On October 31, 1965, Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong gave his first performance in New Orleans, his home town, in nine years. As a boy, he had busked on street corners. At twelve, he marched in parades for the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he was given his first cornet. But he had publicly boycotted the city since its banning of integrated bands, in 1956. It took the Civil Rights Act, of 1964, to undo the law. Returning should have been a victory lap. At sixty-four, his popular appeal had never been broader. His recording of “Hello, Dolly!,” from the musical then in its initial run on Broadway, bumped the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” from its No. 1 slot on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and the song carried him to the Grammys; it won the 1964 Best Vocal Performance award. By the time the movie version came out, in 1969, he was brought in to duet with Barbra Streisand.
Armstrong was then widely known as America’s gravel-voiced, lovable grandpa of jazz. Yet it was a low point for his critical estimation. “The square’s jazzman,” the journalist Andrew Kopkind called him, while covering Armstrong’s return to New Orleans for The New Republic. Kopkind added that “Among Negroes across the country he occupies a special position as success symbol, cultural hero, and racial cop-out.” Kopkind was not entirely wrong in this, and hardly alone in saying so. Armstrong was regularly called an Uncle Tom.
Detractors wanted Armstrong on the front lines, marching, but he refused. He had already been the target of a bombing, during an integrated performance at Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park auditorium, in February, 1957. In 1965, the year Armstrong returned to New Orleans, Malcolm X was killed on February 21st, and on March 7th, known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers armed with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips attacked nearly six hundred marchers protesting a police shooting of a voter-registration activist near Selma. Armstrong flatly stated in interviews that he refused to march, feeling that he would be a target. “My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn … they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”
When local kids asked Armstrong to join them in a homecoming parade, as he had done with the Colored Waif’s Home in his youth, he said no. He knew the 1964 Civil Rights Act was federal law, not local fiat. Armstrong had happily joined in the home’s parades in the past, but his refusal here can be read as a sign of the times. The Birmingham church bombings in 1963 had shown that even children were not off limits.
And yet little of what Armstrong said about the civil-rights struggle registered. The public image of him, that wide performance smile, the rumbling lilt of his “Hello, Dolly!,” obviated everything else. “As for Satchmo himself,” Kopkind wrote, “he seems untouched by all the doubts around him. He is a New Orleans trumpet player who loves to entertain. He is not very serious about art or politics, or even life.”
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To be fair to Kopkind, and many others who wrote about Armstrong, they did not know much of what Armstrong thought, because, at the time, Armstrong’s more political views were rarely heard publicly. To the country at large, he insisted on remaining a breezy entertainer with all the gravitas of a Jimmy Durante or Dean Martin. Fortunately, that image is now being deeply reëxamined. This month, the publication of Thomas Brothers’s “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism” and the Off Broadway opening of Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” (which follows his 2009 biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” which was reviewed in the magazine by John McWhorter) provide a rich, nuanced picture of what was behind Armstrong’s public face.
Armstrong’s thoughts were scattered about in uncollected letters, unpublished autobiographical manuscripts, and tape recordings. He brought a typewriter with him on the road, and an inquisitive fan who sent a letter stood a good chance of getting a reply from Satchmo himself. When reel-to-reel tape decks were introduced, he bought one so that he could listen to music, study his own performances, and record conversations with friends and family to get down his own version of events. Scholars and researchers have been studying his writing and recordings for a number of years. Teachout’s play, a one-man show starring John Douglas Thompson, is based on more than six hundred and fifty reels of tape stored at Queens College, all of which reveal an Armstrong who did indeed take art, politics, and life seriously.
His talk came from the streets, as did his understanding of race, celebrity, and politics. In 1951, when Josephine Baker returned to the United States from France, she complained publicly of racist treatment at New York’s Stork Club, and persuaded the Copa City night club, in Miami, to desegregate for her shows. Armstrong was not impressed. In 1952, according to a transcript in Ricky Riccardi’s “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years” (2012), he said:
But she’s going to come over here and stir up the nation, get all them ofays—people that think a lot of us—against us, because you take a lot of narrow minded spades following up that jive she’s pulling—you understand?—then she go back with all that loot and everything and we’re over here dangling. I don’t dig her.
