Meet Louis Armstrong – musician. You, the reader, may be muttering, “You must be joking: Everyone knows Louis Armstrong – musician and trumpet player, and he’s still world- famous even though he is long-gone from this earth!” In reality, only a tiny fraction of the many people around the world who “know” Louis Armstrong actually does.
Years ago, as a teen-aged, aspiring trumpet player, I had Louis Armstrong pegged as an old-timer from New Orleans whose trumpet playing sounded frayed around the edges. His questionable virtuosity on the trumpet seemed somewhat offset by his appealing “feel” for the music of his home town. His was an infectious style of playing – real soul – the inevitable outcome of growing up in the “Big Easy,” I reckoned. That’s all.
And I knew of his singing with that raspy voice. Songs like “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello Dolly,” and “It’s a Wonderful World” were very popular back in the nineteen-sixties. Armstrong had an awful voice… yet listening to him was and is, strangely, a pleasurable experience. Why is that? One thing was certain: Mr. Armstrong was a unique entertainer with his ever-present smile which often verged on “mugging.”
I knew nothing about Louis Armstrong, in reality! I discovered Louis Armstrong – jazz pioneer and trumpet player without peer once I began to seriously delve into music and my own trumpet playing – late in life. The eye-opener for me was the Ken Burns video opus titled, Jazz. That excellent, comprehensive documentary on the history of jazz took me way back in time to Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. It was then that I realized what a sensational musician he had been on the trumpet in his prime and how he, perhaps more than any single individual, defined a new style of playing which ultimately evolved into the musical genre known as “jazz.”
Then I read more about Armstrong – biographical accounts, and I listened to his early recordings (now on re-mastered CDs). I quickly realized that this man was not only the finest trumpet player of his era – by far – he was also an irresistible force stirring the winds of change which brought us new music – music which ranged from New Orleans and Chicago jazz to the big-band swing tunes of Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw, and Harry James. Jazz has continued to evolve from the seeds planted and nurtured by Louis Armstrong – even today.
I ultimately appreciated that his true stature as a musician evolves from both the brilliance of his playing in the early years and his unique musical phrasing which freed musicians from the prison of playing the music exactly as written. Armstrong’s creative, improvisational style heralded the beginning of modern jazz. The well-regarded authority, Gary Giddins, has said there is virtually nothing musically that came along later that did not have echoes of Louis, Louis….Louis.
Out of the Mud Grows the Lotus; A Most Improbable Story!
I agree that fact is stranger than fiction. I can think of no better illustration than the life-story of Louis Armstrong. Born in the slums of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, his father nowhere to be seen, his mother a part-time prostitute, little Louis (not “Louie”) did what it took to survive, much as his mother Mary Ann (he called her May-Ann) did. The youngster was born at 723 Jane Alley, on the edge of black Storyville, the red-light district where black sex was readily for sale. He lived among the worst squalor extant in New Orleans, and it was there that he began to learn all there was to know about life and living. He, like so many of the black youngsters, moved readily among the pimps, prostitutes, and cut-throat thieves that inhabited that infamous section of New Orleans.
There was another small class of individuals that caught the attention of Armstrong and most of his young pals, and these folks were the local musicians who played in the whore-houses, bars, and honky-tonks. These people, although almost as poor as the rest of the residents, were held in quite high esteem and even idolized by the boys in the neighborhood. For most Storyville residents, life offered little of cheer beyond alcohol, sex….and music. Little Louis and the other boys heard their music from the sidewalk, listening while standing outside joints like the “Funky Butt Hall” located across the street from the Fisk School for Boys which Armstrong began attending in 1907.
Little Louis and the Karnofsky Family who “Adopted” Him:
A Lifelong Respect for Jewish Industry and Ambition
At seven years of age, young Armstrong was working for a large Jewish family, the Karnofskys. Their little business involved buying and selling rags, junk, and coal. Louis pushed his little coal-laden wagon around Storyville, delivering small quantities to various enterprises including those operating in prostitute’s cribs. The Karnofskys took a liking to little Louis, often inviting him to stay for dinner after the day’s work was done. He was frequently included in their daily family rituals.
