Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Onkel Satchmo Behind the Iron Curtain: The Transatlantic Politics of Louis Armstrong's Visit to East Germany

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Onkel Satchmo Behind the Iron Curtain: The Transatlantic Politics of Louis Armstrong's Visit to East Germany

Article excerpt

For about a decade now, non-American scholars have had it relatively easy to justify their foreign perspectives on the United States. Enlisting Shelley Fisher Fishkin's call for a transnational American Studies (2004), they have been able to point out that their work is contributing to a better "understanding how the nation is seen from vantage points beyond its borders" (20), allowing us to "see the inside and outside, domestic and foreign, national and international, as interpenetrating" (21). If Fishkin rightly demands a focus on "borderlands, crossroads, and contact zones that disrupt celebratory nationalist narratives" (19) and wants us to imagine our field as "a place where borders both within and outside the nation are interrogated and studied, rather than reified and reinforced" (20), then scholars from within as well as from without the United States may have something to offer to the ongoing project of a transnational American Studies.

Of course, Fishkin was not alone in her assessment. Heinz Ickstadt had already discussed the role of non-American scholars as "outside observer" (550) who should "make greater use of their outside-position by asking questions [...] concerning transatlantic relations, and the flow of cultural exchange" (555), while Winfried Fluck would argue that "the original goal of American studies - the analysis of the cultural sources of American power - continues to be as urgent as ever" (29) and that, "far from going outside the United States, we have to go back inside" (28). Seeing the inside and outside, domestic and foreign, national and international, as interpenetrating - asking questions about transatlantic relations and the flow of cultural exchange - going outside of the United States in order to go back inside: these are the critical maneuvers I want to undertake in this essay. Focusing on what Fishkin calls "he cultural work done by U.S. popular culture abroad" (33), I will examine Louis Armstrong and the All Stars' concert tour through East Germany in March of 1965. I will be treading on largely unexplored territory here. Studies of the jazz tours sponsored by the American State Department have reconstructed moments of resistance to the national projections of imperial power and cultural exceptionalism that characterized the international endeavors of so-called jazz ambassadors like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Louis Armstrong - I am thinking of Penny Von Eschen's Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (2004), Lisa Davenport's Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era (2009), and my own chapter on Armstrong's politics in Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (2012). But in these publications, Armstrong's visit behind the Iron Curtain resides at the margins of analysis, and so the aim of this essay is to establish this visit as a central moment of jazz history as well as a rich example of German-American relations during the Cold War era.

In particular, I want to argue that Armstrong's East German appearances on- and offstage were framed by, but that they also produced, a set of narratives that connected the American civil rights movement with Cold War antagonisms and fell on fertile ground in the Eastern part of Germany. As I aim to show, the fact that Armstrong grew up in the poorest section of racially segregated New Orleans equipped him with a particular habitus that allowed for a special rapport between the black American musician and his East German audiences. What I will also suggest is that his personal experience with the color line resonated deeply with the political realities of life behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic and that Armstrong's visit brought these resonances to the fore.

Let me begin with a crucial observation by historian Thomas Borstelmann, whose words will serve as a backdrop for my analysis of the tour:

The story of domestic race relations and American foreign relations over the past half-century has had a particular geography. …

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