Recently I saw this famous photograph of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong serenading his wife described as one of the most romantic photographs ever taken. But there was more to this stop at the Egyptian pyramids than meets the eye, a story little told these days.
In the late 1950s the US State Department sponsored tours by notable jazz musicians to parts of the world where political relations were frosty and suspicions about American foreign policy were hot; the trips were also intended to combat widespread criticism of racism in the US by presenting alternative images of an egalitarian, modern America. ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie and his integrated band of musicians visited the Middle East in 1956; Benny Goodman and his mixed orchestra went to southeast Asia in 1957; and in 1958 the Dave Brubeck Quartet played the circle of nations around Russia, as well as Iran and Iraq – all Cold War hotspots.
At first Armstrong refused to take part, furiously denouncing President Eisenhower for his reluctance to enforce desegregation at an Arkansas school in 1957. It was three years before he agreed to an official role as an American cultural ambassador and a 27-city goodwill tour of Africa, part-sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. He was accompanied by a band of six (including singer Velma Middleton, who suffered a stroke and died during the trip), as well as his wife Lucille.
While he was greeted as royalty elsewhere, it was by no means certain that Armstrong would be welcome in Egypt, where newspapers had spread rumours that he was an Israeli spy and President Nasser had suggested that ‘scat-singing’ was Satchmo’s way of transmitting secrets. The visit was a triumph, however. Side-stepping questions about politics (‘Zionism? What’s that, Daddy?’), Armstrong posed for joyous photographs that were circulated worldwide, surrounded by cheering children at a medical centre, playing his trumpet while riding on a camel – and entertaining Lucille against the backdrop of the Sphinx and pyramids.
Satchmo was by no means the first or last ambassador to make use of the spectacle offered by Giza’s ancient monuments to promote a cultural message, though perhaps he was the most successful. When US First Lady Melania Trump went on safari and posed in front of the pyramids last October, her choice of attire – a pith helmet and Out of Africa-style outfit evoking the colonial past – garnered more attention than her stated aim of highlighting the role of women in society. We are fortunate, then, that our enduring image of Louis Armstrong’s sojourn in Egypt is one of romance and delight, which can be enjoyed no matter the politics that brought it about.
Selga Medenieks (TCD)
Penny M. von Eschen, 2004. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard Uni Press: Cambridge, MA.
Crist, S.A. ‘Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,’ Journal of Musicology 26 (2009), pp. 133-174