March marked the 50th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s historic tour behind the Iron Curtain, as the Soviet bloc was then called. The second stop on the tour was East Berlin, where, on March 22, 1965, he and his All Stars played a memorable two-hour concert. The concert was broadcast on German television and radio; a few years ago, a condensed version found its way to YouTube. More recently, the Louis Armstrong House Museum got ahold of the entire thing, and on Thursday, it held a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
Armstrong was at the height of his popularity in 1965; the year before, his single “Hello, Dolly!” had replaced the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” at the top of the charts. He was a little like Muhammad Ali would become decades later — an African-American icon who was internationally known and universally beloved, though more so abroad than in his own country. During his stay in East Berlin, Armstrong was actually able to cross over into West Berlin without any papers, an unheard of event.
“Satchmo,” one of the guards said excitedly upon seeing him. “This is Satchmo!”
It didn’t matter that Armstrong’s recordings were nowhere to be found in East Germany. The concert hall was packed, and the crowd was ecstatic. Several times, the East Germans started clapping as soon as they heard the first few bars of a song — making it clear that they already knew it.
There were two subplots surrounding Armstrong’s East Berlin concert, which I want to dwell on here.
The first was the role jazz played during the Cold War. Starting in the mid-1950s, the State Department began sending jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Armstrong on tours abroad as good-will ambassadors. Part of the rationale was that jazz was a uniquely American art form that could show off the best of American culture, just as the Russians used ballet troupes to show off their culture. The government also thought that these artists, most of them black, might, by their presence, help diffuse “the widely shared sense that race was America’s Achilles’ heel internationally,” as Penny M. Von Eschen writes in “Satchmo Blows Up the World,” her book about the jazz tours.
The State Department sent the musicians to Cold War hot spots all over the world. Everywhere they went, their music was received enthusiastically. It was great music, to be sure, but it also often represented “things that were culturally forbidden” in repressive regimes, says Dan Morgenstern, the jazz historian. At the height of the jazz tours, The New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a State Department meeting: “This is a diplomatic mission of the utmost delicacy,” the caption read. “The question is, who’s the best man for it — John Foster Dulles or Satchmo?” Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola, even wrote a musical celebrating Armstrong’s international forays, called “The Real Ambassadors.”
The second subplot involved timing: The East Berlin concert took place just weeks after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala. In 1957, Armstrong had been one of the few black stars to speak out when Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas called out the National Guard to block black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. Eight years later, Armstrong spoke out again. Asked for his reaction to the attack on the Selma marchers, he replied that he became “physically ill” watching it on television, and that if he had been marching the police would have “beat me on the mouth.” Then he added, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”
The East German reporters, hoping to get a similar reaction, peppered him with questions about race relations upon his arrival. But he wouldn’t go there. Although his Iron Curtain tour was not State Department sponsored, one gets the sense that he didn’t want to bad-mouth America while in a communist country, that to do so in the middle of the Cold War would be disloyal somehow. At a news conference a few days before the concert — a clip of which was shown at the screening the other night — he sat grim-faced, smoking a cigarette, testily deflecting questions about how he was treated in the South.
But he did have something to say, and he said it powerfully through his music. In East Berlin he played a song entitled “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?” According to Ricky Riccardi, one of Armstrong’s biographers, the song had not been in his repertoire for a decade or more. But he played it on every stop during his Iron Curtain tour. He also played it slower than he ever had, so that it became a mournful lament.
“My only sin is in my skin,” he sings. “What did I do to be so black and blue?”
When the concert ended, the East Berliners rose as one and applauded for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, Armstrong reappeared on stage, his bathrobe over his clothes, taking one last bow. The real ambassador, indeed.
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