About Louis Armstrong

Originally posted by epppie on 05/22/07

In her biography of Scott Joplin, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune, Susan Curtis says:

power in society is maintained not only …  through sheer force, but also through the construction of widely shared beliefs, codes and ideals that inscribe desired behavior that benefits those in power.  …  Thus, the arena of culture is anything but nuetral and, in fact, represents one of the key locations for contest and debate that result in historical shifts.

For many artists, their role in culture entails creative, ethical and spiritual dilemmas.  While  some artists  undoubtedly never consider doing anything other than confirming hegemonic power (folks like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan come to mind, though ironically – or tellingly – even such artists have presented themselves as ‘mavericks’),  I think that most artists  feel some  need to reform, or transform, society.  They create, at least in part, because they want to project their sense of what could be, or should be, for others to see or hear. 

Yet nearly all artists depend on hegemonic power for their survival and success.

I don’t think anyone was more keenly aware of this paradox than Satchmo.

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It’s not something Armstrong talked about explicitly, so far as I know.  His comments about his career mostly seem to focus on surviving in the business and on pleasing the people.

But in Armstrong’s later years, he took avidly to making collages that look backward on  his career (scrapbook style, almost), taking shape on walls and  ceilings in his Corona, NYC, home, and on the many reel to reel boxes he had on hand for his many taped performances. 

I’ve only seen a few of Armstrong’s collages, in reproduction, but they seem to represent an alternative way of writing autobiography (coming, as they did,  from a man obsessed with autobiography).

Looked at as a visual statement, the collage  pictured above features strong diagonal contrasts.  On the lower left corner, Armstrong pasted “That Happy Feeling” in big, publicity-style lettering.  On the upper right, more informally, the word “empty” appears, dimly visible on a piece of masking tape.  On the lower right side you see a picture of the public face of Satchmo, his biggest smile on display.  On the upper left:  Louis Armstrong, the subversive clown.

No one could have put into words better than Armstrong put into an image the complicated balancing act of his career.  He was initially disapproved of by great, younger jazz artists such as Charlie MingusMiles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for the Mantan-ish clowning that seemed at times to overshadow  his talent, subordinating it to his obsequious pleading for white acceptance.

Laurence Bergreen, in Louis Armstrong, An Extravagant Life, says of Mingus:

He admired Louis’ work on the trumpet, but  couldn’t abide his mugging and “Tomming,” as he called it.  Mingus was a serious musician and wanted to be taken seriously, and he was upset by the spectacle of Louis grinning and joking and capering across the stage like a vestige from a minstrel show.

But, ultimately, it has been acknowledged that Armstrong paved the way for later jazz greats,  breaking down social, artistic and racial barriers.  Dizzy in particular developed a close and admiring relationship with Armstrong late in Armstrong’s life.

Dizzy and Louis playing together:


As Gary Giddons said about Louis Armstrong in Visions of Jazz:

Things were not always easy:  he survived life threatening managerial warfare, a marijuana bust, the rise of the big bands,  the death of the big bands, the seductions of bop for his white fans and of r & b for his black fans, right wing boycotts (after he insisted that Eisenhower take action in Little Rock and refused to tour as a cultural ambassador until he did), left-wing accusations of Tomism (which he defied with greater mugging). the hegemony of rock and roll (which he hurdled with the miraculous “Hello Dolly”), and the diminishment of his chops (though never of his bell-clear tone)…though there were many who chided him as old-fashioned and commercial, no one seriously contested his unimpeachable stature.  The last of the New Orleans trumpet kings was, as Bing Crosby observed, “the beginning and the end of music in America.”

Like Bert Williams (who influenced Charlie Chaplin),  Armstrong gave white audiences the echoes of minstrelsy they seemed to require, while breaking through racial barriers everywhere and deepening audiences’ understanding of what was possible artistically.  As Dizzy Gillespie said regarding Armstrong, “no him, no me.”

“Jazz is only what you are.” (Louis Armstrong)


Who WAS Louis Armstrong?  He was a tireless self-promoter.  He not only toured constantly, but was constantly writing about himself in letters, articles and books; while cultivating relationships with music critics and jazz historians.  Despite this, or partly because of this, the “real” Louis Armstrong can be hard to know.  The entertainer seems to overshadow the person.

