Satchmo Blows Up the World

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

One of the most striking elements of the Cold War, the Jazz tours begun in the Eisenhower administration, come alive in Penny M. Von Eschen’s study of the relationships between the most famous jazz bandleaders of the mid-twentieth century and United States international and domestic politics of the era in Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.

“Ike gets Dizzy,” chronicles how Dwight D. Eisenhower first used his Presidential Emergency Fund to back a tour of the Middle East by Dizzy Gillespie’s racially integrated jazz band in 1956. Von Eschen provides a balanced view of presidential politics as she explores Eisenhower’s own contradictory views on domestic race relations and his sense of the positive role that jazz, principally an African American musical form, could play on the international scene as America continued its Cold War struggles against Communism.

Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, who likewise formed an integrated band, are precursors of the greatest ambassador of the period, Louis Armstrong, the Satchmo of the book’s title which is drawn from an article in Drum magazine (1956) that both celebrated his African tour and spoofed Cold War tensions. Africa, like the Middle East and the Soviet Union in the Kennedy administration, was a prime target in the battle between the superpowers for hearts and minds as Capitalism and Communism collided. To get Armstrong to consent to the tour, Eisenhower had to intervene in the school-desegregation problem in Little Rock, Arkansas, sending in federal troops to assure public safety.

This one characteristic example of the interplay between American domestic policy on race and the international face of harmony that the volume deftly and fully examines as art exerted a much needed influence over world politics.