I purchased a very enlightening book on Louis Armstrong several years ago at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The title reads, Louis Armstrong in His Own Words – Selected Writings. It was edited by Thomas Brothers. Revealing his debt of gratitude to the Karnofsky family for their kindnesses shown him as a young boy, Armstrong pens some very strong words while comparing Jewish attitudes toward personal industry and self-improvement to the behaviors he had long observed on the part of poor black people, especially those he lived among as a boy. While blacks in the South were clearly “held down,” Armstrong saw, first-hand, similarly prejudicial attitudes toward poor Jews like the Karnofskys. In his opinion, Jews were not much better off in that regard. He also noticed that the Jews stuck together while patiently executing their self-crafted plans to lift themselves by their bootstraps – actions he claimed not to see from his black bretheren. Armstrong wore the Star of David for the rest of his life in remembrance of the Karnofskys.
These are startling accounts and accusations coming from a major adult black voice. His choice of words in the writings is blunt and brutally frank.
When Armstrong left New Orleans to conquer the world with his talent, he often encountered racist attitudes which stung him and his fellow blacks. It is clear from his writings that these incidents left scars, yet he managed to defer the pain and embrace the white entertainment culture which quickly accepted him and made him a star. His willingness to play the white man’s game engendered criticism from many black colleagues at the time, some of whom accused him of “Uncle Tomming.”
Young Louis was once advised by an older, wiser black friend in New Orleans to, “Always have a white man in your corner.” The mature Louis took that advice to heart in the form of Joe Glaser, a tough character with mob connections who managed Armstrong’s career for decades. Despite the disparity of backgrounds and interests, they had mutual respect for one another, and Armstrong was freed to perform his music, free from the headaches of booking and book-keeping. For his all-inclusive role, Glaser received half of Armstrong’s considerable earnings!
The often present, toothy smile across Armstrong’s beaming face irritated some of his black critics, to be sure, and some white folks were not quite sure how to take him. His image was distinctly different from the smooth, sophisticated demeanor of a Duke Ellington, for example. To decipher Louis Armstrong, one must understand the forces that shaped him. I see him as a blend of two people: On the one hand, he was a basically kind, well-meaning human being who loved to please and who was easily pleased, needing not much more in life than his music, audience approval, and basic human respect; on the other hand, he was a worldly man, given his bulging dossier of life-experiences, many of which were bound to leave scars.
Louis, himself, confidently and proudly wrote (I paraphrase perhaps a bit), “There’s nothing I ain’t seen!” That certainly includes a lot of good and, undoubtedly, a bunch of “bad.”
It all began for little Louis Armstrong when the Karnofsky’s advanced him some pay so he could buy a battered, used cornet. He learned to really play his horn in the Colored Waif’s Home band where he found himself at age eleven, having been sent there for being involved in some Rampart Street mayhem on New Year’s Eve. After leaving the Waif’s home, young Louis hung around the local musicians, learning from them and finally coming to the attention of Joe “King” Oliver. Joe Oliver also played the cornet (a first-cousin of the trumpet which Louis later adopted) and fronted some local musical groups. When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in search of fame and fortune, he eventually called for Armstrong to come and join him, there. That was in 1922; from there, the rest is history as Louis proceeded to outplay everyone in sight with his unique musical phrasing, his pure tone, his high-register capability, and his overall technical proficiency. It was his phrasing, his interpretation of the written music, which made him the singularly most influential musician in the whole history of jazz and its development. It was his phrasing of music, his improvised elaboration of basic melodies that made listening to his vocals a pleasure despite his gravelly voice. And, always present and a significant factor, was his perfect intonation, or pitch.
Armstrong traveled the world, playing numerous command performances before kings, queens, and presidents. His real-life story makes Cinderella’s storybook transformation look rather mundane, by comparison. Later in life, as his raw talent on the trumpet declined, his music had become distinctly commercial. That was the Louis Armstrong I first encountered as a youngster. That was not the Louis Armstrong that garnered such musical acclaim as a young man – the musician you really should know and appreciate.
Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived their late lives in a very modest house in Queens, New York. There were no security guards; there was no gated property. At the end, Louis Armstrong was, fittingly, merely a “resident of the neighborhood” whom everyone knew just as he was in New Orleans at the beginning of it all.
A good, readable biography is Pops by Terry Teachout.