I think I remember from when I was young seeing the headlines saying that Satchmo had died.  My first exposure to him as a performer was probably  watching the film Hello Dolly.

At that time, I was pretty jaded about the older generation of entertainers.  From Louis Armstrong, to Ray Charles, to Bing Crosby, to Bob Hope:  they seemed to exist in the world of television variety shows, giving half-assed performances, stringing out their golden years, trading off nostalgia (not unlike Dinosaurs of Rock today).

I really never cared for Ray Charles, to give one example, until I heard him doing an informal piano session on a radio piano program.  I think he set aside being an entertainer, for that program.  Suddenly I was in love with his artistry.  He could take a huge, lumpen thing such as a piano and just melt it.  That’s magic.   Since then I dig all his work a lot more, and I loved the recent movie about him.

Even Bob Hope won me over a little bit when I saw some of his early stuff on dvd.  There was such charm to his humor in the early days.

It takes getting past the gloss of mass entertainment fluff, sometimes, to get to the deeper meaning offered by an artist or performer.  Andrew Ward tells a story in Dark Midnight When I Rise (about the Jubilee Singers, who helped spread appreciation for the power and beauty of black music, especially black hymns, not long after the Civil War) that I think relates:  during the Civil War, a black preacher in the South was heard praying fervently to God for the Rebel cause;  when questioned about this by a slave, he said:

don’t worry, children, the Lord knew what I was talking about.

I think this applies just as well to artists, trying to fulfill the demands of the entertainment world, while also trying to be true to their inner callings.  If you watch Louis perform, even when he is clowning, there is a sublety of expression that hints at much more.  I think he knew that not only God understood what he was trying to convey, but so did his audience, even if they sometimes felt it more than thought it.

Here is Louis Armstrong and his band performing Swingin’ on Nothing:

I think the one thing Armstrong was sure people absorbed from his music was joie de vivre, a sense of joy that was hard won in a life full of struggle.


Louis spent much of his youth in a part of New Orleans known as the Battlefield, because of its chronic violence.  It is touching to consider that this cradle of New Orleans’ most famous son, Louis Armstrong,  became ultimately the symbol of New Orleans’ abandonment by the country it had contributed so much to culturally:  the Superdome.  So much for “urban renewal”.

As Bruce Springsteen says, “it’s hard to be a saint in the city.”  Armstrong was apparently well known to the police in New Orleans for various petty crimes.  He even tried pimping, but gave up after his ‘prostitute’ almost killed him.  As far as I can tell,  he was not  particularly a model of charity (generosity being another matter), overt social consciousness (social warmth and openness being another matter), or  fidelity (sincerity being another matter).

He had something arguably better than such virtues.  He had a love for music that was total, unreserved, unstinting.  Even though Armstrong grew up in an environment where music was often a marker of cultural and social divide, of resistance on one side and superiority on the other, Louis refused to accept such limitations.  Call it ambition.  Call it love.  Louis had learned in the first years of his life that the blues sung by a ragman could be as expressive as the mighty blowing of an early jazz legend such as
Buddy Bolden.  He learned that the folk songs of Jewish family that took him under their wing could be as meaningful as a hot cutting contest between bands.  He did not let his love for blues and for improvisation prevent him from learning to read music (even though that skill at one time represented a Continental Divide  between black and creole musicians in New Orleans).

For Armstrong, love for Music came first.  But love for music is just love.

Or, as a New York Times review put it in 1947:

There have been sweet trumpets and hot trumpets, but in the opinion of one who heard Mr. Armstrong no trumpet has so brilliantly fused the sweet and the hot as his.


I’ve often heard or read that the history of American Music is the history of Black music.  I am convinced that that is largely  true.  I think that the engine driving American Culture has been, disproportionately, African American creativity;  if it’s true, this could be because  those who are most excluded from the mainstream of society and its culture are the ones who feel most keenly the need to create culture. 

In Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, Thomas Brothers writes:

Throughout the African diaspora, music has been conceived as being tied to bodily motion.  There are several purposes, beyond the sheer pleasure it brings, to this synchronization of sound with moving bodies.  For one, it makes unity visible.  The physical, tangible realm of the body is united with the nonmaterial realm of music and spirit… And there is unity on the communal level as well;  each moving person is visibly united with every other moving person.  Synchronized movement acknowledges mutual obligation,  nonverbal confirmation that “I’m with you.”

