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Louis Armstrong: Civil rights activist in entertainer’s clothing

February 11, 2017 • Vistas

021217-LOUIS-ARMSTRONG.3Editor’s note: This is the second story in a four-part series on African-American musicians who made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. 

By Jim Shearer

Special to the Daily Record

A consideration of Louis Armstrong’s pioneering role in the Civil Rights Movement is a complex and sometimes controversial topic. While many have forgotten or simply overlooked his early achievements as a black entertainer, he has sometimes been viewed as an “Uncle Tom” performer by younger artists/activists, particularly in the later 1950s and ‘60s.

Today, much of that controversy has died out, and Armstrong is generally revered as an elder statesman of jazz in particular, as well as the entertainment industry in general.

In his career, Armstrong, who was a trumpeter, composer, singer and sometimes actor, had several hit songs, including “What a Wonderful World,” which was released in 1967 and again popularized in the soundtrack of the 1987 box office hit, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Among his “firsts,” Armstrong (1901-1971) was the first black artist to host his own network radio show, and he was among the first black artists to be prominently featured in major (read “white”) Hollywood motion pictures.

And this is where some of the controversy begins. Many of Armstrong’s early roles were demeaning, to say the least, and yet his performances always sparkle with a boundless joy that was one of his main trademarks as an entertainer. It was these performances, and Armstrong’s generally ebullient manor in public, that led some younger performers, such as Sammy Davis Jr. (a true pioneer in his own right to be sure), to label Satchmo as “Uncle Tom,” indicating that the roles he embodied were insulting to his race. Armstrong’s general (though mostly tacit) response seemed to always be, “Yes, but I was there.”

Interestingly, more than 60 to 70 years later, many of these early films are largely forgettable, but Armstrong’s performances remain stellar, though admittedly sometimes dated, representations of an artist at the very top of his game.

021217-ARMSTRONG-AT-AQUARIUM.3

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong performing at the New York Aquarium in 1946 (Photo courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb Collection).

As Armstrong’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, his manager (a “former” mobster named Joe Glaser who had worked for Al Capone) began billing Armstrong as “Ambassador Satch,” sending the artist around the world to perform. Then, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower set up a special fund to use American artists to present “American” values to the world in an effort to fight the rising Cold War against communism, and thus the formal Jazz Ambassadors program was born.

Along with Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and a “who’s who” list of other artists, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars began to barnstorm the world, representing the cause of America and the concept of democracy. It is interesting to note that most of these bands at the time featured mixed-race ensembles (and sometimes even women performing in roles other than band singer), thus further promoting America as the land of great equality.

While these artists were proud to represent their country, the irony was not lost on them that they were performing around the world in mixed race groups, while back in America they often could not be served in the same restaurant or stay at the same hotel. It seemed the U.S. State Department wanted to represent one reality to the world, while at the same time a very different reality existed back in the U.S.

This situation changed dramatically for Armstrong in 1957, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus refused to allow public school integration. At the time these events were unfolding, Armstrong was scheduled to give the first Jazz Ambassadors tour of Russia, taking jazz to the very heart of communism at the time. In protest, Armstrong canceled his State Department tour and said in a pubic interview that President Eisenhower should go to Little Rock himself, take those children by the hand and escort them into the school.

Eventually, Eisenhower did intervene, and Armstrong responded with a telegram to the president that read in part: “Mr. President. Daddy if and when you decide to take those little negro children personally into Central High School along with your marvelous troops, please take me along …” Armstrong’s bold stand, however, led to accusations of him being a communist, and there was a detailed FBI file kept about the artist for the rest of his life.

Perhaps the most telling aspects of Armstrong’s feelings on race were expressed directly through his music. Early in his career, he established Thomas “Fats” Waller’s song “Black and Blue” as a statement of protest, which he regularly used in his performances.

In the late 1950s, Brubeck and his wife created an extended work, titled “The Real Ambassadors,” that reflected on both the good and bad aspects of the Jazz Ambassadors program and the realities of race relations in America at the time. Much of the music was created to feature Armstrong, and over the strong protests of manager Joe Glaser, Armstrong undertook the project with gusto. The Brubecks created a song titled “Could God Be Black?” that contained the line, “… if all men are created in the image of the [i.e., black and white], could thou perchance a zebra be?” The line was intentionally written to be humorous and was expected to bring a big laugh from the crowd.

Brubeck tells the story of the first performance, however, as Armstrong delivered the line in tears, and the entire audience followed the artist into a completely unexpected moment of profound emotion. This controversial work was only performed a few times, but thankfully, a full studio recording of the material was preserved. You can hear Armstrong deliver the same line with powerful intensity on the commercial recording simply titled “The Real Ambassadors.”

Among the many tributes paid to Satchmo over the years, it may have been trumpet player Lester Bowie who best summed up Armstrong’s work as an early pioneer for civil rights. In a 1986 interview for Gary Giddins’ documentary “Satchmo,” which was part of the PBS “Masters of American Music” series, Lester Bowie said: “The true revolutionary in the street waving a gun is rarely effective … the police just arrest him. But no one pays much attention to the man who smiles at you and slips a little poison in your coffee.”

For Bowie, that was Armstrong at his best, bringing joy to all while being a subtle but relentless force for change.

Dr. Jim Shearer is a regents professor of music at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and also serves as principal tubist with the Roswell Symphony Orchestra. Shearer has toured the United States, Europe, South America and the Far East as a member of the NMSU Faculty Brass Quintet, El Paso Brass and the Eastman Wind Ensemble. He can be reached at jshearer@nmsu.edu.

Next week: Nat King Cole.

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