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Jazz Legend Louis Armstrong's Civil Rights Activism Revealed in New Musical

By Mary Johnson | November 15, 2012 8:51am

MIDTOWN — Although Louis Armstrong died more than 40 years ago, the jazz legend and one of Corona’s most famous former inhabitants has been reborn in a new musical detailing both his musical prowess and involvement in the civil-rights movement.

The show, “Louis Armstrong: Jazz Ambassador,” focuses on the music Satchmo made famous, but also on his activism in the realm of civil rights — a lesser-known part of his public persona, said Myla Churchill, a playwright and screenwriter who wrote the show on behalf of the nonprofit organization Making Books Sing.

“To me, this is an ode to Louis Armstrong and to the guy that he was,” Churchill said. “There was a lot of complexity to him that most people are not aware of.”

The show is produced by Making Books Sing, which is dedicated to promoting literacy through the performing arts. Its focus until now has been on adapting books to the stage, but “Louis Armstrong: Jazz Ambassador” is the organization’s first wholly original production.

To write the show, Churchill sifted through archives and mementos at the trumpeter’s former home in Queens, which has since been turned into a museum.

She gained access to the musician’s old journals and listened to hours of reel-to-reel tapes Armstrong had recorded. In her research, her most surprising discovery was that Armstrong was an activist who played a prominent role in supporting the Little Rock 9, a group of African American children in Arkansas who were barred from entering a local segregated school back in 1957.

“Louis had a part in that, and most people don’t know that,” Churchill said. “He felt strongly for the first time that, 'I’ve got to stand up for something.'”

The music for the show consists entirely of Satchmo originals, performed live by a six-piece jazz band.

The family-friendly performance is at times interactive, drawing on crowd participation in a way that appeals to the younger members of the audience, Churchill said. The show debuted at Theater 3 in Midtown the Sunday after Hurricane Sandy and will complete its initial run with performances this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Then in January, Making Books Sing will take the show to the Kupferberg Center for the Performing Arts at Queens College. In March, “Louis Armstrong: Jazz Ambassador” will be performed at Stanford Lively Arts in Stanford, Calif.  

The show is then scheduled for a tour to schools throughout New York City.

“He’s such an interesting character, and for kids who were not of his generation, this [is] an opening into jazz,” Churchill said.

“I think he is a special entertainer, and I think his well-rounded story needs to be told,” she added. “And I hope I’m doing him some justice in that.”

“Louis Armstrong: Jazz Ambassador” will be performed Friday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. and both Saturday, Nov. 17, and Sunday, Nov. 18, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Theater 3, 311 W. 43rd St. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for kids and can be purchased online at the Making Books Sing website.