As the hopes of Reconstruction faded into the hostility and repression of the post-Reconstruction period, the Church, especially the Sanctified Church, became the main place where African Americans could affirm their solidarity, through culture.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, that cultural energy found it’s way more and more into secular realms.  Brothers quotes Armstrong:

It all came from the Old Sanctified Churches…


Perhaps artists who have more access to mainstream status are likely to be distracted by it. They may be less innovative, they may be worried about what they have to lose.

In the early twentieth century this idea was expressed in what sometimes seemed to be  a vulgar and even racist fetishization of “the primitive”.  For example, Scott Joplin’s attempts to write classical music were dismissed, in favor of

Real nigger stuff…

enthused over by Van Vechten, a well known critic of the Harlem Rennaisance, quoted by Susan Curtis.

Curtis also quotes critic Isaac Goldberg:

The Negro is the symbol of our uninhibited expression, of our uninhibited action,…He is our catharsis.  He is the disguise behind which we may, for a releasing moment, rejoin that part of ourselves which we have sacrificed to civilization.


Perhaps the greatest single expression of Eurocentric fetishization of the Negro ‘primitive’, was Picasso’s painting, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon:

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Here is an example of an African mask for comparison (to the faces on the right side of Picasso’s painting):



I think the beauty of American Music (and culture in general) is that it COMBINES black and white cultures.  As one article I read put it, artists know what moves and inspires them and they reach for that, reaching across ethnic, racial, social and economic divides that other folks might not reach across.  Louis Armstrong credited the Jewish Karnovsky family for some of his inspiration.  In turn, he inspired the white cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke.  Bix in turn inspired Miles Davis.  And so it went.

Garry Giddens tells the story of an interview he did with black actor Avon Long:

…I asked him whom he had most admired when starting out.  “Eddie Cantor,” he said.  I grimaced and asked if he wasn’t offended by the blackface.  He sat up and asked heatedly, “Do think black people are stupid?”  “Of course not,” I sputtered.  “Well,” he crowed, resuming his reclining position and fixing me with a cunning smile, “don’t you think we can appreciate genius, too?”


With my Irish background, when I think about jazz, I hear echoes of  Irish music, especially in early jazz, where the violin sometimes played the leading role that the cornet later came to play.  The way patterns swirl in and out in early jazz, the emphasis on variations on melodic themes, the showy speed: it all sounds a bit Irish to me. 

Fwiw, Daniel Cassidy claims that Jazz is an Irish word:

Etymology online disagrees, tracing it to Africa:

My guess is that both claims may be true and that it is because the word had strong associations for multiple cultures that it stuck.

Irish and African Americans inhabited a similar plane in American society in the mid-eighteen hundreds, and exchanged cultural influences heavily in New York City, in Bowery dance clubs, for example, which helped develop tap as a dance form.  That same time period was the greatest time of growth for New Orleans, with the result that both blacks and Irish went there, including many undoubtedly from New York, and surely they continued to exchange influences, especially musical influences, because even back then, New Orleans was a strongly music oriented city, compared to other American cities. 


Influences between black and white musical and dance culture went back and forth in America over centuries, even moving back and forth between the US and Europe (for example, minstrel shows from the US traveled to Ireland, where they introduced the banjo to Irish music; apparently it somewhat resembled a native Irish instrument).

Minstrel shows, in which whites and blacks performed exaggerated and often demeaning portrayals of stereotyped black music, comedy and dance were perhaps the most popular form of stage entertainment in America for much of the 19th century.  Minstrel culture seems to have influenced and to have been influenced by a culture of music and dance that was widespread and shared, to varying degrees, in various ways,  between the races, from the Eastern and Southern statesto the Missippi River.

An early William Sidney Mount picture seems to pay tribute the mixing of black and white musical urges:

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It’s hard to see in the reproduction, but the little African American boy is playing rythm with sticks on the side of the barn.

George Caleb Bingham painted something similar, set not in New York, but on the Mississippi:

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The Jolly Flatboatman

One of the dancers here is an African American.


Both these images portray blacks in a secondary role, responding to music made by whites, when in fact it would appear that black music and dance culture was often more the driving force.  However, images made by whites of black leadership in music and dance art could be negative and racist, particularly in relation to minstrelsy:

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On the other hand, according to Gotham, dance competitions took place between black and white performers in NYC in the 1840s (as I recall), which were highly popular and which involved great respect between and for the performers.  This was around the same time that Minstrel shows were beginning to demean (and spread) African American culture

Also, late in the 19th century the Jubilee Singers traveled widely in America and Europe, winning respect for African American music.

