BOOKS NOVEMBER 22, 1999
Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings by Louis Armstrong
edited with an introduction by Thomas Brothers
(Oxford University Press, 255 pp., $25)
There came a time when Louis Armstrong decided that his importance as a musician and his status as a worldwide American entertainer were of such magnitude that he should produce his own documentation of his career. The first of those efforts was published in 1936, when Armstrong himself was not yet thirty-six years old. Its title was Swing That Music. No collaborator, editor, or ghostwriter was identified, not even when the book was re-issued fifty-five years later. Most of the personal information may well have come directly from Armstrong or was presumably approved by him, but not even the inscription in the book comes across as a credible approximation of either his voice on the page or his point of view. It runs as follows: "To the memory of the Original `Dixieland Five,' to `King' Oliver, to `Bix' Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang, now gone, and those other pioneers of a quarter of a century past, known and unknown, who created and carried to the world a native American music, who created swing. And, finally, to the young musicians of today who will carry it on."
The grateful list of names is not intended to be comprehensive, of course; but given the restricted nature of social relations in New Orleans when Armstrong was growing up there, did he himself really think of the Original Dixieland Five as more decisive for his conception of music than Buddy Bolden, who came before King Oliver? And what about Mister Peter Davis, who as bandmaster at the Waifs Home turned Armstrong into a cornet player in the first place? And what about the decisive influence of the blues, and of ragtime piano players including Tony Jackson, and also of old Jelly Roll Morton, whose "King Porter Stomp" dates back to 1903? And what about the impact of Armstrong's parade and funeral-cortege "second line" apprenticeship upon his art, or his Mississippi riverboat experience as a member of Fate Marable's crackshot band on the Dixie Belle, which took him all the way up north for the first time?
Swing That Music covers the chronology of Armstrong's career up to 1936, and it includes just about all the highlights and the significant transitions up to that point, except his trouble with the gangster owners of Chicago and New York nightclubs and with his manager Johnny Collins in England. But the book reads more like it was written for Armstrong than by him, or even with him, except for occasional interviews and consultations. It certainly is hard to imagine him at one of those c-span book events fielding questions about the career of the Original Dixieland Band. It is impossible to imagine him as the author of this representative passage: "They [Sidney Bechet on soprano sax and Ed Akins on trombone] actually got to London ahead of the Dixieland, which arrived about the end of 1917, and those boys took old London by storm. Nobody there had ever heard anything like it. Later on Bachet [sic] toured the Continent with Jim Europe's band."
Armstrong's second book-length autobiographical publication, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, appeared in 1954. It comes across as an "as told to" memoir, though once again no collaborator is listed. It obviously went through many revisings and polishings, but it comes closer to representing Armstrong's voice in its language as well as in its recollections and perceptions and attitudes. Of course, the accurate representation of one's voice on the page should not be confused with the verbatim transcription of one's voice in person or on the stage.
As any competent student of literary composition knows, the more natural and casual a voice sounds in print, the more likely it is to have been edited time and again. It is not a matter of making a record of things, memories, opinions, and notions as they come to mind. It is a matter of composition. Effective stream-of-consciousness narration is the product of verbal precision, not just of literal documentation. It is decidedly not a matter of unedited free-association. It requires as much unity, coherence, and emphasis as any other form of effective communication. As Count Basie made a point of telling his "as told to" collaborator (that is, myself) at the outset of the recorded interviews that were to be used as the raw-material basis for Good Morning Blues, the most likely effect that the publication of the literal transcriptions of his talk would create was the impression that he didn't know what he was talking about.
If it is properly done, the "as told to" autobiography represents how the subject wants his story told. To achieve this end, he enlists a competent and empathetic craftsman to make him sound as he thinks his voice should come across on the page; and unless he is completely illiterate, he must realize that producing a book is a matter of writing, not just talking and gesturing. You may imagine that the reader can hear your voice and see your gestures and share your memories, but the reader can do so only if they are all effectively rendered by the words as they are written.
