During the 1950’s and 60’s, when Louis Armstrong was one of the most famous people in the world, his opinions were often reported on, and would at times ruffle feathers on both sides of a political argument.
I recently came across an April 27, 1960 newspaper article that was published at a time when Armstrong was caught between 1) advocating for his country (while on tour as the country’s “jazz ambassador”) and 2) for his fellow African-American countrymen in the midst of the struggle for civil rights.
Titled “Satchmo Silent on Racial Crisis,” (from an unknown source but catalogued in the Armstrong file at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University) this excerpt – transcribed at the time by the reporter in a poor (and racist) attempt at communicating his vernacular – is an example of Armstrong’s views in the early 1960’s debate about politics, civil rights, and rock and roll, and also underscores his reservation about communicating anything particularly controversial.
The new, subdued Louis Armstrong granted a brief backstage interview last night. He had just played a concert to an almost-packed Massey Hall and there was nothing subdued about the music. It’s just about the same as ever. The step-easy policy appears to have taken over in the opinion department.
Pencils hovering, reporters asked:
“How is the race situation going in the South?”
“Your manager says you don’t talk about things like that anymore. Is that so?”
“Yaah, ya might say.”
“Well, talkin’ about it don’ do no good.”
“Have you tried talking about it?”
“Man, have Ah eveh. Papahs all ustah be fulla me talkin.”
“So what do you talk about now?”
“What’s new with music?”
“Pretty well the same ol’ thing.”
“Did rock ‘n’ roll ever cut into your audience when it was at its height?”
“Nah. It nevah came close.”
“’Cause Ah play good music.”
“How much longer are you going to play?”
“Ah’ve been at it ‘bout fohty-se’m yeahs now. Go on fo-evah, Ah guess.”
From 1960, Armstrong plays C’est Si Bon