1960: Jazz icon Louis Armstrong goes to Africa – to fight the Soviets

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The History Page: The Cold War rag. Jazz icon Louis Armstrong goes to Africa – to fight the Soviets.

In October 1960, the U.S. State Department dispatched the 59-year-old Louis Armstrong and his All Stars band as cultural ambassadors to counter Soviet influence in Africa. At the time, the continent was experiencing a wave of political independence movements that uprooted the colonial powers that had controlled African resources for decades and reorganized the political order. Between 1956 and 1961 alone, more than 20 African countries, including Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria and Congo became independent nations. But the U.S. government saw these political changes as a dangerous opportunity for its Cold War enemy to consolidate power in the region. So the State Department began an offensive that utilized a potent and distinctly American weapon on the world stage — American jazz.

Jazz had become a part of America’s Cold War arsenal in 1955, when the government’s international radio station, Voice of America, broadcast its first “Jazz Hour,” a two-hour show broadcast around the world airing legends like Dizzy Gillespie, George Gershwin, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. At the peak of the Cold War, the show was on six nights a week and had an estimated 100 million listeners (30 million in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union alone). The show’s host, Willis Conover, was called “the most famous American that virtually no American had ever heard of.”

A jazz aficionado with a distinctive, mellifluous voice, Conover saw jazz as the musical equivalent of American democracy. “We agree in advance on the laws and customs we abide by and having reached agreement, we are free to do whatever we wish within those constraints,” Conover said in 1958. “It’s the same with jazz. The musicians agree on the key, the harmonic changes, the tempo and the duration of the piece. Within those guidelines, they are free to play what they want.”

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