Satchmo takes the Armstrong story only up to his arrival in Chicago in 1922 to join King Oliver's band, which was then playing at the Lincoln Gardens at Thirty-First Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. A sequel to Satchmo, much of which is said to have been a part of the original manuscript, was planned, but it is also said to have been suppressed by Joe Glaser, Armstrong's longtime manager, because it included numerous references to Armstrong's passion for marijuana, and his numerous questionable friends, and his troubles with unsavory or even criminal producers as well as law enforcement agencies. Glaser felt that such revelations would be extremely damaging to Armstrong's universally popular public image. After all, by 1950 he had come to be regarded as a worldwide American "ambassador of good will," a bona fide national treasure.
Armstrong is said to have continued to work on the manuscript for years; but no book-length drafts of it have turned up, in spite of claims by friends that he read parts of it to them from time to time. Now a new miscellany of selected writings has appeared, as Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words. It includes a 28-page selection labeled "The Armstrong Story," dated 1954, which recounts the years in Chicago, and it includes his marriage to his second wife, Lil Harding, a piano player, who also had become a member of King Oliver's band. There is also a short biographical summary labeled "The Goffin Notebooks," which was prepared sometime around 1944 for Robert Goffin, the Belgian jazz critic and historian who was writing Horn of Plenty, the first biography of Armstrong.
These notes begin with entries about Armstrong's life in New Orleans in 1918, and they include anecdotes about his first years in Chicago; his time in New York with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra; his return to Chicago and his stints with Lil's band, with Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra, and with Carroll Dickenson's Orchestra; his affair with Alpha Smith (she was to become his third wife); his return to New York, where he played at Connie's Inn and in Connie's Hot Chocolates musical on Broadway; and his trip out to California and Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. The text concludes with Armstrong's return to Chicago in 1931, and his troubles with criminal club owners about bookings:
Then this `Guy said--"I am `Frankie Foster." At `first--I `still didn't `pay it any `Attention--to `that extent. `Anyway--Then it `dawned on me what he said--And I `turned in `Cold `Sweats as I `Back `Cap'd--'Mugg'd--And took a `double look'--As I said to him--"What you say your `name wuz?: By this time he had his Big `Pistol--Pulling it out--As he said--"My name is `Frankie Foster." And he said he was sent over to my place (Show Boat) to see that I `Catch the first train out to `New York. I `still try to make it appear that he ain't `Frightening me.' I said--"New York? `Why--that's `News to me. Mr. Collins didn't tell me anything about it.'" Frankie Foster (a bad "sommitch") said, "Oh, yes'--'you're going to `New York to work at `Connie's Inn. And you're `leaving `tomorrow morning." Then He Flashed his Big ol' Pistol and `Aimed it `Straight at `me. With my `eyes as `big as `Saucers and `frightened too I said--"Well `Maybe I `Am `going to `New York." "Ooh `God." Then `Frankie Foster said--"O.K. The `Telephone `Receiver is `Down waiting for you to come and `say you'll be there. Now--`you and `me are going to the `telephone booth and you'll `talk." By this time--`Anything he `ordered of me was `alright--because it's no trouble at all for a `Gangster to `pull the `Trigger--`especially when they have you `Cornered and you `Disobey them." "Soooo" we went to the `phone (with a gun in my side) and sure enough, someone said hello, a familiar voice too--yes sir--I know that voice if I heard it a Hundred years from now. The first words he said to me was--"When are you gonna open here?" I turned and look `direct into Frankie Foster's face--and said "Tomorrow AM."
Armstrong wrote by ear. He did not write as one was taught to write in grade school, by pencil, pen, and blackboard chalk. Somehow the idea or the anecdote that he has in mind comes across, but it reads more like a very rough first draft, rougher even than a hurriedly dashed-off letter of gossip or a postcard from foreign parts. His grammar and his punctuation are hit-and-miss when they are not just eccentric.
Now, one can often get away with playing music by ear when it is not being recorded, but writing is another matter; its mistakes are not forgotten because they are still there to confuse us. The fact is that old Gates did not make that typewriter sing like his horn. He did not write as masterfully as he sang or as he spoke, in his instantly and universally infectious jive talk.
