It is difficult to say something about Louis Armstrong that is original or new. He is one of the most analyzed and debated American and New Orleans figures. As I go through the process of designing the New Orleans Jazz Museum for the State of Louisiana, I spend a lot of time thinking about Armstrong: who he was, what he saw, what his life was like, how he played what he did. Besides being the most influential American musician in the history of the United States, he touched millions around the world and is as quintessential an American as George Washington or Babe Ruth. He combines and epitomizes so much that is good about music, America, and people that it is hard to quantify. Most of the world thinks of him as being a kindly man who played the trumpet, carried a white handkerchief, smiled for the camera and sang gravelly voiced tunes such as “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly.” However, he was an artist of the highest order and talent. For instance, in the New Orleans Jazz Museum, there are nine separate sections, but only one dedicated to solely one musician: Armstrong. He was New Orleans in everything he did and he took that attitude around the world and even into space.
Armstrong grew up in the early 1900s in as abject poverty as you can find. He lived with his grandmother, who went out behind their house to pick grasses and wildgrowing herbs for food and medicine. His neighborhood of Jane Alley at Liberty and Perdido was a slum that has given way to the urban renewal of City Hall and the Public Library. He got his musical and street smarts from running around the music clubs, places of ill repute, and slums that dotted this neighborhood known as Black Storyville. I picture Armstrong as being like the kids who tap dance today on Bourbon Street. All of that never left him even as he moved to Chicago to play with King Oliver and then traveled the world.
In Chicago, he first made a name for himself for his supple and loud sound in Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Then several years later, he changed music forever by recording his Hot Five and Hot Seven. These supreme artistic statements rank him as a modernist as much as T.S. Eliot and Picasso. Scholar Phil Schaap calls these “the Rosetta Stone of jazz itself.” They culturally and artistically raised both jazz and Armstrong himself as art and artist. His virtuosity was unparalleled. The opening solo on “West End Blues” still amazes, but it’s also the rhythmic drive of “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” the strength and suppleness of “Cornet Chop Suey,” the improvisational call and response with Earl Hines on “Weather Bird.” In some ways, music doesn’t get any better than this. It’s a young band and leader stretching out, feeling, and exerting their power. Even almost 100 years later, these tracks never cease to thrill.
This is the pinnacle of Armstrong’s work, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of it suffers in comparison. His big band recordings in the 1930s redefined how jazz singers could vocalize. His 1950s Columbia recordings of the works of Fats Waller and W.C. Handy are melodic, down-home and simply fun. There’s the sublime “Azalea” with Duke Ellington in 1961 and a joyous tune that has become a recent New Orleans standard, the Zimbabwean “Skokiaan.” Any one of these would make an artist’s reputation and career, but Armstrong had them all. His work is so revered that a recording of one of his last songs, “What a Wonderful World,” was put on the Voyager space craft that has now become the first manmade object to leave the solar system. The scientists at NASA wanted to show the best that the planet Earth has to offer in case an alien civilization comes across the Voyager, and that best is Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong had talents other than as a musician. He was a fine cook (his recipe for red beans and rice is in the current Armstrong exhibit in the U.S. Mint on Esplanade and Decatur). Recently books of his correspondence have been published, and he is a funny, perceptive and occasionally ribald writer. Armstrong also made reel-to-reel tapes of his favorite records, television shows, and simply the goings-on in his house. He would make detailed and abstract collages on the cases of those tapes, and they are works of art in themselves.
Armstrong was also an example of a black man as a strong virtuoso and independent thinker in a time when images of African-Americans ran the gamut of racist caricatures. His mugging for audiences, once thought of as being an Uncle Tom, goes back to older tropes and methods of AfricanAmerican stagecraft. Any thoughts of him being an Uncle Tom were squashed in 1957 when he did an interview in North Dakota at the time of the Little Rock Central High desegregation crisis.
When asked about it, Armstrong said, “It’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He called President Eisenhower “two-faced” with “no guts.” In reference to Arkansas Governor Faubus, he called him a multiple syllable curse before toning it down with the reference “uneducated plow boy.” He also added, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” Few if any AfricanAmericans spoke so forcefully about this, and he became even more of a hero to the country’s black population and some of the white population too.
In addition, Armstrong took his New Orleans roots with him wherever he went. His virtuoso musicianship, a New Orleans trait, was obvious. But he also embodied the folksy sophistication that marks New Orleans. The way that different types of people mix and cross paths in New Orleans allows people to be comfortable in many varying situations. Armstrong embodied this sense of being able to hang anywhere from “the penthouse to the outhouse.” He was equally at home with British royalty, Harlem gangsters, Third Ward pimps, and church ladies. He also was very comfortable in his identity and who he was. He took many of these aspects of New Orleans and brought them to the world. He in some ways developed them and made them synonymous to the world with New Orleans. These days anyone can see them in New Orleans natives from Ellen DeGeneres to Tyrann Mathieu to Donna Brazile. They have drunk at the Crescent City well that Louis Armstrong embodied as a New Orleanian, a jazz musician and an artist of the highest order.