Guest blog: Daniel Stein on Louis Armstrong earning a place on Time Magazine’s list of the 20 most influential Americans

by Emily on July 30, 2012

Daniel Stein, author of Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz, guest blogs about Time Magazine’s selection of Louis Armstrong as one of the twenty most influential Americans of all time and about an upcoming talk on Armstrong’s 1965 tour to East Germany.

A few days ago (July 24), Time Magazine announced its selection of the twenty most influential Americans of all time. Among Time’s “trailblazers, visionaries and cultural ambassadors who defined a nation” are U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, inventors and scientists like Alexander G. Bell, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Albert Einstein, and African American figures of public life like Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Only one musician and entertainer made the list: Louis Armstrong.

As Stanley Crouch writes in his appreciation, “the extent of [Armstrong’s] influence across jazz, across American music and around the world has continuing stature.” Crouch certainly has a point, as the growing number of Armstrong biographies indicates (most recently: Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Houghton Mifflin, 2009; Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Armstrong’s Later Years, Pantheon, 2011). These biographies cover Armstrong’s many concert tours throughout the world, while his cultural work as an American jazz ambassador during the first decades of the Cold War has been discussed very eloquently by Penny Von Eschen, professor of American Culture and History at the University of Michigan, in Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2004). Moreover, my chapter on “‘My Mission Is Music’: Armstrong’s Cultural Politics” in Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (University of Michigan Press, 2012) deals with the musician’s rediscovery of his African roots during his trips to Africa in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.

What many scholars, myself included, have not yet discussed at length are the ripples – and in some cases, the storm waves – that Armstrong’s visits to specific countries behind the Iron Curtain caused. Armstrong himself was fond of telling reporters that “a lot of them Russian cats jumped the Iron Fence to hear Satchmo, which goes to prove that music is stronger than nations” (“This Trumpet Madness,” Newsweek, Dec. 19, 1955), and he even suggested that “one day I’d like to slip behind the Iron Curtain! The summit meetings they have with all those ministers don’t seem to be getting anywhere much. Perhaps old Satchmo could achieve something with his trumpet at a little conference in the basement” (qtd. in Michel Boujut, Louis Armstrong, New York: Rizzoli, 1998, 60). These sentiments are very much present in the musical recording The Real Ambassadors (1962), which Armstrong did with his All Stars and the vocal ensemble of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, as well as Carmen McRae. Written by Dave and Iola Brubeck, the music and lyrics on this recording sought to revive Armstrong’s reputation as Ambassador Satch, which he had cultivated in the 1950s through recordings such as Ambassador Satch (released in 1956) and which had come under fire from civil rights activists, who saw more of an Uncle Tom than a cultural ambassador in Armstrong.

Most jazz historians and biographers tell the story of Armstrong’s international appearances from a predominantly American perspective. What European audiences, and especially audiences in the Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain, saw and heard when they encountered Armstrong on tour has remained largely unexplored. I will turn to this question in a talk titled “Onkel Satchmo Behind the Iron Curtain: The Politics of Louis Armstrong’s Visit to East Germany,” which will be part of a panel on “Jazz and the Voices of Empire and Resistance” at this year’s annual conference of the American Studies Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Nov. 18; fellow speakers will be Anthony James Ratcliff, Elliott H. Powell, Matthew B. Karush, with John Gennari as chair). My talk will focus on Armstrong’s concert tour through the German Democratic Republic in March 1965, which included much lauded concerts in cities like East Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, and Schwerin. This tour, I will propose, brought the hegemonic potential of American popular culture and its prominent role in the spread of the American model of consumer culture as an ideal form of democracy to the forefront of public discourse in Soviet-controlled East Germany. What is more, it complicated the political and cultural Cold War antagonisms between the United States and the Soviet Union by fostering intercultural exchange and interpersonal interaction between African American musicians and East German audiences. Finally, it allowed Armstrong and the members of his All Stars band to reflect critically on their difficult positions as black musicians still facing racial inequalities in the United States while officially endorsing a vision of democratic freedom and personal liberties behind the Iron Curtain, where these rights were not afforded to citizens and where jazz was frequently embraced as the sound of freedom (and thus generally suppressed by communist governments).

Armstrong’s tour resulted in many personal memories for those who had a chance to attend a concert, but it also produced interviews, concert reviews, and newspaper articles in the East German media as well as sound recordings of Armstrong’s six concerts at Berlin’s Friedrichstadtpalast. Many of these documents have flown under the radar of Armstrong scholarship, but they offer fascinating insights into the ways in which Armstrong’s good-natured persona resonated across national and ideological borders. If these documents are read in conjunction with the musician’s autobiographical reminiscences of the tour, a fuller understanding of Armstrong as a transnational icon will emerge. This understanding recognizes Armstrong not so much as an emblem of the American political system, but as an African American musician whose personal ethos was deeply grounded in a pre-WWI New Orleans notion of community and intercultural exchange rather than in the post-WWII ideology of American empire and political exceptionalism that jazz ambassadors like Armstrong were supposed to represent abroad. This, then, in addition to his wonderful music, great acting, and idiosyncratic writing, is why Armstrong deserves to be ranked among the twenty most influential Americans of all time.

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