The new collection edited by Thomas Brothers includes also "The Satchmo Story," from early 1959, which Armstrong also labeled "The Satchmo Story Second Edition." (Perhaps he meant Satchmo, Volume Two.) Here Armstrong discusses the origins of his lifelong involvement with marijuana. He began to use the drug when he came back to Chicago from his first stay in New York. Armstrong regarded marijuana as a healthful herb that should not be classified as an illegal narcotic drug, and he continued to use it and to celebrate it, even though it got him into trouble with the authorities during a sensationally successful engagement in Culver City, "where I was blowing like mad at the Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club--upsetting all the movie stars... They would pack that great big fine place every night...."
The first time that I smoked Marijuana (or) Gage as they so beautifully calls' it some time, was a couple of years after I had left Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra—playing at the Roseland in New York ... And returned to Chicago ... It was actually in Chicago when I first picked up my first stick of gage ... And I'm telling you, I had myself a Ball....The days when I first found out about gage—there weren't any law against it—New York weren't `up on it…when I first went there…Of course `I wasn't `either at the time...I probably wouldn't have paid any attention to it either...But to me—I being a great observer of life, I happen to notice the white young musicians coming every night to this swell night club where I was playing—and although they had just finished their jobs, they still looked fresh—neat and very much contented—And they would really enjoy my trumpet playing with the highest enthusiasm that any human being could do for another—I just came up from the South, I was just thrilled with the closeness and warmth these great musicians, performers, etc. …And they would praise me, which sounded to me like they were swinging a tune… Beautiful… So it wasn't any problem when I went places with them… After all this knowing each other and when they'd `Light up, why--during the conversation, of whom ever be sitting around the room,--and at the same time--somebody or everybody would be `blasting like Heavenly,'--out of a clear skies a stick of gage would touch the palm of my hand--or the tip of my finger... "
Armstrong names no names—not even Mezz Mezzrow, the Chicago saxophone and clarinet player who was his main supplier for years, not only in Chicago but also in New York, where, as Mezzrow wrote in his own as-told-to memoir Really the Blues, "Louis and I were running together all the time, and we togged so sharp we got to be known as the Esquires of Harlem." Mezzrow himself was eventually done in by hard drugs. His appreciation of Armstrong was worshipful, but it was also illuminating:
Everyday, soon as I woke up about 4 in the P.M., I would jump up to Louis' apartment and most of the time catch him in the shower. That man really enjoyed his bath and shave. I would sit there watching him handle his razor, sliding it along with such rhythm and grace you could feel each individual hair being cut, and I'd think it was just like the way he fingered the valves of his horn, in fact, just like he did everything. When he slid his fingertips over the buttons, delicate as an embroiderer and still so masculine, the tones took wing as though they sprang from his fingers instead of his lips. They way he shaved put me in mind of the time Louis was blowing and I brushed up against him by accident, and goddamn if I didn't feel his whole body vibrating like one of those electric testing machines in the penny arcade that tell how many volts your frame can stand. Louis really blue with every dancing molecule in his body. He did everything like that, graceful and easy but still full of power and drive. He was a dynamo with a slight slouch.
About Mezzrow and music, Armstrong once remarked that "Mezz could explain every little iota of meaning in jazz, every little beat of the drum, riff of the piano, the changes in the blues and every little phrase he thought would benefit those Austin High School lads." (The latter were among his most enthusiastic fans and emulators in Chicago in the 1920s.)
Armstrong is said to have continued to smoke marijuana while serving out his suspended sentence in California, and he never stopped, recommending it to friends and admirers. Sometimes he provided it for members of his band for certain sessions. He thought it would improve their performance. "...First place it's a thousand times better than whisky ... It's an Assistant--a friend a nice cheap drunk if you want to call it that..." He always took great exception to the charge that "gage" was as damaging or as dangerous as other substances upon which musicians used to rely: "Much different than a dope fiend... A dope addict, from what I noticed by watching a lot of different `cats' whom I used to light up with but got so carried away they felt they could get a much bigger kick by jugging themselves in the ass with a needle--Heroin--Cocaine--etc--or some other ungodly shit ... Which would not ever phase a man like myself, who've always had a sane mind from the day I was born..."