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A lovely painting of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, above, hangs in the Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery at Fisk University, left.



Quoted in Strong, Duke Ellington described Jazz this way:

“I used to have a definition.” he said, “but I don’t think I have one anymore, unless it is a music with an African foundation which came out of an American environment.”

Bergeen says, in Louis Armstrong, An Extravagant Life:

… jazz boasted a very complex, mixed lineage, but it is essentially African-American music.  You could remove the white elements … and the music would still recognizably be jazz.  But if you remove the black elements – the emphasis on improvisation, the polyphony, the complex rhythms, not to mention the all-important attitude that the music was part of daily life – the remainder would not be jazz.

I’m not sure that Bergreen is right that the white and black elements in jazz can be so discretely identified and separated out.  But in New Orleans, when Jazz was coming into being, some found jazz threatening, because of its association with African Americans.

Brothers describes a New Orleans newspaper piece that sounds like an attempt to build a verbal levee against the growing new  music:

…in a 1918 article about what is called  “the mansion of the muses.” Melody is said to occupy the great assembly hall; harmony, the sacred inner court; and rythm, the basement, the servant’s hall, where one hears the “Negro banjo, ragtime and jazz” – “its musical value is nil, and its possiblities of harm are great.”…By promoting vernacular practises, Armstrong and people like him asserted a different political position.

To play jazz, and to admire jazz, was a potent social as well as cultural statement.


Although the 1918 writer doesn’t mention it, any more than he mentions the Sanctified Church, blues too was an important source for jazz.

According to Wikipedia:

The blues… can be seen as a musical style based on both European harmonic structure and the West African call-and-response tradition, transformed into an interplay of voice and guitar.

Brothers quotes an 1863 description of how African Americans transformed European melodies (in this case, church melodies):

The congregation joined in, not reading the music exactly as good old Tansure composed it, for there were crooks, turns, slurs, and appoggiaturas, not to be found in any printed copy.

If the point of church music, especially African American church music, was to unify people through music, the point of blues music, originating in field songs, call and response, was fundamentally the same, which perhaps is why they blended together so well into the dance music that became jazz.

The music of the sanctified church emphasized the unity of melody, but also the idea that each individual sang a separate version, thus blending individuality and unity.  This too became essential to jazz. Blues emphasized improvisation, since it was not a written music and its tunes were simple.   Jazz became a music that prized improvisation, yet also prized unity; that prized melody, but also prized emotional expression.


Armstrong became the great champion of improvisation in serious music.  Bergreen explains it this way:

BERGREEN: The second thing that he does with his trumpet is to work in all sorts of subtle riffs. Now this was an innovation that he picked up from his second wife, Lil Hardin (ph), a great woman of jazz in her own right. And she described how she heard him whistling when they first met, and she loved the riffs that he whistled. And she encouraged him to work them into his trumpet-playing.


Lil may have given Armstrong a push he needed, and confidence to explore his ideas more freely and fully, but he had long been blazing a trail as an improviser.

It was during Armstrong’s  stint with  the Fate Marable Orchestra (where he also learned to read music), a jazz orchestra that toured up and down the Mississippie, that he began to solo regularly.  He met Lil Hardin later,  when he went to Chicago, soon after leaving Marable, to rejoin “King” Oliver, the man who had been his mentor in New Orleans. 

Lil pushed Armstrong to push on with his musical ideas,  emphasizing his own  soloing and riffing, always in balance with a strong ensemble.  Playing second ‘fiddle’  to Joe Oliver may have uniquely prepared him to do this, because it taught him to riff off the melody,  without breaking the feel of the group as a whole.  Armstrong himself always gave credit to King Oliver, more than anyone.

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Tribute to Jazz, inspired by Stuart Davis.

Sidney Bichet was, famously, Armstrong’s only challenger as an innovator of improvisational soloing.  But Bichet was more of a loner than Armstrong. 

The art of soloing,  as Armstrong developed it and bequeathed it to the music of his century, is a dance that takes place both between the soloist and his or her group, and – at the same time – between the soloist and the audience;  a dance in which the same attraction, and release, attraction, and release that ocurrs physically on a dance floor, happens in the mind. 

