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Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie are unsung heroes of the civil rights

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The lions of the civil rights movement are well known - Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, for example. But a new book wants us to consider a few other names not so commonly associated with the cause. It's titled "The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington...


MARTIN: ...Louis Armstrong...


MARTIN: ...And Count Basie...


MARTIN: ...Transformed America." Author Larry Tye makes the case.

LARRY TYE: White men who would never have let a Black cross their threshold wooed their sweethearts with the music of Duke Ellington and the gravel-throated Louis Armstrong. White women who would have walked to the other side of the street if a Black man were walking towards them in the privacy of their own living room tapped their toes to the music of the extraordinary Count Basie. For once, race fell away as America listened, rapt.


MARTIN: What's the evidence of this? I mean, it's just - not to be sort of - I'll just be blunt. You know, white people have always benefited from Black people as entertainers. And that didn't change their thinking about whether Black people deserve to be treated as full human beings. So I guess what I'm saying is, like, what's the evidence that this actually changed anybody's thinking?

TYE: So the evidence is that these guys, while they perpetually said, we will speak through our music, they did a whole lot more than that. Louis Armstrong spoke out during the Little Rock crisis in a way that rocked America, and that, I think, helped convince Dwight Eisenhower to send in federal troops to protect those kids who were courageously integrating Central High School in Little Rock. Count Basie, as early as 1945, insisted by contract that he would not play unless his integrated band was accepted and integrated audience were the order of his day. Duke Ellington wrote symphonies telling the story of Blacks in America. "Black, Brown And Beige" was the name of his famous symphony.


MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) God do hear men's secrets. He will hear your every breath.

TYE: He sat in in a sit-in in Baltimore. And the kids who had been staging that sit-in got no response from the press. And when Duke Ellington joined, they got worldwide headlines. But don't trust me. Martin Luther King, in a little-noticed speech in Berlin, said, if it weren't for these jazz guys, that essentially integration of schools and all kinds of other things that really mattered could never have happened, that they infiltrated as quiet insurrectionists more American households than any other Black celebrities of that era.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? It's a fascinating sort of argument. Well, why do you think that is?

TYE: I think it was partly because they did it so quietly. The quiet part of the revolutionary is what made it happen. When all three of these musicians were headliners at Las Vegas casinos, they could only get in through the kitchen. And at some point, the absurdity of the indignities they suffered, I think, just helped set a table for things like Supreme Court decisions that we've just celebrated 70 years of at Brown v. Board. But again, it wasn't just Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson. Everybody turned to these jazzmen when they needed somebody to truly break through.

MARTIN: Who was the first one to break through, as it were?

TYE: So Louis Armstrong was the first to cross over. He was consciously playing initially to Black audiences in Chicago, then to mixed race audiences in clubs called black and tans and then to white audiences. And he did it partly through the strength of his trumpet playing, being able to hit high notes nobody else could. He did it through a voice that was so uncharacteristically a voice that you would ever think would be popular that kids in Chicago in that era, in the middle of winter, would stick their heads out of the car to try to catch cold so they could sound like Louis Armstrong.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) I'm so happy as can be when they swing that music for me.

TYE: And he combined that trumpet and that voice to the point where in the '40s, '50s and '60s, it was said that the two most recognizable American cultural figures around the world were Mickey Mouse and Louis Armstrong.


MARTIN: And you also write about how they each took different paths to becoming involved in the civil rights movement.

TYE: So they did take different paths. And the one who was the most enigmatic and that the world knows the least about was Count Basie. And yet, as early as 1945, he insisted that his contracts have a stipulation that unless an integrated band was acceptable to the venue, and unless the venue itself was integrated, he would not play. And the idea of doing that just as World War II was ending was so uncharacteristic. It took Duke Ellington another 20 years to get to that point.


TYE: They were also recognized to be amazingly important tools, as America was involved in a very hot Cold War, to the point where America sent all three as unofficial ambassadors not just around the world, but especially behind the Iron Curtain. And something strange happened to them the moment they left our shores. In America, they were more than willing perpetually to speak out about racial injustice. When they got behind the Iron Curtain, Russian reporters realized the vulnerability of America's racist policies. When they were asked about that, they said, yes, we have racism, but we're going to fix it. So they became uber-patriots. They never denied racism, but they said, it's getting better, and we're working to fix it.

The world knows the musical legacy of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but there is an equally important half of their legacy that it doesn't know, that they were through their music and through their words standing up and making a difference in a way that at that time in Jim Crow America was not just a courageous thing to do, but was an incredibly dangerous thing to do.

MARTIN: That is Larry Tye. His latest book is "The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong And Count Basie Transformed America." Larry Tye, thank you so much.

TYE: Thank you. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.