Louis Armstrong Plays Historic Cold War Concerts in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Louis Arm­strong Plays Trum­pet at the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids; Dizzy Gille­spie Charms a Snake in Pak­istan

Dizzy Gille­spie Runs for US Pres­i­dent, 1964. Promis­es to Make Miles Davis Head of the CIA

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Murat Menguc says:

    Now, I know a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this CIA/Armstrong friend­ship, and I may be wrong, but here it goes; for play­ing these gigs he was always con­sid­ered a com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­er, and had CIA con­stant­ly watch­ing him. His birth­day was 4th of July and his dream was to play the nation­al anthem dur­ing the big cel­e­bra­tions. Because he was black and sup­pos­ed­ly a com­mu­nist, he was nev­er allowed to do so. Cor­rect me if I am wrong.

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