In an article in the December 1951 issue of Esquire, also reprinted in Brothers's volume, Armstrong discusses certain selections from the epoch-making Hot Five and Hot Seven recording sessions in Chicago in 1926-1927, the recordings that announced Armstrong's preeminence as a definitive jazz innovator. In the arts, the actual avant-garde (as opposed to the theoretical one) always makes itself known by its real impact, its actual influence, rather than by declarations of intent and stirring, abstract manifestoes. When the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings were issued, Armstrong, who never produced a manifesto in his life, became the very embodiment of the avant-garde artist.
The Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings amounted to a musical revolution. Armstrong's solos became the model for the jazz solo on all instruments; and the impact of these sessions on jazz arrangement and orchestration amounted to the beginnings of an American approach to the concerto, or showcase, for solo instruments. The Hot Five and Hot Seven combos existed only as recording studio groups; they never played for a live audience in a club, a dance hall, or a theater. Still, their output became the model for a truly indigenous American chamber music—the actual venue for American chamber music being the rent party and other parlor socials, the honky tonk, the juke joint, the neighborhood bar and grill, the gin mill, the cocktail lounge, the small nightclub, and the like.
In an "editor's note," Esquire provided an appropriate introduction to Armstrong's reflections: "Mr. Satchmo Louis Armstrong couldn't be expected to write about Jazz of the Twenties in the usual way simply because he is a very unusual personality. Herewith, recording by recording—eighteen of them—Satchmo tells his own jazz story as it really happened; the people, the places, the inspirations. As always, he says what he has to say with freshness, originality and meaning—the way he would say it on his horn." Of course, the whole piece also reads as if it was carefully and respectfully edited, as it should have been.
Armstrong talks about the pieces as the recordings are played for him, and his observations are not technical or academic. He does not offer musical theory; but what he says amounts to a natural history of the processes involved in the creation of these masterpieces. These sessions are not only a celebration of the improvisation that is an indispensable element of the New Orleans music that produced Armstrong; they are also an extension, an elaboration, and a refinement of it, as Armstrong goes beyond King Oliver, while giving him credit for setting the standards that he is still trying to reach.
The result, again, caused a revolution in American musical taste and musical practice comparable to the effect that the innovations of Picasso and Braque had on contemporary art, and that the poetry of Eliot and the prose of Hemingway had on contemporary literature. In the music of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, the "barbaric yawp" of Whitman's energetic pioneers acquires the syncopated elegance of the blues. It is not at all far-fetched to imagine that Emerson would have discerned in the extraordinary solos of Armstrong's omni-American trumpet, "melodies of the poet [that] ascend and leap and pierce into the deeps of infinite time." If only the great American transcendentalists had heard "Potato Head Blues"! And what could announce the arrival of the genuinely American more truthfully than "West End Blues"?
In his comments about the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens in Esquire, the achievement that Armstrong is most happy to acknowledge is the fact that the pieces were played well, and are still a pleasure to hear. In these remarks he is not concerned with innovation, but with authenticity. What pleases him most about the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens is that the New Orleans musicians with whom he recorded in Chicago—Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet and alto; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Zutty Singleton, drums; Baby Dodds, drums; and his wife Lil Harding who had worked with King Oliver's band—played together better than he had expected, and his expectations were always high.
For some reason, the present volume does not include an autobiographical sequence about Armstrong's experiences in and around Storyville, the legendary red-light district in New Orleans, that was published in November 1947 in True magazine. The magazine observed about this little memoir that "although his manuscript contains many minor mistakes in grammar and punctuation, we, as editors, believe it contains some of the finest writing we have ever seen." It is indeed a highly effective sequence, which at its best reminds one of some of the old outrageous yarns that used to get spun and re-spun and challenged and topped and transfigured during those old fireside, bar room, and barbershop whisky-sipping sessions in lie-swapping. Here is a typical passage:
Two of the biggest funerals I've ever seen in New Orleans were Clerk Wade and Henry Zeno ... Of course Clerk was killed by one of his whores when he was standing at the bar in ... and she came in to ask him to take her back and he shun'd her and he abused her lightly in front of the other Pimps... She stood back and pulled out a shiny pistol and emptied it into his body ... Clerk died right there on the spot ... The district was very sad about it for days an days ... The day `Clerk was buried--I never saw so many girls crying over one man in my whole life ... All the pimps turned out also all the prostitutes--colored and white... Some of the Pimps were Pallbearers ... He was so famous until even the respectable people of the city--the churches were all sad over his death ... The woman who killed him pleaded guilty and told the judge she `supported him and `hustled for him and gave him every nickle she could rake and scrape... She was Aquited...
