It’s 110 years since Louis Armstrong’s birth (4 Aug 1901) and just over 40 years since his death (6 July 1971). Good reasons, as far as I’m concerned, to remember the life and music of this extraordinary human being. But I don’t really need an excuse to wax lyrical about the greatest musician (arguably the greatest artist) of the twentieth century. Here’s a piece I wrote for Workers Liberty magazine ten years ago to mark Louis’s centennial; I’ve made a few alterations, updatings and corrections in the light of further thought and some criticisms made by readers at the time. This updated version makes particular use of the best book yet written on Louis: Terry Teachout’s ‘Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.’
Someone who’d watched the Ken Burns Jazz films on TV said to me: “I can’t understand why Louis Armstrong is held in such high esteem in jazz circles. He always struck me as an Uncle Tom.” That view has been quite widely held for many years, particularly by the generation of jazz musicians who emerged in the 1940′s and 50′s and found Louis’s mugging for white audiences at best embarrassing and at worst simply demeaning. But there was a whole background to Armstrong’s persona. As the author Terry Teachout comments in his book ‘Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong’: “He was a child of his time, not ours, and some of the things he did and said as an adult are barely intelligible to those who know little of his youth. Even in his own time he was widely misunderstood, often by people who, like Dizzy Gillespie, should have known better.” In other words, don’t leap to judgement until you know the full story – or at least, enough of the story to put Louis into his proper context.
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on 4 August 1901, at the absolute bottom of the US socio-economic pile. He was black, his mother was an alcoholic and an occasional prostitute and his father deserted the family before he was born. He seemed destined for a life of poverty and petty crime until a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, took him under their wing and encouraged his musical talent (including lending him the money for his first cornet). Louis never forgot them and wore a Star of David under his shirt for the rest of his life. That early experience also seems to have conditioned his approach to the race question. He was proud of his Afro-American roots but never a seperatist. He almost always had at least one or two whites in his All Stars – a policy that his manager Joe Glaser encouraged for commercial reasons but that Armstrong believed in as a matter of principle. His closest musical friend was the white trombonist Jack Teagarden, to whom he (allegedly) said on their first encounter, “I’m a spade and you’re an ofay. We got the same soul – so let’s blow.”
Armstrong is, simultaneously, by far the best known figure in jazz and one of the most underrated. The reasons for this have little to do with music and everything to do with image, perception and ideology. Most of today’s jazz fans (despite the sterling efforts of Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and others) know little of Armstrong and see him as an avuncular buffoon singing lightweight pop songs in a gravel voice. He’s not considered a real jazz musician like, say, John Coltrane or the oh-so-cool Miles Davis. And then there’s that “Uncle Tom” tag. We’ll come to that in a moment.
What is all too easily forgotten in any discussion about Armstrong is the simple fact that he was the single most revolutionary exponent of the most revolutionary music of the Twentieth Century. Long before he became the jovial entertainer the world remembers, he almost single-handedly created jazz as we know it today.
Anyone who doubts this should listen to Armstrong’s first recordings, made with his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band in 1923: Olver and the others chug along in the staccato semi-ragtime rhythm that characterised early jazz. Armstrong (playing second cornet to Oliver) uses triplet-based quarter and eighth notes, riding on a 4/4 beat that only existed inside his head. It was the rhythm that that twelve-to-fifteen years later would be called “swing” and make Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and a lot of other (mainly white) bandleaders rich and famous. That rhythm, together with the concept of the virtuoso solo, improvised over the chords of the tune, which Armstrong also pioneered, was the springboard for Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and most of what followed in in jazz, up to this very day.
It is of course true that had Armstrong never been born, someone else would have made these musical breakthroughs sooner or later – they were almost necessities waiting to happen. Phillip Larkin (an unstinting Armstrong fan) oversimplified matters, but had a point when he wrote that Armstrong “simply did what everyone else was doing (but) twenty times better.” We know that Armstrong’s New Orleans contemporary, the clarinet and soprano sax virtuoso Sidney Bechet, was playing along similar lines in the early twenties, with a power and imagination that came close to matching Louis’s. But Bechet was a (literally) wayward character who spent a lot of time travelling in Europe while the epicentre of jazz was the US and, incresingly, New York. He lacked Louis’s personal warmth and although he recorded quite extensively, he didn’t achieve widespread public recognition until he settled in France in the 1950′s where he became something of a folk-hero in his final years.
To understand Armstrong, the man and the performer, you have to understand something of the society he was born into. New Orleans at the turn of the century was a hotbed of vice and violence. It was also, in comparison to the rest of the USA, relatively tolerant in racial, social and cultural matters. The French had founded the city and brought with them a tradition of opera, symphony, dances and parties. This had melded with the work-songs and “shouts” of the black slaves. As a result New Orleans was, as far as can be judged, the birthplace of jazz. The city’s mixed-race “creoles” constituted the vast majority of early jazz musicians of note. It is a myth that early jazz was the preserve of Afro-American “negroes”. In fact creole musicians emphasised their French and/or Spanish heritage and tended to be quite disparaging towards negroes like Armstrong and Oliver.
