by Jim Donegan
I recently had the honor of unveiling a memorial plaque at the Founders Theatre in Hamilton to mark the 50th anniversary of the March 20, 1963 sell-out performance there by legendary American jazz artist Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong, described at the time by the tour’s promoter Harry H Miller as “the world’s greatest entertainer,” was the one of the most important artists to perform in the theater that year. No mean feat, when other touring artists in 1963 included the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
The Hamilton City Council and the Theatre of the Impossible Trust (TOTI), a community group interested in celebrating history, art and public engagement, decided to mark this great occasion with an evening of music, celebration and remembrance of this once in a lifetime evening back in 1963.
Born into poverty in 1901 as the grandson of slaves, Armstrong grew up in the city of New Orleans. Attending the Fisk School for Boys, he worked odd jobs and earned money where he could, including hauling coal to Storyville, the famed red-light district where he was exposed to the music of such greats as Joe ‘King’ Oliver. He dropped out of school at age 11, joined a quartet of boys who sang for money in the streets, and the foundation for a legend was born.
From these humble beginnings, Louis Armstrong went on to become one of the first, and arguably one of the greatest, solo jazz performers of all time. During a career that spanned over 50 years, Armstrong blazed a trail for his fellow musicians, overcoming racial prejudice and discrimination that was still strong in many communities.
His musical talent, warm personality and extraordinary stage presence led to his serving as America’s premier Jazz Ambassador for most of his life, a role which climaxed in the 1950-60s, when the U.S. State Department sent cultural icons like Armstrong abroad to share their music and foster goodwill between America and the world.
In 1956 the U.S. Government sent Dizzy Gillespie and his big band to Southern Europe and the Middle East to share the quintessentially American art form of jazz. The idea was to connect the America’s greatest musicians with the rest of the world as a means to promote peace and friendship. Jazz is America’s original music, born out of slavery in the south and embodying many American values – democracy, freedom, multiculturalism, racial tolerance and improvisation.
The first tour was hugely successful and with it cultural diplomacy was born. The Jazz Ambassadors program continued until 1978 and during that time many of America’s greatest jazz musicians participated – Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and of course Louis Armstrong, touring every continent. The Meridian International Center highlighted the work of these pioneering musical envoys in their project – Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World. Through photos it chronicles the impact that America’s great jazz musicians had on how the world viewed the United States during that era.
The Jazz Ambassadors program was a perfect example of the power of people-to-people exchanges to connect the citizens of the world with each other, and build bridges of mutual understanding by celebrating shared values. Armstrong and his musical colleagues were described as ‘consummate ambassadors,’ connecting not just with high level political audiences but also with everyday people in the countries they visited.
Nowadays, the spirit of the Jazz Ambassadors is alive and well. I blogged recently about the State Department’s American Music Abroad program that brought us Audiopharmacy a couple of months back. And in 2011 and 2012 the Embassy hosted the U.S. Marine Forces Pacific Band, which came from Hawaii and had the same dynamic impact in New Zealand that the Jazz Ambassadors had throughout the world years ago.
While the scope of music diplomacy has gone beyond jazz now, it is still one of the most-loved and most-celebrated of American music genres. In fact April is Jazz Appreciation Month in the U.S., when communities all across America celebrate jazz by playing it, listening to it, dancing to it and talking about it. The Smithsonian Musuem of American History provides resources and forums for people and groups to explore the principles that underpin the jazz tradition and learn more about its evolution and its impact on the world.
In further recognition and celebration of the influence of jazz, the United Nations named April 30, 2012 the first annual International Jazz Day. UNESCO marked the day by organizing a series of concerts in Paris, New Orleans and New York that featured over 50 artists and musicians from 14 countries including Stevie Wonder, Esperanza Spalding, Hugh Maekela, Wynton Marsalis, Angelique Kidjo, and many more.
Speaking at that time, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova said “jazz makes the most of the world’s diversity, effortlessly crossing borders and bringing people together. From its roots in slavery, this music has raised a passionate voice against all forms of oppression. It speaks a language of freedom that is meaningful to all cultures.”
This year Turkey is the host of International Jazz Day. Celebrations in Istanbul will kick off with an early morning performance for high school students. An evening concert will feature performances by stellar musicians from around the world and will be streamed live on the internet. You can watch it here live.jazzday.com.
Which bring us back to Louis Armstrong’s trip to New Zealand 50 years ago. His visit was part of the ‘Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars Tour’ in 1963. With a hectic schedule, and as little as 8 hours on the ground in Hamilton, Armstrong delivered a stunning performance for a capacity crowd at the Founder’s Theater that would be remembered for a lifetime by those who attended. A comment made just recently by one of the concert-goers sums up the night well, “It made you feel good – it made me feel good,” a verdict that would have sat well with the ever gracious, every humble Armstrong.
It was U.S. Ambassador Anthony Akers who welcomed Louis Armstrong, “Satchmo,” to New Zealand in 1963 with an afternoon party at the American Embassy in Wellington, to recognize Armstrong’s work to connect the peoples of the United States and New Zealand through music. I was honored to play a similar role 50 years later to commemorate Armstrong’s legacy, as both a musician and cultural ambassador of America.
I recently posted a blog on New York City, in which I feature the Louis Armstrong House Museum, located in his former home in Queens where he lived until his death in 1971. No one has lived in it since the Armstrongs, and the house and its furnishings remain very much as they were during their lifetime. I highly recommend it if you are planning a visit to New York and would like to learn more about Armstrong, his life, and music.
After unveiling the plaque, we viewed special film footage of Armstrong’s 1964 Australian tour and heard great music from the Art Gecko jazz band. It was a great event, full of good music and good company – one that Ambassador Satch would have loved.