Armstrong's reminiscences here (and elsewhere) are no less a product of this old down-home practice—it is really a kind of aesthetic form—than are some of the poems of Langston Hughes or the fiction of Ralph Ellison. When Ellison finished Invisible Man he wrote to a friend and literary colleague at Tuskegee that his editor was "having a time deciding what kind of novel it is, and I can't help him. For me it's just a big fat ole Negro lie, meant to be told during cotton picking time over a water bucket full of corn [whisky], with the dipper passing back and forth at a good fast clip so that no one, not even the narrator himself, will realize how utterly preposterous the lie really is."
Such lie-swapping may best be delivered in a highly idiomatic rhetoric, including the crudest forms of dialect. In print, though, these mischievous narratives will not be enhanced by illiterate imprecision. After all, publishers hire editors to correct such rawness. Talking is one thing and writing is another, even when the subject is the same. In terms of sense and coherence, what is the average reader to make of the following?:
I was still married to `Lil Armstrong--she was also out in Califomia with me the whole time I was out there. Also the man she `claimed she had him `travel with her from New York everywhere she would go to `Massage her `Hips.-Keeping them from getting too `large--`UMP--She sure must have thought I was a Damn fool `Sho Nuff.' As if I didn't know her `Hips are sure to `Ignite' from the `Friction.'--Later on, I found out that this `Guy' and `Lil had been "Going together and `he'd been `Spending my `money for years.
So while I was out at the `Cotton Club out in `Culver City--`Alpha came out there too. The `Lord Must have sent her out there to me.--As `surprised as I were, that she came--I was `Glad to see her also. `Alpha said she `love me so, she happen to be thinking `strongly `about me in `Chicago. And after she had finished doing her `Show out in `Cicero Ill., which she was a chorus girl on `Al Capone's Night Club--`Lucky Millender was the `Producer. `Alpha said she was so `Blue from `thinking about me, and `missed me so "terribly much," that she `Boarded a `Train for `California. And before she knew it--she wuz in `California she gotten `Scared--'lost her `nerve--and thought that I'd get `sore with her for `coming `way out there. But I was so `glad to see her again, which I hadn't for `months and `months. I just couldn't help but say to her--"Now that you are `out here you might as well `stay and I'll find you a `room"--which I `did. So after `Lil and her `sweet `Daddy return home from `Califomia in my `Car, I sent for `Alpha to come back home in `Chicago. Alpha's `mother Mrs. `Smith was still staying in that old `Shabby Apartment at `33rd and `Cottage Grove Avenue. So since I was back with `Lil,' Alpha went back `home and lived with her `Mother.' —
Alas, for all the attention that Armstrong himself called to his serious and on-going commitment to writing his own story, and to his constant use of the typewriter and the dictionary, both of which he took along on all of his travels, there is very little evidence in any of his published writings that he ever grasped, say, a junior high school-level of competence in the fundamentals of grammar, syntax, and meaning. Surely they are just as indispensable to the writing of even the simplest narratives as the rudimentary technical elements that he spent so much time practicing and mastering in order to play his music.
Armstrong had much to say over the years about musicians he admired and imitated, but the only mention of a writer that comes to mind is a somewhat questionable reference to Mark Twain in Swing That Music. And there is no impressive evidence in any of Armstrong's writing to suggest that Twain's prose motivated Armstrong to master the typewriter as King Oliver and other New Orleans jazz musicians had inspired him to master the cornet and the trumpet.