By that measure, at least, I think it’s fair to say that no musician ever matched Armstrong;  that every great musician after Armstrong fed off what he had done.

Louis’ artistry was rooted and steeped in the vernacular he grew up with. His first lessons in music took place in the Sanctified Church when he was a child, singing.  The Sanctified Church was the least respected church, but perhaps for that reason it was the one where the people felt the freest in their singing and dancing, where it was understood that the purpose of the music was to get the people moving together AND for each of them to feel the creative, expressive energy, the spirit, inside them. 

As the years of Louis’ childhood went by, he learned blues from street cart singers and  red light district piano players, adding this emotional and musical timbre to what he had learned in church. 

Armstrong learned about simplicity of expression from the folk music of the Jewish Karnovsky family that he worked with for some time, and he started his horn playing with thier help and encouragement.  From this developed a fascination for the musical street life of New Orleans, which from the days of Buddy Bolden blowing his horn so loud that it could be heard in the French Quarter  (a place far removed culturally, economically and socially from black New Orleans), had represented, among other things, an implicit claim to equality and a demand for social mobility. 

That musical street life, from funeral parades to advertising perambulations, also took the communal feel of the Sanctified Church music and raised the energy of it to a manic level, while  giving it a competititve edge.  Eventually, Louis’ increasingly wild ways got him in trouble and got him sent to a reform school.  But in that reform school he was taught formal basics of cornet playing.  Soon after release, he began to play with a scratched together orchestra in a cheap honky tonk, and was soon leading it.  He began to idolize Joe Oliver, then “King” of New Orleans jazz, and was in turn effectively adopted as musical son by Oliver.  Armstrong never tired of paying tribute to Oliver as a wellspring of musical ideas so endless, and an example of musical discipline and work ethic so relentless, that it was inspiration for a lifetime. 

When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago, Armstrong spread his wings in New Orleans, developing his reputation there as an increasingly mature artist and  spreading his reputation up and down the Mississippi  on a steamboat, as a performer  with the Fate Marable Orchestra. 

Finally Oliver called his mentee to Chicago, where Armstrong discovered that jazz music was respected artistically in a way that it was not in New Orleans, and where he married Lil Hardin, who encouraged Armstrong to become more sophisticated and assertive in his musical and career ambitions. 

Having won over Chicago, Armstrong moved to New York city, and won over New York City with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.  Returning to Chicago, Armstrong created some of the most influential jazz recordings ever made.

As the decades went by, Armstrong’s fame spread beyond the jazz world.  He spearheaded swing and become one of the most noted swing era band leaders.  He made movies and recorded popular songs, influencing singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra and beyond.  He feuded with the bebop generation, and then ultimately made his peace with them.  He toured the world as a good will ambassador, especially Africa, playing there and blazing a trail of cultural inclusion that Bob Marley would later follow up on.  He even made his highest commercial mark during the height of the British Invasion with “Hello Dolly”. 

Louis was what Quincy Jones once called Michael Jackson:  ‘the truth’.  He had an innocence to him, though he was far from naive.  I think it was this that caused the top cornetist in New Orleans, King Oliver, to take him on as a sort of apprentice/son..  This was extraordinary, because New Orleans musicians tended to guard their secrets jealously.  Yet,  it must have been hard to resist the joy young Louis Armstrong  took in music.  He radiates it in early pictures.

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Throughout his career this was, I think, Louis’ greatest strength.  Rivalry was the heat that cooked New Orleans jazz, but it was also a limitation.  Armstrong overcame it.  His writings are full of compliments for other musicians (of course he takes pot shots too).  He continually formed musical partnerships that were essential to his developement and to the developement of jazz:  King Oliver, Lil Hardin, Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines, Sidney Bichet, Hoagy Carmichael, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Dizzy Gillespie…

In an earlier story, about Kurt Cobain, I spoke of Louis Armstrong as a kind of John the Baptist to Martin Luther King’s Jesus.  I believe that he baptized our society in love and freedom through music.

Louis Armstrong died in 1971.  He never died.  He never will.  He’s with us not only in the music he made, but also in the music we make.

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This is an attempt to portray Louis Armstrong, though I admit it doesn’t look much like him!  But what I wanted to do was portray both the joy and the sadness in his face.


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