The key word is “we’re.” Armstrong grew up poor and powerless, and he never forgot it. Despite his fame, he understood the repercussions for a community after the celebrity savior jets home. “I don’t socialize with the top dogs of society after a dance or concert,” he said in a 1964 profile in Ebony. “These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro.”
Armstrong chose his battles carefully. In September, 1957, seven months after the bombing attempt in Knoxville, he grew strident when President Eisenhower did not compel Arkansas to allow nine students to attend Little Rock Central High School. As Teachout recounts in “Pops,” here Armstrong had leverage, and spoke out. Armstrong was then an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Armstrong stated publicly that Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts.” He told one reporter, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” His comments made network newscasts and front pages, and the A.P. reported that State Department officials had conceded that “Soviet propagandists would undoubtedly seize on Mr. Armstrong’s words.”
Doing things Armstrong’s way, no one had to accept responsibility for his actions but Louis Armstrong. When Eisenhower did force the schools to integrate, Armstrong’s tone was friendlier. “Daddy,” he telegrammed the President, “You have a good heart.”
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The work of Thomas Brothers, a professor of music at Duke University, radically undercuts the breezy image that Armstrong worked so hard to maintain. Brothers began editing Armstrong’s letters and writings in the early nineteen-nineties, now collected in “Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words.” He followed that with his own “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans” (2006), and, this month, with “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism,” which charts Armstrong’s peak creative period, from 1925 until 1932. It’s not so much biography that Brothers is after as a history of “black vernacular” music as seen through Armstrong’s life. In the book on New Orleans, he traces that music from plantation culture through Armstrong’s youth, and on to his move north, in 1922. “Master of Modernism” picks up as Armstrong’s mentor, Joe (King) Oliver, summons Armstrong to join his band in Chicago. Brothers discounts comforting histories of the early jazz world as an oasis where race was irrelevant, a multi-cultural melting pot that created a uniquely American sound. Armstrong’s music came from the black tradition, from his own neighborhood, which he modernized for Chicago’s upscale cafés, theatres, and fast-paced, flashy, urban clubs.
By 1925, after a three-year apprenticeship in Oliver’s band and, later, a stint in Fletcher Henderson’s group, Armstrong formed his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens combos. Here he perfected his mature horn style, a New Orleans sound broken down into what Brothers calls a “microscopic level of blues phrasing” sped up into a “dazzling melodic flow” of “weird, crazy, and eccentric figures.” Armstrong was part of the Great Migration, the movement of Southern African-Americans to Northern cities to escape Jim Crow terrorism. His local audiences were made up of many people in transition, just like him. “The connection to the Deep South could still be heard, but there was also a step up and forward into a more professional world,” Brothers writes. “He was a modern, sophisticated, northern, well-paid musician. Whether he knew it or not, the task that lay before him was to help his audience understand themselves more deeply by providing them with a musical identity that was black and modern. This is the context of his mature style.”
Brothers also convincingly dismisses the idea that Armstrong was a purely instinctive, improvisational artist, a lucky savant whom fortune favored with a cornet. In recently discovered copyrighted music for “Cornet Chop Suey,” which contains an early gem of a solo registered in 1924, but not recorded until 1926, Brothers shows that Armstrong was, in fact, an intellectual musician who composed his breakthrough solos. Of another solo, Brothers writes, “The chiseled perfection of ‘Big Butter and Egg Man’ came from working on it night after night, like a sculptor fussing over a chunk of marble. Armstrong changed the history of jazz solos by composing rather than improvising.”
The solos, with their incredibly fast breaks, their “freakish” (as traditionalists called them) squawks and “wah-wahs,” were considered pure noise, just novelty music, by many. Complaints from critics about Armstrong’s clowning dogged him all his life. But he made brilliant, satirical use of humor, which you can hear in his biggest hits of the twenties: “Heebie Jeebies,” “Big Butter and Egg Man,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” In the first of that trio, Armstrong offers an early example of scat singing. He did not invent scat (as was mistakenly thought for decades), but here he popularized it by cheerfully mocking the song’s inane lyrics with his own nonsensical sound, one that flows along with the melody better than the original words.