If only he had realized that right there in Esquire, along with all of those fly threads that all of the big-city sharp cats were checking out in the 1930s, was Hemingway, and that he was swinging a lot of American prose very much like Armstrong was swinging the blues and pop song choruses, and was trying to put other writers hip to how it was done. "Listen," Hemingway wrote in a dialogue entitled "Monologue to the Maestro" in Esquire in October 1935, "when you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it's much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write, your whole object is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil, you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First, when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damn good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier."
The irresistibly elegant good taste that is always there in Armstrong's music is mainly absent from his "writing." Surely nothing that ever came out of his horn was as embarrassingly corny as the oft-repeated phrases such as "red beans and ricely yours," "Pluto waterly yours" and "Swiss Crissly yours," with which he used to conclude his letters. In the language of music, Armstrong's mind was perfectly immune to banality and cliche. When he began featuring current popular songs and show tunes as a regular part of his repertory, his rendition of conventional lyrics had an influence on popular vocalists that was comparable to the influence that his trumpet stylizations had on jazz instrumentalists and arranger-composers. In the introduction to the original edition of Swing That Music, Rudy Vallee observed: "That Armstrong's delightful, delicious sense of distortion of lyrics has made its influence felt upon popular singers of our own day cannot be denied. Mr. Bing Crosby, the late Russ Columbo, Mildred Bailey, and many others, have adopted, probably unconsciously, the style of Louis Armstrong."
The painfully obvious shortcomings of Armstrong's writing take nothing away from his achievements as a musician, of course. Nor do the numerous instances of factual imprecision disqualify Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words as a useful historical document. The excellent notes and commentaries by Thomas Brothers, the author of Chromatic Beauty in the Late Medieval Chanson, provide a great scholarly service. While this collection of miscellaneous autobiographical pieces can hardly be said to add up to a significant literary achievement, the evocative effect of some of its narrative lines and its anecdotes is considerable.
Indeed, Armstrong's character sketches are instantly credible, and not without literary merit:
I'll never forget the first time Soldier boy took me out to the Club, where I first heard that band play, I almost jumped out of my skin ... The little slick headed drummer (with his hair--gassed to kill) and he kept it slick and shiny ... A fly would have slipped and broken his neck immediately ... And that's for sure ... Konks were the thing in those days ... I can remember that time when I joined `Smack Henderson (Fletcher's pet name) I spent the whole day having my hair gassed--so I could make a big hit when I left Chicago to joint Fletcher Henderson's band.
Speaking of Konkilines (hair do). As far back as I can remember,--this cute little drummer in Elkins `band and Arthur Bryson, our once great dancer--were the only two guys whom I admired the way they kept their hair looking so pretty and so shiny all the times... [S]o you had to be real hipped and be sharp--feel sharp--and stay sharp ... And that's just what this cute little drummer--playing in Elkins band did ... His smile was infectious (I think--that expresses what I mean.) When this little `Cat would be drummin smiling while twirling his drumsticks he never missed--he was perfect at it. Smiling with his chops stretching from ear to ear ... I couldn't stand it... I just let out a yell and a scream ... It was too much ... Folks--that little drummer was Lionel Hampton...
Brothers's book broaches also another aspect of Armstrong's life, and a far-reaching one. It begins with a section labeled "Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, L.A., the Year of 1907." This text was written by Louis Armstrong in his bed at Beth Israel Hospital in New York, on March 31, 1969. It is memoir of his experiences, at the age of seven, in 1907, with the Karnofskys in New Orleans, where Armstrong was born.
In this manuscript, Armstrong expresses his gratitude to one Dr. Gary Zucker, whose treatment pulled him twice through intensive care. The expert and tender ministrations that he received at Beth Israel put him in mind of the warm, caring relationship that he had enjoyed with the Karnofsky family, for whom he worked when he was a boy. Hearing Dr. Zucker singing "Russian Lullaby," he writes: "This is the song that I sang when I was seven years old—with the Karnofsky family when I was working with them, every night at their house when Mother Karnofsky would rock the Baby David to sleep. Then I would go home—across the track, cross town to May-Ann and Mama Lucy my mother and sister." And a few paragraphs later, he goes on to say:
I had a long time admiration for the Jewish People. Especially with their long time of courage, taking So Much Abuse for so long. I was only Seven years old but I could easily see all the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for. ... Even `my race,' the Negroes, the way I saw it, they were having a little better Break than the Jewish people, with jobs a plenty around. Of course, we can understand all the situations and handicaps that was going on, but to me we were better off than the Jewish people. But we didn't do anything about it. We were lazy and still are.
