When Louis Armstrong appeared in his hometown of New Orleans for the first time in nine years in 1965, it was, Ben Schwarz writes, “a low point for his critical estimation.” A younger generation saw his refusal to march on the front lines of the civil rights movement, risking life and limb, as a “racial cop-out,” as journalist Andrew Kopkind wrote at the time. Armstrong was seen as “a breezy entertainer with all the gravitas of a Jimmy Durante or Dean Martin.”
The criticism was unfair. Armstrong only played New Orleans in 1965 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, having boycotted the city in 1956 when it banned integrated bands. In 1957 after events in Little Rock, Arkansas, Armstrong refused a State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union over Eisenhower’s handling of the situation. He spoke out forcefully, used words you can’t repeat on NPR, called governor Orval Faubus an “ignorant plowboy” and the president “two-faced.”
But he preferred touring and making money to marching, and was happy to play for the State Department and PepsiCo on a 1960 tour of the African continent to promote, ostensibly, the opening of five new bottling plants. When he arrived in Leopoldville, capital city of the Congo, in late October, he even stopped a civil war, managing “to call a brief intermission in a country that had been unstable before his arrival,” Jayson Overby writes at the West End Blog.
Unstable is an understatement. The newly-independent country’s first elected president, Patrice Lumumba, had just been deposed in a coup by anti-communist Joseph Mobutu, survived a “bizarre” assassination attempt by the C.I.A., and would soon be on his way to torture and execution after the UN turned its back on him. The country was coming apart when Armstrong arrived. Then, it stopped. As he put it in a later interview, “Man, they even declared peace in The Congo fighting the day I showed up in Leopoldville.”
“Just for that day,” writes Overby, “he blew his horn and played with his band the sweet sound of jazz for a large crowd. But no sooner after Louis departed, the war resumed.” This being a joint state/commerce operation during the Cold War, there is of course much more to the story, some which lends credence to criticism of Armstrong as a government pawn used during “goodwill” tours to test out various forms of cultural warfare. That was, at least, the official stance of Moscow, according to the AP newsreel at the top of the post.
The Soviets “blasted Armstrong’s visit as a diversionary tactic,” and it was. Ricky Riccardi at the Louis Armstrong House Museum covers the event in great detail, including highlighting several declassified State Department memos that show the planning. In one, from October 14th, the first U.S. ambassador to the country, Clare Hayes Timberlake, argues that “cooperation with private firm might soften propaganda implications.”
After the October 27th performance, Timberlake judged the appearance “highly successful from standpoint over-all psychological impact on this troubled city.” Clearly, the 10,000 Congolese who showed up to see Satchmo play needed the break. But the diplomats misread the audience reaction, thinking they didn’t like the music when they started to leave at dusk. “Given the climate in Leopoldville,” Riccardi writes, “one can’t blame the locals for not wanting to stay out longer than they had to.” But it was, nonetheless, the State Department declared, the “first happy event” in the city since the country’s independence.
The Only Known Footage of Louis Armstrong in a Recording Studio: Watch the Recently-Discovered Film (1959)
Louis Armstrong Remembers How He Survived the 1918 Flu Epidemic in New Orleans
The Cleanest Recordings of 1920s Louis Armstrong Songs You’ll Ever Hear