“Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart!” -Billie Holiday
I told a tourist the other day that St. Louis Street, as well as the cathedral at Jackson Square, are both named for Louis Armstrong: “After all,” I said, “we have Armstrong Park, Louis Armstrong International Airport—he is our city’s favorite son—so naturally we have canonized him!”
Not really, but it’s not a stretch. We’ve literally put Saint Satchmo on a pedestal. Too bad—even though he deserves it, he never wanted it. Let’s start at the beginning: the grandson of slaves, the illegitimate son of a part-time hooker and an absentee laborer, raised mostly by a local Jewish family when he wasn’t being shuffled from pillar to post for a pallet. He was reared in a dirt-poor slum, selling buckets of coal to the Storyville prostitutes (and listening to his musical hero, Joe “King” Oliver), picking up scrap from the back of a drawn wagon and cacophonously blowing a tin horn—“he played it every day, all day”—to attract business. It was while working and tootling “one of them long tin horns that they celebrate Christmas with” that he spotted a beat-up cornet in Jake Fink’s Loan Office (Pawn Shop) on Perdido and South Rampart Streets. Morris Karnofsky, the rag, bone, bottle and metal (junk) collector that he worked for, lent him the $2 down payment on the $5 instrument. The rest he paid on time from his hard-earned pay.
The Karnofsky family, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, took little Louis in and even welcomed him at their table, what they called "cupboard love" back then. “Mother Tillie” would make sure that he was fed and even taught him Russian lullabies, because he also had a good voice. The Karnofskys were the first to encourage Louis’ playing and singing; nurturing him in his early life, this kid from a broken family. Louis forever wore a Star of David, relished Jewish food, and praised his adopted traditions, giving full expression to this double helix of cultures—Jewish and African American—all of his days. The solidarity that he felt was well-earned and given freely. It seems that New Orleans has perpetually had an element of haves and have-nots, and, like it or not, Africans and immigrants have generally had to go through periods of exclusion and prejudice until they come into their own. The Africans, Irish, Germans, Sicilians and Eastern European Jews all were looked down upon and left to hard scrabble—basically because they were poor—until they created a prosperity of their own making.
One of the things that united them was music. That music is called jazz. Jazz is the people’s music and, at the time of Louis Armstrong’s childhood, jazz was demanding attention.
Singing/scatting in street spasm bands by age 10, Louis fit into music like a hand into a glove. A performer from an early age, he never tired of wanting—and getting—attention, eating it up like chicken on Sunday and, as we all know, is now called forward for his “prodigious virtuosity and extraordinary talent”. It is not enough to say that he got very very good on his horn; he was, simply put, a musical god. A god that was treated unfairly enough by his city from day one. It was unfair to the extent that he lived out his life away from here and is buried in Queens, New York, not far from where the house that his wife bought in 1943 is located, which he called home until his death in 1971.
The fact is that Louis Armstrong grew up poor and powerless and he never forgot that. The neighborhood that he grew up in was called “The Battlefield” (AKA Black Storyville) because of the gambling, drunkenness, whoring, fighting and shootings that occurred there. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade and started working. Louis had to hustle because he was the wage earner of his family, which included his mother and his sister. He was sent to the Waif’s Home at age 11 for firing his stepfather’s pistol on New Year’s Eve and spent three years locked up. It was there that the band director Peter Davis recognized his talent and potential—as did Louis—and when he was released, his musical muse called and he followed. He played in New Orleans bands in his early teens, riverboats at 18, up to Chicago, over to New York and back, bringing jazz and blues to appreciative audiences and making money before he was 21. Between 1925 and 1928, Armstrong cut more than 60 records with his band The Hot Five. It was then that Armstrong single-handedly transformed jazz into a soloist’s art.
Louis Armstrong was married four times and was reputed to have taken many lovers. He regularly smoked marijuana and kept in good health (according to him) by taking routine intestinal purges. He publicly boycotted New Orleans since its banning of integrated bands in 1956. He was raised with prostitutes, pimps, and prejudice and, with his immense musical ability, he escaped that and became an international celebrity. But he soon found, whenever revisiting the South, that not much had changed since his childhood, even into the 1960s. Segregation of restaurants, hotels, theaters and performing venues disgusted him. Viciousness, discrimination and violence aimed at blacks by whites scared him. Explaining a resistance to demonstrate publically, he stated, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched!” He had already been the target of a bombing in Knoxville at an integrated performance in 1957. He cancelled a trip to Russia in the same year protesting the Alabama guardsmen’s anti-integration military occupation of a Little Rock high school. “They’re going to ask me what’s wrong with my country and what am I supposed to tell them?” He spoke out against it and President Eisenhower’s inaction and was reviled by blacks and whites alike for his actions and words. It was as if stepping out of the role of an affable, jolly, horn-playing minstrel was an affront.
In 1964, he won a Grammy in Beverly Hills for best song (“Hello Dolly!”). The next year when he returned to New Orleans, it was on the heels of the killing of Malcolm X on February 21 and Bloody Sunday (March 7), when state troopers, armed with tear gas, bull whips and billy clubs, attacked nearly 600 marchers in Selma who were protesting the police shooting of a voter registration activist. He was able to see different sides of our country’s prides and prejudices. Because of his talent he was loved and revered, because of his color he was disparaged.
If Louis Armstrong was alive today, would he find New Orleans very much different than the New Orleans that he knew? Sure, the streets have been paved (kind of), most everybody has electricity and running water. There’s gentrification and the white-washing and green-washing of our city infrastructure, but have we really advanced? Why is it that the majority of successful African Americans leave their New Orleans neighborhoods and even the city as a whole to find security and peace for themselves and their loved ones elsewhere?
In Louisiana, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, child poverty, violent crime, obesity, unemployment and neglect of the environment are still among, (if not) the highest in the country. Add to this the bleak futures for the 73 percent of young blacks graduating high school (the lowest percentage in the country), the income disparity, and low-paying jobs for our workforce minorities—it can be depressing and oppressing. It’s true that we have come a long way, but things are far from perfect. Any person living here needs to prove his or her worth, same as everywhere else. It’s just that some segments of our population have to work harder than others to make that point or else be beaten down by the powers that be, who act, in their own interests, with impunity.
It was talent that let Louis escape and the hatred of Jim Crow that kept him away. There can be no doubt that he knew what it meant to miss New Orleans or the sleepy time down here in the South; and he knew what it was like to be black and blue in America.
Photos provided by Louis Armstrong House Museum