Tag Archive for Louis Armstrong

Jazzocratic Brubeck: Blue Rondo à la Quirk

Brubeck Jazz Impressions of Eurasia Cover

In 2008, Dave Brubeck was an inaugural recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, “the most prestigious honor that the Department of State can bestow on American citizens who are making outstanding contributions to public diplomacy,” according to the State Department’s press release. The release points out that Brubeck has been “declared a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress,” and goes on to note that 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of his first State Department tour. “We recognize Dave Brubeck for offering a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American,” State trumpets in standard jazz diplomacy-speak.

The award was delivered by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who got a shout-out in Amiri Baraka’s Poet Laureate of New Jersey-terminating “Somebody Blew Up America”—”Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza”—and who was recently back in the news when she declined to speak at the 2014 Rutgers University commencement in the face of student outrage that such an invitation would be extended to one of the architects of the George W. Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq under patently false pretenses. Brubeck, who died in 2012, did not live to see this tiny bit of Condi comeuppance, but he was of course around in April 2010 when a Congressional resolution, H. Res. 1283, was introduced by New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes, “Honoring and thanking Dave Brubeck for his contributions to American music and cultural diplomacy.” However, it was not enacted, and Hodes, who also wears hats as a guitarist and an entertainment lawyer, lost to a Republican in the 2010 midterms, only to become a 2012 Obama appointee to the National Council for the Arts. Small jazz policy world!

But let’s get back to Brubeck and that first State Department tour, in 1958, whence the logo-crazy album cover seen here, which is the result of a promotional deal between Columbia Records and Pan American World Airways, according to Stephen A. Crist, an associate professor of music history at Emory University, whose research in State Department archives is the basis of the richly detailed “Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,” in The Journal of Musicology, Spring 2009 (linked via the restricted database JSTOR), which in turn is the basis of this post. The tour covered some serious ground: Poland, Turkey, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), East Pakistan (Bangladesh), West Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq (in 1958, Iran was a U.S. ally, of course, ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was installed by the U.S. and the U.K. after the 1953 CIA-assisted coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh).

According to Crist, Brubeck’s motives for touring for the State Department were a mixture of patriotism, money, and publicity, though money is likely the least of these considerations—he could’ve made more money in other contexts. Brubeck apparently liked to see himself more as an ambassador of peace than a U.S. Cold War weapon, but he quite readily toed the jazzocracy line. Crist notes:

In both the 1950s and the 1980s [when he played a 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow] it was Dave Brubeck’s settled conviction that performing jazz was profoundly symbolic: it was in essence a musical enactment of the principles of American democracy. Though this notion is somewhat problematic (Do all styles of jazz work this way, even big-band swing and free jazz? Are not some band leaders more “democratic” than others?), it possesses a certain commonsensical appeal. The idea was therefore espoused by many musicians and cultural critics in the 1950s, and it persists to the present day.

Does it ever! Brubeck made a further contribution to the propaganda of jazzocracy, this time on the domestic front, about a month after the tour when he collaborated with New York Times book reviewer Gilbert Millstein on a June 15, 1958 Times Magazine article, “The Beat Heard ‘Round the World.” This is not a reference to the Beat Generation, though Millstein’s chief claim to fame is his Times’ rave review of On the Road in 1957, a huge career-booster for jazz-maniac Jack Kerouac, though, ironically in this context, Kerouac had written in his journal in 1950, “You have to believe in life before you can accomplish anything. That is why dour, regular-houred, rational-souled State Department diplomats have done nothing for mankind. Why live if not for excellence?”

The somewhat less than excellent Times Magazine article was apparently written by Millstein based on an interview with Brubeck, but Brubeck’s is the sole byline. At any rate, in this piece Brubeck rolls out the jazzocratic red, white and blue carpet in support of American Empire . . .

It would be fatuous of me to pretend to correlate [jazz’s] importance with the billions of dollars we have spent to restore nations ravaged by war and in raising the living standards of underdeveloped countries, or the day-to-day spadework of statesmen and diplomats. . . . The United States assumes the most moral role of all internationally. A greater demand is placed on us for human decency than on any other country . . .