And he adds that "we never did try to get together and show younger Negroes such as myself to try and event o show that he has ambitions and just a little encouragement--I could have done something worthwhile. But instead we did nothing but let the young upstarts know that they were young and simple, and that was that."
This flatly contradicts what he wrote in Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans about Mister Peter Davis, the bandmaster at the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, who made him a cornet player as well as a student bandleader. "The first day we paraded through my old neighborhood," Armstrong there recalled, "everybody was gathered on the sidewalk to see us pass.
All the whores, pimps, gamblers, theives and beggars were waiting for the band because they knew that Dipper, Mayann's son, would be in it. But they never dreamed that I would be playing the cornet, blowing as good as I did. They ran right up to Mama, who was sleeping after a night job, so she could see me go by. Then they asked Mr. Davis if they could give me some money. He nodded his head with approval, not thinking the money would amount to very much. But he didn't know that sporting crowd. Those sports gave me so much I had to borrow the hats of several of the boys to hold it all, I took in enough to buy new instruments for everybody who played in the band."
It is curious that there is no mention of the Karnofsky family during the Waifs Home period.
Armstrong's late celebration of his relationship with the Karnofsky family is very affecting. And I must add that it is not a very unusual or surprising story about southern Jewish Americans and their black employees. I recall that in Mobile, Alabama in the 1920s and '30s, one had schoolmates whose Jewish employers encouraged them, and even insisted that they go to high school, and also continued to employ them during the summer breaks if they went on to college; and some of those fine people were said to patronize their former employees who became doctors and dentists.
Many of Armstrong's outbursts are overly sentimental, obsequious, ill-tempered, wrong-headed, and glibly misinformed. Still, not unlike the soliloquies in a play, they serve the indispensable biographical function of complicating the protagonist's character, by providing concrete evidence in his own words that this man, whose charm was legendary, and whose lifelong motto was "I'm always there in the cause of happiness," also had his hang-ups.
The editor rightly does not allow this dimension of Armstrong's complexity to go unremarked. In his introduction to the book's first section, Brothers notes that that "there are references to `over Educated fools' who condemn the `White Folks Nigger.' To them, Armstrong sharply retorts: `Believe it--the White Folks did everything that's decent for me. I wish that I can boast these same words for "Niggers. I think that I have always done great things about uplifting my race (the Negroes, of course) but I wasn't appreciated.'" About this, Brothers wisely comments: "The document may be read, in part, as a commentary on the change in audience that sectionalizes Armstrong's long career: During his apprenticeship in New Orleans and during the first great peak of his career, in the 1920s in Chicago, he played almost exclusively for blacks; the last decades of his career found him playing almost exclusively for whites, while many African Americans resented the cultural role in which he seemed to thrive."
In any case, how could Armstrong ever forget how obvious and how enduring was his influence on those education oriented Negroes who went to high school and college in the 1930s? They not only studied and memorized his music, they also admired and emulated his personal deportment (the neatness symbolized by his clean white handkerchiefs, for example) and the elegance of his up-to-date but unfaddish tailor-made wardrobe. They may have rated Duke Ellington's diction as classier, but Ole Louie's was the jive talk you had to be able to lay on them if you wanted to be a hip man about town, a cat whose life was geared to swinging. (And if you weren't, no use licking your chops!)
When the musicians of that generation came into prominence, moreover, the overwhelming majority of them always acknowledged their indebtedness to him. And when he clowned before predominantly white audiences as he never did before black audiences, they didn't go around ridiculing him. Some may have shaken their heads or rolled their eyes in bewilderment and exasperation--as Ralph Ellison, whose admiration of Armstrong's musical tone and inventiveness was second to none, used to say, "Man, sometimes ole Louie shows his ass instead of his genius"-- but they always referred to him, and always addressed him, as Pops. And so do their children and grandchildren.