His humor revealed an irreverent man with a distinctly black point of view. On “You’re Drivin’ Me Crazy,” from 1930, Armstrong stops the band momentarily to chide their sloppy performance. One musician answers, in a typical stuttering minstrel style, “Aw, Pops, w-we j-just m-muggin’ lightly.” Armstrong starts to answer in that stuttering style, too, then catches himself. “Aw, man, now you got me talkin’ all that chop suey.” Here Armstrong’s wisecrack undercuts a century of the minstrel humor expected of him by many white listeners, a simple joke making clear who Louis Armstrong really is.
By 1929, Armstrong was a cultural hero in Chicago. Yet his next innovation, his vocal style, raised questions about whether he was assimilating in order to attract white audiences (his “white turn,” as Brothers calls it) by recording pop hits that left his jazz fan base behind. In “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a widely recorded song of the day, which Armstrong sang in the Broadway musical “Connie’s Hot Chocolates,” he takes a modernist’s approach of distancing himself from the source material, not assimilating. As he put it, “On the first chorus I plays the melody, on the second chorus I plays the melody around the melody, and on the third chorus I routines.” Like “Heebie Jeebies,” Armstrong irreverently comments on the song as much as plays it. His voice remains unassimilated, as well. As Brothers puts it, he sang with “a voice as different from the normative style of Broadway show singing as black and white … mixing scat, blues, double-time, and witty paraphrase, keeping things humorous and accessible.” A voice that made Armstrong’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” a distinctly black mainstream hit, and one heard all the way through “Hello, Dolly!”
“That he was not interested in cultural assimilation is an indication of psychological security and confidence,” Brothers writes in “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans.” “It may also be taken as a political stance. To insist on the value of vernacular culture and to reject assimilation was not an idle position to take. There were considerable ideological pressures working in the other direction.”
Yes, unfortunately, there were. One example, of too many, came when Armstrong was arrested by the Memphis Police Department in 1931. His crime? He sat next to his manager’s wife, a white woman, on a bus. Armstrong and his band were thrown in jail as policemen shouted that they needed cotton pickers in the area. Armstrong’s manager got him out in time to play his show the next evening. When he did play, Armstrong dedicated a song to the local constabulary, several of whom were in the room, then cued the band to play “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Old Rascal You.” The band stiffened, expecting another night in jail, or worse. Instead, he scatted so artfully that, afterward, the cops on duty actually thanked him. Armstrong most likely never quit smiling that night. His subversive joke was not understood by anyone except the African-Americans in his band.
Race pervaded every aspect of Armstrong’s career. After he began making movies, he was given an embarrassing jungle outfit to wear in “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue” (1932), a betrayal of everything in his music. Brothers likens the ideology of nineteen-thirties racism that Armstrong lived under to what other musical geniuses suffered overseas at the time:
In Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich came under attack for composing music that did not fit official Soviet expectations; his efforts to make up for such “errors” in artistic judgment lay at the root of a tortured life. Richard Strauss’s German-themed compositions were easily appropriated by the Nazis, boxing him into an image that he wanted nothing do with.
Armstrong, in his own way, made that same point. During the Little Rockschools standoff, he cancelled a planned tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department. As Teachout quotes him in “Pops,” “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country? What am I supposed to say?” Yes, Armstrong compromised. “If he was going to advance further on the ladder of his career—and he definitely was—he had to assure white audiences on a deep level that he had no designs on social progress,” Brothers writes.
But, in fact, he did, which we see now in his art and in his racial politics, from his interactions with the Memphis police in 1931 and Eisenhower in 1957 to his return in 1965 to New Orleans, without grandstanding or incident. As the pieces come together, a consistency of thought in Armstrong once obscured to us has finally become clear: “You name the country and we’ve just about been there,” he said of his travels with his wife Lucille. “We’ve been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We’ve had an audience with the Pope. We’ve even slept in Hitler’s bed. But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I’ve got sense enough to know that I’m still Louis Armstrong—colored.”
Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and the editor of the anthology “The Best American Comics Criticism.” He is currently working on a history of American humor set between the world wars.