Diplomacy in Jazz

Live at the Adelphi and Between the Pages

Andy Warmington

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     1. jazz ambassador

     It is July 1967. Jacqueline Kennedy has just holidayed in Ireland with her family and attended the Irish Sweeps Derby with Taoiseach Jack Lynch. Later that month in Dublin, a plane arrives from America and the man with the trumpet and the funny voice, for many, steps out. Louis Armstrong, the breakout star of 1925 was approaching half-century stage career, having begun playing cornet on Mississippi riverboats in 1918. Armstrong’s enduring single What A Wonderful World topped charts worldwide for much of the Spring in 1967, so he was somewhat back on top for a final chorus. For the US State Department, however, he was Satchmo, ambassador of jazz.

     The Jazz Ambassadors programme was dreamed up in the in the mid-1950s, when the Cold War was really frosting up at the edges, as a goodwill tour led by prominent musicians of the genre to combat Soviet criticism around racial inequality in the US. The tour included household names and was led by, amongst others, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck.

     By 1967, the Jazz Ambassadors programme had been performing across the globe for eleven years. The first tour was led by Dizzy Gillespie, who had emerged from a dark doorway beside Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the architect of the programme, proclaiming ‘the weapon that we will use is the cool one’, while holding out a trumpet.

     Armstrong’s often misunderstood and usually maligned approach to entertaining an audience was beginning to draw criticism, first from the bebop jazz movement and later from the civil rights movement overall, for what they considered unreasonable displays of obsequiousness to white audiences. It had been more than thirty years since his curious film role in Rhapsody in Black and Blue, where he appeared in tiger-print loin cloth amid a scene of unpleasant stereotypes, but suspicions of Uncle Tomming still abounded with every eye bulge and wiped brow with a white handkerchief. Armstrong, as usual, defied expectations.

     In 1957, a governor in Arkansas, Orval Faubus decided to reject the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs The Board of Education, and ordered state troopers to prevent black children from entering a theoretically integrated high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Armstrong was due to perform an ambassadorial tour in Russia itself, a critical blow in the propaganda war for the United States. Armstrong refused to go, calling out President Eisenhower by name and stating, ‘the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.’ Armstrong’s intervention was so unexpected it garnered little praise from the musicians and activists who had long waited for such a prominent black figure to speak out. Suddenly, the smile was wiped, and the world saw the tough kid from a New Orleans neighbourhood known as The Battlefield firmly stand his ground.

     In 1959, Armstrong achieved perhaps a first for any musician, the Katanga Province in Congo called a ceasefire in a long and bloody civil war so the different tribes could attend Armstrong’s concert. The jazz ambassador had indeed brought peace. Peace in swingtime.


     2. stranger than fiction

     Oh, Play The Thing!, the second part of Roddy Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy, a saga filtered through the conflict of Irish history and prohibition-era Chicago, sees rebel hero Henry Smart take up managerial duties for Louis Armstrong for a time.

     Henry Smart arrives in New York, March 1924, ‘a city I could bury myself in’, in his own words. Still a handsome young man, he finds work initially as a sandwich board-wearer, essentially a walking, winking advertisement for various wares including vacuum cleaners, fountain pens and rib-eye steak. After falling in and out with various hustlers and mobsters, he eventually meets Armstrong, experiencing a Damascene conversion of the Dixieland kind. ‘At last. I wasn’t Irish anymore. The first time I heard it, before I was properly listening, I knew for absolute sure. It took me by the ears and spat on my forehead, baptised me…I was a Yank’.

     Henry is soon employed as Armstrong’s ‘sideman’, a curious role which, mirrors the relationship he held with a close business associate in real life. Joseph G. “Joe” Glaser was an artist manager, of sorts, alongside roles as a fight promoter, club manager and enough mob connections to get his own recently declassified FBI file. He began working with Armstrong in May 1935 before setting up Associated Bookings Corporation in 1940 with the profits, a promotions company still in existence today. Much has been made about the nature of the relationship between Armstrong and Glaser, in fact the subject matter of an entire theatre production, Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout. One thing Armstrong always maintained is that he saw great value in keeping a tough guy in his corner. ‘"Nobody gets billed over Louis Armstrong’, he told friends in 1951, ‘You’ve got to be the President of the United States before Joe Glaser stands for it.  That’s the kind of manager I have. Regardless of his traits and all, he watch that spot."

     Armstrong was certainly not totally averse to social criticism, as we saw in his condemnation of the Arkansas situation, but he was also a pragmatist. He wanted to play the horn. He wanted to play all over the world. He did not want to go back to poverty and penury in the slums of New Orleans. He also knew that a black man in America across every decade of his life could not trade on talent alone. Glaser, despite his enigmatic business dealings of questionable legality, was Armstrong’s ‘white man’ – the only cut of key to fit the lock of the entertainment industry establishment at the time. Armstrong certainly had strong feelings about race relations but seemed willing to tolerate the practical barriers of society. His truth came out in quips and one-liners. He said of the benefits of his working relationship with Glaser in 1951, ‘I don’t even know what my income tax is no times and that alone, is heaven’. Nevertheless, history records Armstrong voicing some resentment about his manager’s actions, especially in relation to his finances, as Glaser lay deathly ill in a Boston hospital, deep in a coma after suffering the stroke which led to his death in June 1969.

     3. skies of blue, clouds of white

     Doyle’s second act for Henry Smart received some criticism on publication for being too scattered, too unfocussed as it glances across American locations and acquaintances with little time spent to take it all in. What this approach does achieve is to contrast Smart’s legendary status in revolutionary Ireland with his inability to leave a lasting dent in a hustler’s America. A small fish on the wrong side of the pond. His brief relationship with Armstrong personifies this.

     Henry also treats Armstrong as a more vulnerable figure than even his own wife and child, which might represent his recognition of a wider social cause, an injustice that crossed oceans and borders with impunity. Doyle is asking the reader to consider social struggles on their own merits and not fall for the doe-eyed mythology. As such, the novel is a challenging reflection caught between the fierce rebel battles of A Star Called Henry and a cinematic recollection of that life in The Dead Republic.

     When Louis Armstrong arrived at the Adelphi cinema on Middle Abbey Street, he patiently answered questions on camera for the just-commissioned Irish language current affairs programme ‘Féach’, before telling the press he would have to continue the interview in the break. The old master gave the same answer to every question on his loyalty to his race, to his art and to his international profile – it’s stage time, folks. In this age of celebrity Twitter activism, intricate social commentary from reality TV stars and the baffling persistence of the charity pop song, Louis Armstrong was, even in the twilight of his career, an exception.