. . . and also in support of jazz as a Jim Crow smokescreen (in reference to his integrated band, which included Black bassist Eugene Wright), apparently reading directly from the “Segregation” chapter in the State Department’s classified playbook:

Jazz is color blind. When a German or a Pole or an Iraqi or an Indian sees American white men and colored in perfect creative accord, when he finds out that they travel together, eat together, live together and think pretty much alike, socially and musically, a lot of the bad taste of Little Rock is apt to be washed from his mouth.

Speaking of bad taste, in a reference to Louis Armstrong’s integrated bands, Brubeck says, rather uncomfortably, “Louis symbolizes even more than he understands. He is in life what you find more frequently in fiction—the uneducated American Negro who, through his genius, has overcome all possible obstacles and who is loved universally.” He also trots out the familiar jazzocratic improvisation theme, which privileges jazz above all other arts because “it is being created at the very moment it is played before an audience.” But he does have almost a good word for classical music—he studied with Darius Milhaud, after all. “The conductor of a symphony orchestra must, in my opinion, be a genius to transcend these [fixed] things and bring an element of creativity to what he is doing.”

The piece closes with an irony of epic proportions as Brubeck recounts a moment from his tour.

In Kabul, I was met by an ex-policeman from Berkeley, Calif., Al Riedel, who is helping organize Afghanistan’s forces. He pointed to this huge mountain around Kabul, and at its top a wall. “For 5,000 years,” he said, “people have been fighting over that wall—Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Indians, the English, who knows who. If a small fraction of what they spent had gone into education instead of defense, that wall would have come down long ago. At best, defense is a temporary thing.”

So’s empire.

 

 

Fables of Little Rock

Fables+of+FaubusIn 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, things weren’t going so well on the school desegregation front in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower was eventually compelled to call in the Army to cross the racist line in the sand in defense of segregated schools that was drawn by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. The struggle that would be immortalized in the history of the civil rights movement as the Little Rock Nine was humming with jazz connections, most specifically Louis Armstrong’s, whose reputation for global goodwill had already earned him the nickname Ambassador Satch, even before the launch of the State Department’s jazz diplomacy program. But when Armstrong, on tour in North Dakota two weeks into the Little Rock standoff, broke completely out of his “happy” character and bared his angry soul to Larry Lubenow, a cub reporter at a Grand Forks newspaper, all goodwill hell broke loose. From a 2007 David Margolick op-ed in The New York Times, marking the 50th anniversary of Little Rock:

“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told him. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.

Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inserting obscenities into the lyrics and prompting Velma Middleton, the vocalist who toured with Mr. Armstrong and who had joined them in the room, to hush him up.

Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”

Armstrong in fact didn’t make that Soviet tour; his first Jazz Ambassadorial jaunt was in Africa in 1960. Also in 1960, the complete version of the Charles Mingus composition “Fables of Faubus” found its way on record on the progressive Candid label, after Columbia rejected the lyrics for 1959’s Mingus Ah Um, on which “Fables of Faubus” appeared only as an instrumental. The Candid candid version, called “Original Faubus Fables,” can be heard here, powerfully supported by documentary footage of the era. Presented in a sort of call-and-response with his drummer, Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ lyrics, as transcribed in Ingrid Monson’s Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa:

Oh, Lord, don’t let them shoot us,
Oh, Lord, don’t let them stab us.
Oh, Lord, don’t let them tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas

Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie:
“Governor Faubus!”
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
“He won’t permit us in his integrated schools”
Then he’s a fool.

Boo, Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo, Ku Klux Klan, with your Jim Crow plan

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
“. . . [undecipherable] Thomas, Faubus, Russell, Rockefeller,
Byrd, Eisenhower”

Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eightthey brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-OHello. (p. 183)

“Liberal” Republican oligarch Nelson Rockefeller, incidentally, who had been elected governor of New York in 1958, would turn up again in a Mingus composition in 1975, no lyrics required: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” In much the same way that it might seem sick and ridiculous today that Columbia couldn’t abide an aggressively anti-racist sentiment on a jazz record in 1959, Armstrong’s outburst two years earlier, as Margolick relates, resulted in

calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.

Ten years later, in 1967—a year of rampant rioting in America, most notably in Detroit and Newark—Armstrong, in his more familiar super-optimist’s persona, would record the pie-in-the-sky treacle of “What a Wonderful World.”