Will Friedwald. “It’s just really, really ironic that, you know, the guys that Hitler valued the most loved African Americans and Jews and all the people that the Nazis were supposed to hate. During World War II, especially, Basie was the home front. Basie represented American culture.”

A decade after the war, the Basie band toured Europe, from France to Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. “They floored everyone, including myself,” recalled pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams of his Paris performance. “I couldn’t sit down during the concert, I couldn’t stop dancing.” The highlight of his overseas travels came in Britain in 1957. First, he dazzled the audience during a two-set performance at the Royal Festival Hall, attended by Princess Margaret and accomplished even though all the sheet music for the trip had been left behind in America. Margaret liked the early-evening, two-hour concert enough that she returned for a later performance where, as the press reported, “on more than one occasion, she led the applause.”

A State Department tour of Southeast Asia fourteen years later proved considerably less enjoyable. The Vietnam War was raging, and two stops – Burma and Laos – were too near the action for the Count’s comfort. “I was mostly just scared all of the time,” he recalled. “They were shooting at planes over there . . . I was in one of those little three-seaters, and you could sit back there and look down on where all that trouble was.” He was right to be afraid, but never followed through on his threat to abandon the tour. In the end, he said, “we found fans and made new friends at every stopover.” Many of those new fans and friends had actually been listening to him for decades over the Voice of America or Armed Forces broadcasts.

Jazz and the Cultural Cold War

Looking back now, we can see that in the middle of the last century Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie were acting as informal ambassadors for their country long before they were given more diplomatic roles, traveling to dozens of countries from Asia to Latin America and across Europe. At first, they sought only the artistic acceptance and lucrative paydays that eluded them in America. Over time, the State Department started picking up the tabs and setting itineraries that served political as well as musical objectives. They performed their foot-stomping jazz on both sides of the Iron Curtain for overflow audiences, taking their all-American music and riveting personal stories to listeners who couldn’t get enough. It made them international sensations and helped make chahss, as the Congolese called jazz, a world favorite and a lingua franca.

Duke, the Count, and Satchmo served the needs of the US government because they were patriots. There was pushback, but less from activists worried about Blacks artists being used to score propaganda points for a racist nation than from an old guard opposed to promoting Negro art and sinful music. During their foreign travels the music makers largely kept to themselves their feelings about the police dogs and water cannons that were battering fellow Negroes back home even as the world celebrated them as emblems of American inclusiveness. “The reason I don’t bother with politics is the words is so big that by the time they break them down to my size the joke is over,” was Armstrong’s sweet but disingenuous reply when overseas reporters pressed for his views, echoing Ellington and Basie’s deflections.

In more candid moments, all three let loose with what they really thought. In 1957, Duke traced the Soviet Union’s one-upping America in the race for space directly to “this racial problem.” Whereas Russia “doesn’t permit race prejudice . . . to interfere with scientific progress,” he wrote, “because so many Americans persist in the notion of the master race, millions of Negroes are deprived of proper schooling, denied the right to vote on who will spend their tax money and are the last hired and first fired in those industries necessary for the progress of the country . . . Everybody has to get in the game if we are playing to win.” The Count likewise made clear that he was traveling the world, even when he was wheelchair-bound, because it freed him from the racial vituperations back home.

Satchmo, whose role as a planetary plenipotentiary for jazz and for America earned him the new moniker of Ambassador Satch, was more direct. The US government could and should “put its foot down” to stop race troubles, he told reporters in Buenos Aires in 1957, “but, you know, the government is run by Southerners.” Photographer Lisl Steiner heard him go a surprising step further when she was taking pictures in his hotel room. The American ambassador to Argentina called to ask that Louis perform “The Star Spangled Banner.” “Mr. Ambassador,” the trumpeter said, “you can go and fuck yourself because I can’t even get a hotel room in Times Square!”

The State Department never tried to measure the cumulative impact of its cultural ambassadors, but journalists did, repeatedly, concluding that they presented American culture at its best, despite having experienced it at its worst. In the words of one, Louis Armstrong “has traveled more diplomatic miles than [then-Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles and has done more to further the case of American culture abroad than Walt Disney and Jane Mansfield combined.”End.


Larry Tye is a New York Times bestselling author whose most recent book is Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. This article is adapted from a chapter in his forthcoming book, The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Satchmo Armstrong and Count Basie Transformed America, to be published by HarperCollins. From 1986 to 2001, Tye was an award-winning reporter at The Boston Globe, where his primary beat was medicine. He also served as the Globe’s environmental reporter, roving national writer, investigative reporter, and sportswriter. In addition to his writing, Tye runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship, which helps the media do a better job reporting on critical issues like public health and pandemics, mental health, and the health impacts of climate change, and racial, ethnic and gender disparities in health care.



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