In its effort to undermine the Soviet Union’s claims to cultural supremacy during the Cold War, the CIA founded the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), which sponsored literary journals, ballet and modernist musical performances, and modern art exhibitions. The CCF also sent jazz musicians like Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington to Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Foremost among the “Goodwill Jazz Ambassadors” was Louis Armstrong.
From 1955 on, Armstrong traveled the world, performing with his All Stars in support of U.S. interests abroad. Armstrong and his All Stars began their tours in Europe, where he became known as “Ambassador Satch.” His popularity among soldiers and civilians on both sides of the Berlin wall was legendary: “No boundary was closed to Louis,” said bassist Arvell Shaw. In a 1955 interview, Armstrong recalled that during a concert in West Berlin fans “slipped over the Iron Curtain” to hear him play.
Armstrong and the All Stars returned to Berlin several times in the following years. Ten years after their first European tour, they appeared in East Berlin in March of 1965, playing two sets, including popular tunes like “Hello, Dolly,” “How High the Moon,” and “Mack the Knife.” Jazz historian Ricky Riccardi observes that this was “a historic tour as it marked the first—and only—time Louis cracked the Iron Curtain.” Riccardi also calls Armstrong’s ensemble “one of the finest editions of Armstrong’s All Stars.” See the full East Berlin performance at the top of the post.
That same year, Armstrong and band brought their jazz diplomacy to Budapest, contributing to the longstanding love of American jazz in the Hungarian city, which now hosts a Louis Armstrong Festival in the nearby town of Vác (and once had its own “Satchmo Jazz Café”). You can hear a recording of the Budapest concert in two parts, above and below.
Despite the lasting impression Armstrong left all over the world, his tours involved some controversy. He faced criticism from African-American press at home when, during his 1965 East Berlin appearance, he “refused to be drawn into a discussion of the race problem in the United States.” He is quoted as saying “I’ve got no grievances… I have been treated fine in the South.” The censure was perhaps a little unfair. According to Riccardi, Armstrong reacted angrily to the violent abuse of protesters in Selma earlier that month, making headlines with the comment “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.” Nevertheless, once on the other side of the wall, Armstrong stayed mum on racial conflict in the Deep South.
Armstrong also took a very pointed stand for civil rights a few years earlier. In 1957, furious over Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’ use of National Guard troops to block the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Armstrong famously canceled a tour to the Soviet Union and only resumed his ambassador tours after Eisenhower intervened. At first, learning of events in Little Rock, Armstrong told Larry Lubenow, a 21-year-old journalism student, “it’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” Eisenhower, he said, was “two faced” and had “no guts.”
It was in part this protest—and the hypocritical U.S. deployment of black performers abroad as representatives of rights they were denied at home—that inspired Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola to write a satirical jazz musical called The Real Ambassadors, featuring Louis Armstrong as a performer and main character of the drama (hear an excerpt above). In the musical “Pops,” Armstrong’s nickname in the business, travels to a fictional African country to spread the gospel of American democracy, well aware of the irony of his situation: “though he represents the government, the government don’t represent him.” Armstrong saw the musical—which had only one live performance, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962—as an opportunity to address the complex racial issues surrounding his role as an ambassador for a segregated nation.
The setting of the Brubecks’ musical—where “Pops” the character is made “king or a day”—came from Armstrong’s tours in Africa, particularly his 1956 trip to Ghana as a guest of Kwame Nkrumah. As you can see in the film above—shot by CBS and Edward R. Murrow—Armstrong was indeed treated like a king on his arrival to the newly-independent West African country. Audiences, including Prime Minister Nkrumah, to whom Armstrong dedicates “Black and Blue,” sit rapt as the All Stars perform at the Opera House in Accra.
On his flight home after the tour, Armstrong rubbed elbows with another world leader, then-vice president Richard Nixon. Nixon, writes KCRW’s Tom Schnabel, “was a big fan, and chatted with Satchmo throughout the flight back.” Other versions of the story have Nixon meeting Armstrong at Dulles Airport, and some say the two met in Paris. In each version, however, Armstrong—who “loved marijuana and smoked it everyday”—gets Nixon to unwittingly carry a trumpet case full of “fine Ghanaian weed” through customs. The story may well be apocryphal, but it speaks to Armstrong’s canny, subversive role as America’s foremost “goodwill jazz ambassador.”