When Louis Armstrong Stopped a Civil War in The Congo (1960)

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.

via @ArmstrongHouse

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

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