The atmosphere must have been supercharged on the afternoon of May 8, 1954, when Louis Armstrong and his Dixieland All-Stars stepped onstage at UNC's Memorial Hall.
New Orleans jazz was enjoying a renaissance. Hundreds of students and other fans filled the seats, excited to welcome the music's brightest light to Chapel Hill. But there was something else in the air--the U.S. Supreme Court was in the midst of considering a case called Brown v. Board of Education. Nine days later, the Court would render its landmark decision and pave the way for the desegregation of public schools, including the University of North Carolina.
The significance of the black Armstrong playing at a whites-only university could not have been missed by even the most naive of freshmen. (It's worth noting that Armstrong had played in integrated bands in New Orleans and Chicago long before Benny Goodman supposedly broke the jazz color barrier in the '30s.)
Recordings of the Chapel Hill show--circulating these days on the Internet--reveal that, while the overly enthusiastic white kids in Memorial Hall that day clearly loved the music, it was the electrifying glimpse of a mysterious and alien black culture that ratcheted the excitement up another level.
The Daily Tar Heel, which described the scene as "packed and frantic," offered this snapshot of the show's intermission: "A boy with a crew-cut wearing Bermuda shorts pushed his way backstage to 'get Louie's autograph,' a blonde who looked like Marilyn Monroe rustled through the crowd in a starched white dress trying to get a glimpse of the trumpet king, and a dozen photographers crowded around the musicians."
One number just before intermission ("Baby it's Cold Outside") offered lyrics about a man desperate to convince a woman to stay the night. During the song's middle section, Armstrong and vocalist Velma Middleton poked fun at class issues and got big laughs for it.
Velma: Hey, Pops, you know I'd really like to stick around.
Louis: Wish you would...
Velma: I live so far, though. I live way over on the other side of town--over in the aristocratic section. Way over there.
Louis: Where? Over in Chapel Hill?
Louis: Where would that be, baby?
Velma: In frat court!
The exchange may have been foreshadowing Armstrong's gig later that night--he played the "Spring Germans" fraternity formal at UNC's Woolen Gym. Despite the onstage quips, offstage Armstrong typically reverted to a soft-spoken good humor when asked about race. This was certainly the case in an interview he gave right after the Memorial Hall show.
Interviewer: What did you think of the audience today, how did it stack up?
Louis: Just wonderful. You want to thank every one of [the students] for myself and the All-Stars.
Interviewer: If they had their way, you'd be down here going to school with us.
Louis (laughs): Yes, sir! That'd be wonderful at that!
And he left it there. It speaks volumes about Armstrong's character that he was able to laugh at the irony of the moment. Here was a man at the pinnacle of popular music--a hero to millions with every skin tone imaginable--who had travelled the world as jazz's greatest ambassador. But if he had wished to enroll in the fine UNC music department in 1954, he couldn't have.
For all his good humor, even Armstrong had a breaking point. Later, during the 1957 desegregation crisis in Arkansas, he exploded: "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell!" Similarly, when police brutally attacked participants in Dr. Martin Luther King's 1965 march to Selma, Ala., Armstrong seethed: "They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched!" And when his beloved hometown of New Orleans continued to practice Jim Crow laws even after they became unconstitutional, he refused to play there ever again.
Taking these stands certainly flew in the face of Armstrong's "plantation image," as Dizzy Gillespie (and other jazz modernists) had dubbed it. Gillespie later retracted his statement, instead praising Armstrong's "absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life."
Armstrong's quiet strength--and his joy--would win out in the end. By the time he returned to play at UNC in February 1955, the Court had spoken and integration was lurching forward. By the time he returned for a third show in February 1957, student leaders from Florida were visiting UNC to learn what made the first stages of integration a relative success in Chapel Hill.
One final thing was happening in America in the spring of 1954: Bill Haley and the Comets were pressing wax for a song called "Rock Around the Clock." In a few months, a guy named Elvis would start turning heads. The rock 'n' roll era was beginning. Music--like so many things--would never be quite the same again.
A UNC Web site with an excerpt from Armstrong's performance and an interview with him is linked at: www.indymusicawards.com/resources