Thu.-Sun., July 30-Aug. 2
Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., 522-5730; www.fqfi.org
Jam Sessions: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World
Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., 568-6968; http://lsm.crt.state.la.us
Through Sept. 25
- Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
- Louis Armstrong plays outside a children's hospital in Cairo in 1961.
During sold-out European concert tours in the mid-1950s, Louis Armstrong earned the nickname "Ambassador Satch." His reception abroad helped inspire a successful goodwill diplomacy effort that sent America's top jazz musicians around the world, garnering new fans for jazz and American culture.
In conjunction with the Satchmo SummerFest (July 30-Aug. 1), a photography exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint documents Armstrong and fellow musicians' missions as "Jazz Ambassadors." Armstrong's international travels are the subject of several seminars at the festival's scholarly portion. Concerts and events also celebrate Satchmo's legacy.
Former Columbia Records producer George Avakian coined the ambassadorial nickname after journalists began referring to Armstrong as America's "new secret weapon," says historian Penny Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Columbia Records released recordings from that trip on an album titled Ambassador Satch, and Armstrong appeared on Willis Conover's radio show on Voice of America to promote it and talk about his travels.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union criticized American materialism, racism and inability to produce fine art comparable to its traditions in ballet and classical music. After noticing the success of Armstrong's European tours, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. suggested sending jazz musicians abroad to refute the criticisms. President Dwight D. Eisenhower embraced the idea and the State Department organized goodwill diplomatic missions of jazz musicians, dubbed "Jazz Ambassadors," to nations around the globe.
"Satchmo set the stage for Jazz Ambassadors," says Phoebe Jacobs, who serves on the advisory board for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York City. "He was the first international icon in the '30s, the first role model; he opened the doors."
The official "Jambassadors" tours started with Dizzy Gillespie in 1956 and expanded to include other jazz icons such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. The tours were a hit with foreign government officials and citizens alike.
Armstrong's visit to Ghana in 1956 was cause for temporary cessation of a civil war so people could hear him play in a soccer arena. One photo famously captured Armstrong carried through the streets on a makeshift throne.
"His presence was monumental," Jacobs says. "Everybody loved him. The prime minister invited him, but the people had to love him to keep him there."
"Armstrong was the perfect ambassador," says Robert O'Meally, former director of Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies. "Satchmo could relate well to everybody. He transcended the use the State Department had for him because he was so much greater than people realized."
Armstrong's visit was so popularly embraced in Ghana the government feared riots might break out due to the massive crowds he drew. But he made a personal impact as well, O'Meally says. Armstrong sang "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?" in front of then Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, who was moved to tears by the double entendre about discrimination and violence.
"He was an electrifying and life-changing artist," O'Meally adds. "That's why he's still remembered as a savior."
Armstrong was the first jazz musician asked to go behind the Iron Curtain, Jacobs says. But back in the U.S. during the desegregation struggle in the American South, Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., refused to admit nine African-American students. Armstrong watched in disbelief as the federal government refused to intervene. He made national news when he spoke out against Eisenhower, and he declined the invitation to represent America in a tour to the Soviet Union.
"He couldn't respect a country that embarrassed him and wouldn't let in black children," Jacobs says. "His wife told me that she had never seen him cry until this happened. He was a fierce, passionate American, and civil rights was important to him."
Segregation wasn't just a problem in public schools. A New Orleans performance went sour when the venue wouldn't allow him to perform with an integrated band.
"He loved New Orleans and adored his city, but after that, he wanted to leave for good," Jacobs says. For the greatest portion of his life, Armstrong made his home in Queens, N.Y. "He said, 'Piano keys are black and white, so that's what you need to make good music.'"
Many subjects in Armstrong's music and life will be discussed at the Satchmo SummerFest. O'Meally will discuss the history of the Jambassador missions and the photography exhibit Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World, which runs through Sept. 25.