Still, in sharp contrast to the ease with which he seemed to combine the role of musical genius and court jester and minstrel clown, and refer to himself as Satchel Mouth, Satchmo, Satch, Dipper Mouth, Dipper, Dip, Mo Mouth and Gate Mouth, Armstrong did not take kindly to condescension. Not even Lucille, his fourth and (according to him) his most wonderful wife, could get away with rubbing him the wrong way, status-wise. "By, Sweets having that baby for me," he wrote, uncharmingly, to Joe Glaser on August 2, 1953, "gave Lucille the best ass whipping of her life. As nice + sweet + as wonderful as she is she still has a sense of `Airs' that I've never particularly cared for--Being raised around people who were, just plain human beings, and loved (at least) respect for each other. And not the Attitude that you're just a musician or low trumpet player, Smokes, Reefers, etc. That I'm more than you type, which is all Bullsh-t. Which Goes to show, that I Can tolerate Anything, as long as it doesn't interfere with my trumpet."
The primary emphasis in Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, is where it should be, on the wonderful fact that nothing was ever more important to Armstrong than blowing that horn. Certainly not the accumulation of great wealth, and not fame either, which he feared would restrict his freedom to be himself and to spend his spare time doing what he wanted to do, which was hanging out with friends wherever he happened to be, making the rounds, dropping in on neighborhood bars, night spots, informal parties, sitting in with bands and joining jam sessions whenever he was moved, requested, or simply welcome to do so.
...you see; I've always been a happy go lucky type of sort of fellow in this way—I never tried in no way to ever be real real filthy rich like some people do and after they do they die just the same…
But Mary-Ann had already `hipped to what was happening in this healthful wide beautiful world... So, by me doing that (even before I heard of gage) I was always the happiest young trumpet player that anyone ever wanted to meet ... From this first time I picked up my trumpet, or the one that was out to the Orphanage, I was a popular youngster... Success has always been—mine…
The wide range of autobiographical documentation that Brothers has included in his volume makes it a very significant source for the study of Louis Armstrong. Meanwhile, for those in search of an Armstrong memoir that transcends the obvious limitations of the provincial-idiomatic yet retains the flavor of his extraordinary voice, there remains "Louis Armstrong, A Self-Portrait," the interview with Richard Meryman that was published as the cover story in Life in April 1966 and slightly expanded and republished as a small and handsome volume (with illustrations) by the Eakins Press in New York. It is still unsurpassed. Meryman asked expertly crafted questions, and then shaped Armstrong's various answers into a fine, uninterrupted narrative. In the Armstrong centennial that is upon us, surely Armstrong's only successful exercise in as-told-to autobiography should be made available again.
If getting the voice on the page is the objective, consider the Armstrong-Meryman vamp:
I'm always wondering if it would have been best in my life if I'd stayed like I was in New Orleans, having a ball. I was very much contented just to be around and play with the old timers. And the money I made--I lived off of it. I wonder if I would have enjoyed that better than all this big mucky-muck traveling all over the world--which is nice, meeting all those people, being high on the horse, all grandioso. All this life I have now-- I didn't suggest it. I would say it was all wished on me. Over the years you find you can't stay no longer where you are, you must go on a little higher now--and that's the way it all came about. I couldn't get away from what's happened to me.
And here is the outchorus:
I've had some great ovations in my time. When people do that they must feel something within themselves. I mean you don't go around waking people up to the effect of saying, "You know, this music is art." But, it's got to be art because the world has recognized our music from New Orleans, else it would have been dead today. But I always let the other fellow talk about art. 'Cause when we was doing it, we was just glad to be working up on that stage. So for me to be still on earth to hear that word, sounds pretty good. I'm just grateful for every little iota.
Some cats wants pats on the back, and they wants you to kneel down 'cause they did this and did that and they are so and so. But I still feel I'm just an ordinary human being trying to enjoy the work I live. It's something to know you still can make that call when the man say, `All on.' That's enough wonderment for me ...."
And not for him only.
Albert Murray is the author of Stomping the Blues (Da Capo) and The Omni-Americans (Da Capo).