On New Year’s Eve of 1912 Armstrong was arrested for some high-jinks with a pistol and sent to the “Colored Waif’s Home” – a borstal, albeit a relatively enlightened one for its time. In fact, Louis often stated that being sent there was the single best thing that ever happened to him, mainly because the Home had a band and he soon became lead cornet in it. Years later, in the 1930′s, Louis revisited the place, found his old room and immediately snuggled down on the bunk.
From the Waif’s Home Armstrong went on to become second cornet with King Oliver in Chicago (jazz followed the black migration to the new industries up there), star trumpet soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s sophisticated big band in New York, and then to make the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with his old New Orleans confrères Kid Ory (trombone) and Johnny Dodds (clarinet). Listening to the Hot Fives (recorded between November 1925 and December 1927) is an education in personal development: Armstrong soon outstrips and overwhelms his old comrades, making their contributions sound anachronistic, stilted, and generally surplus to requirements.
By the early 1930′s Armstrong was an international star and one of the first black American entertainers to tour Europe; Paul Robeson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (a big influence on Armstrong) were the only others. At this point a big contradiction becomes apparent: Louis’s stage persona was by then that of an extrovert, exuberant virtuoso. Personally, he was completely insecure (remember that visit to the Waif’s Home), always in need of a tough guy (like the ex-Capone man Joe Glaser) or strong woman (notably second wife Lil and final wife Lucille) to look after him. And even after all the plaudits and awards, he desperately needed the approval of an audience. After the last performance of his life (undertaken against medical advice), he watched a TV review of the show in his hotel room and was devasted by the slating he received; he turned to Joe Glaser with tears in his eyes and asked: “You’ll still book me, Joe?”
Louis ‘mugged’ and played the harmless black minstrel to white audiences throughout his life. Younger black musicians and performers accused him of being an Uncle Tom and there was a tiny grain of truth to the charge. Billie Holiday famously said (affectionately) ”Louis toms from the heart” and Sammy Davis Jr. (less affectionately) denounced him for being willing to play for segregated audiences. Terry Teachout comments, “Sammy Davis, after all, had a point: the All Stars did play for segregated audiences, and Armstrong never complained to Glaser about it. ‘I never question owners of dance halls or my manager about the racial patterns of places I am contracted to play… I have been with Joe Glaser too many years to worry about where I play and for whom,’ he had told a reporter for the Courier in 1956. Nor would he ever take part in civil-rights demonstrations.’My life is music,’ he explained to a reporter. ‘They would beat me in the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn…”
But there was one occasion when even the apolitical Armstrong was unable to contain his inner rage in the face of racism: in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision required public schools to de-segregate and allow black puils to enroll. But in Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus openly defied the court’s decison and the Federal Government, ordering the state’s National Guard to join with a mob of howling bigots outside the city’s Central High School to intimidate and obstruct nine black children who were trying to enroll. Louis, on tour as usual, watched these scenes on his hotel televison shortly before he was interviewd by a cub reporter from a local paper. When the subject of Little Rock came up Louis exploded with rage, calling Faubus a “no good motherfucker” (later changed to “uneducated plowboy”) and denouncing President Eisenhower as “two faced” with “no guts.” He continued: “The way they’re treating my people in the South the government can go to hell,” and vowed that he would not agree to tour the Soviet Union for the State Department, calling Secretary of State Dulles “another motherfucker.” The young reporter had the scoop of a lifetime and Associated Press put the story on the wires.
Eisenhower later sent the army into Little Rock to enforce de-segregation and ensure the Nine were admitted to the school. Whether or not Armstrong’s intervention was a decisive factor in forcing Eisenhower’s hand is still a matter of debate, but the fact that a much-loved and generally apolitical figure had spoken out so strongly must surely have had some effect.
But this was an uncharateristic moment. Louis was not a political person and certainly no black militant. His background and natural inclinations made him an instinctive integrationist. And he generally let his music speak for itself, as when he sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen” on the Ed Sullivan Show during the Montgomery bus boycott or performed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with the All Stars for a segregated black audience in Savannah, Georgia.
Louis’s sheer humanity is summed up by the New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker (quoted in James Lincoln Collier’s 1983 biography ‘Louis Armstrong – An American Genius’), describing Louis on tour, in the dressing room:
“…He be sittin’ down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders an’ that white hankerchief on his head, and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man, ya know…an’ laughin’ you know natural the way he is. And in the room ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a street walker dressed all up in flaming clothes. You see a guy come out of the penitentiary. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policemen or detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ‘em different levels of society in the dressin’ room and he’s talking to all of ‘em. ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam, an ole friend of mine.’ Now the nun’s going to meet Slick Sam. Ole Notorious, been in nine penetentiaries. ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi good man, religious man. Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein? Amelia, this is Rosie, good time Rosie, girl used to work a show with me years ago. Good girl, she’s a great performer. Never got the breaks.’ Always a word of encouragement, see. And there’d be some kids there, white and colored. All the diverse people of different social levels…an’ everybody’s looking. Got their eyes dead on him, jus’ like they was lookin’ at a diamond.”
NB: Check out Ricky Riccardi’s ‘Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong’: a fantastic resource for interviews, music and videos: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/07/listening-to-book-chapter-3.html