If you go to the Ralston Listening Room in Sewanee’s duPont Library (and if you haven’t yet been, what is the matter with you?! It is
one of the best place s to listen to music in all of Christendom! see the picture to the right)–but if you do go, you will see propped on a shelf on the left-hand side the following item:
“To Charles Harrison,” it says, in green ink. “From Louis Armstrong.” It is a photo of great interest for a number of reasons.
Fifty-five years ago yesterday (May 5, 1960), Louis Armstrong and his band gave a concert in Sewanee’s Juhan Gymnasium at the invitation of the Sewanee Jazz Society (who had previously hosted Dave Brubek and would later invite the Modern Jazz Quartet). The concert was a the hit of Spring Party Weekend, according to the Purple, with Armstrong’s band performing hits like “Sleepytime Down South,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and “Where and When.”
The final paragraph of the Purple article notes, Armstrong, noted for his violations of protocol (as in calling King George VI “Rex”) upheld his reputation while he was here. Dr. Charles T. Harrison asked him if he cared for coffee, milk, or water. Satchmo replied, “Daddy-o, I don’t want a thing.”
Oral tradition has the story a little differently, as Richard Tillinghast recounts in “Sewanee When We Were Young,” a long piece in his Sewanee Poems (and if you haven’t read it yet , what is the matter with you?! ):
The story of his exchange with his host, the never
Less than dignified Charles Harrison,
Is a Sewanee legend. The great jazz trumpeter,
Who arrived the day before the convert to rehearze
His band, was a guest at the Harrison residence.
Coming down the morning of the gig he is greeted
With the question: “How would you like your eggs,
Mr. Armstrong?” Armstrong comes back at him
In that melodious throaty bass of his:
“However you’re having yours, Daddyo.”
Both accounts focus on the best part of the anecdote–Armstrong calling the very proper English professor “Daddyo”–but Tillinghast recalls it happening “at the Harrison residence,” now Sewanee’s Italian House. What is only hinted at here is that Armstrong was “a guest” of Harrison’s for a very particular reason–because, as a black man, he could not stay at the old Sewanee Inn.
As it happens, the New York Times published an essay by Joe Nocera just last week about Armstrong, who toured behind the Iron Curtain with his band as “cultural ambassadors,” just a few years after his Sewanee concert. As Nocera notes, one of Satchmo’s most famous concerts took place in East Berlin around the time of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma. The East German reporters, Nocera writes, peppered him with questions about race relations upon his arrival. But he wouldn’t go there. Although his Iron Curtain tour was not State Department sponsored, one gets the sense that he didn’t want to bad-mouth America while in a communist country, that to do so in the middle of the Cold War would be disloyal somehow. At a news conference a few days before the concert — a clip of which was shown at the screening the other night — he sat grim-faced, smoking a cigarette, testily deflecting questions about how he was treated in the South.
As a figure of some fame, Louis Armstrong’s treatment in the South at times was tolerable– he had found a comfortable place to stay with Charles Harrison while in town here. There are less pleasant stories about being refused a place in Sewanee, however. A little over a year later, in September 1961, three African-American Episcopal priests staged a sit-in at the Sewanee Inn’s restaurant, the Claramont, run by Miss Clara Shoemate. Tradition of Hospitality on the Mountain, said the old neon sign on the highway. The priests, who were on a “prayer pilgrimage” to the General Convention in Detroit, did not find the Claramont so hospitable. We went up to the mountain to eat, Reverend Robert C. Chapman wrote of his experience. We went up to Hell.
Chapman’s article about the event in Black World/Negro Digest for August 1962 is a hard read but a worthwhile one, if only to see how deeply ingrained the Jim Crow mentality was at the time. Bishop Juhan comes off poorly, I’m afraid, as do the college and theology students who, having gotten “somewhat beered-up,” get rather ugly. And it is especially painful to read of “a huge cross blazing on the lawn” behind the Inn. Flyers protesting the events were circulated shortly thereafter, with pictures of the participants as well as articles from the Chattanooga and Nashville papers are features. On the front of the flyer are reprinted three intaglio prints by Allan R. Crite.
What one sees here is a black Jesus, whose Stations of the Cross are taking place all around the School of Theology’s old buildings. In the first panel, “Suffered Under Pontius Pilate,” one sees the back of the School, now St. Luke’s Dormitory, from the perspective of the old Dean’s house, now Sewanee’s Spanish House. The other two panels feature St. Luke’s chapel, now decommissioned, but at one time a spiritual heart of campus.
I thought of these images a few weeks ago, when I went to hear a different sort of spring concert than Satchmo’s so long ago, this one given by the University Gospel Choir in St. Luke’s Chapel. Under the able leadership of Prakash Wright, himself a notable jazz musician, the Choir is made up of black, white, and Hispanic students and community members, and together they offer as a regular event some of the most joyous music I have ever heard on this campus.
“Music is the first thing to cross borders, ” Tillinghast writes in Sewanee When We Were Young. Half a century ago, students of the Sewanee Jazz Society did what they could to blunt the ugliness of Jim Crow by inviting to campus the most famous African-American musician of their day, the very same person the State Department would send as a cultural ambassador to East Berlin. In commemoration of the Sewanee concert, friends of mine on-line have even wondered whether a statue of Armstrong ought to be erected on University Avenue, which now only has a memorial to a Confederate general. I wonder, too, whether Crite’s original prints of the Sewanee Stations of the Cross might not be procured and displayed somewhere prominently? But the greatest monument of all, I think, is in the living voices of the University Gospel Choir in St. Luke’s chapel–actually, this might be the best place to listen to music in all of Christendom.