Louis: Black and Blue and Triumphant

“Louis just moved me so. It sounded so sad and sweet, all at the same time. It sounded like he was making love to me. That’s how I wanted to sing.” —Billie Holiday, recalling her girlhood in Baltimore.

At a recent panel discussion in New York, musicians and critics were asked to name the most influential soloist in jazz history. Unanimously, we shouted, “Louis Armstrong!” And the audience thumpingly agreed.

This was not the universal view in the early years of modern jazz. Listeners who thought the music began with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie called Louis an Uncle Tom, always grinning and mopping his face on television with that big white handkerchief. A young Dizzy Gillespie even talked of Louis’ “plantation image.” But by 1970, at the Newport Jazz Festival, Dizzy was saying: “If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been none of us. I want to thank Louis Armstrong for my livelihood.”

Back in the late 1940s, around midnight, backstage at Boston’s Symphony Hall, I interviewed Louis. He was very tired, having just finished a long concert during which, as usual, he gave everything he had. But gracious, as always, he talked to me for an hour or so. He didn’t grin once. I don’t remember what set him off, but he spoke mostly about race in America, what he’d gone through and was still going through. He wasn’t so much bitter as hurt that it was still going on and he couldn’t see when it would stop.

So I wasn’t surprised when, in 1957, he exploded when Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas, scorning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional, sent Arkansas National Guard units to prevent black students from entering Little Rock High School. And while black kids, yelled and spat at by venomous mobs, kept trying to get into the school, President Eisenhower did nothing except to speak of “extremists on both sides.”

On the road, Louis told reporters: “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell! The President has no guts!”

In New York, Louis’ manager, the terrible-tempered Joe Glaser, sent an emissary to tell Louis to shut up. That kind of talk, he roared, was bad for business. Louis threw the messenger out of his dressing room.

Glaser, originally from Chicago, was not unknown to Al Capone in his business dealings there. Once, in Glaser’s New York office, I was startled to see on the wall a painting of the antebellum South with happy darkies playing the banjo and singing. I knew Glaser. He had never shown a hint of irony or humor, and I wondered what his black artists thought of that Jim Crow celebration.

Louis again spoke out—despite Joe Glaser—in 1965 when local and state police brutally attacked the participants, black and white, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Selma, Ala. Louis, in Copenhagen during a European tour, noted acerbically, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched... My life is music. They would beat me in the mouth if I marched... Tell me, how is it possible that human beings treat each other in this way today? Hitler is dead a long time—or is he?”

The superb jazz photographer Herb Snitzer tells of one of many encounters Louis had directly with Jim Crow. It was in 1960 after the world-famous ambassador of jazz had triumphed in Europe (as chronicled on Ambassador Satch, available again on Columbia). Snitzer wrote in the now defunct Reconstruction magazine: “We set out on a bright warm Saturday afternoon headed north, with everyone in a good mood. The bus did not have a toilet, so somewhere in Connecticut we stopped in order for Louis to go to the bathroom. I was stunned when the owner of a restaurant, clearly on the basis of race, refused him use of the otherwise available facilities.

“I will never forget the look on Louis’ face. Here he was... a favorite to millions of people, America’s single most identifiable entertainer, and yet excluded in the most humiliating fashion from a common convenience.”

But as Dizzy Gillespie once pointed out—after having retracted his comment about Louis’ “plantation image”—Louis Armstrong all his life represented “an absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life.”

And, obviously, no musician has given so much joy to so many others—and to so many musicians. Ruby Braff—whom Louis voted for “New Star” on trumpet in the 1956 Encyclopedia of Jazz Yearbook—says on his Arbors recording Being With You: Ruby Braff Remembers Louis Armstrong: “Whatever you play, you go to the university of Armstrong for the rest of your life, and you never graduate.”

Originally published in October 2000

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