Unbeknownst to some, a large elephant turns up at the party when New Orleans celebrates the birthday of its native son, the late, great Louis Armstrong at the Satchmo SummerFest held in early August. For his entire life, the legendary trumpeter and vocalist declared his birthday to be July 4, 1900 and he along with friends and fans worldwide observed that date. That tradition continues at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, his longtime residence in Queens, New York as well as other locales including right here in his hometown.
Some 15 years after “Pops” passed away on July 6, 1971, New Orleans historian Tad Jones discovered a baptismal certificate that indicated, and some say proved, that Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901. On what many consider flimsy evidence, history books were changed, and now the date is often described as Armstrong’s “real” birthday. It has also been insinuated that Armstrong conjured up being born on the Fourth of July as a more striking date.
Folks from all walks of life—jazz historians, musicians, ordinary fans—come down on all sides of what remains a controversial issue. Some keep the faith in July 4th, others give the nod to August 4th and then there are those who think Armstrong deserves two birthdays. SummerFest is presented in acknowledgment of the August 4th date.
Perhaps no one is more adamant in opposing the change of date than New Orleans trumpeter/vocalist Gregg Stafford. Stafford, who has been performing traditional jazz for over 40 years, says he won’t play at the Satchmo SummerFest for this very reason.
“My feeling was always that, okay, if Louis Armstrong celebrated his birthday all his life on the Fourth of July, he must have known that—they must have told him that,” Stafford states. “It’s as if to say that he was lying about his birthday. He wasn’t around to challenge it, so what are you going to do, change his birthday because of a paper that says another date?”
Notably, Armstrong has been quoted saying that his mother called him a “firecracker baby” in reference to being born on Independence Day.
Most New Orleanians would agree that accurate record keeping isn’t exactly this city’s strong point. At the turn of the century its reliability could be even more askew. This point was mentioned by jazz historian and Armstrong friend and biographer, Dan Morgenstern, at one of Satchmo SummerFest’s seminars. He said he was told by a historian that baptismal certificates from this period (early 1900s) were often unreliable.
“I always felt that you don’t know what type of person the priest was who signed the certificate,” Stafford says. “He might have been somebody who was just mean-spirited and said, ‘He wasn’t born on the Fourth of July.’ People do things like that. Everything on paper isn’t the truth.”
“At that time, there are numerous stories of African-Americans going [somewhere] and someone writing down what they wanted to write down,” says Cherice Harrison Nelson, known as Queen Reesie among the Mardi Gras Indian Nation. On July 4, 2013, her family tribe, the Guardians of the Flame, presented a “Birthday Breakfast Bash” at the [Big Chief] Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum on, appropriately, Independence Street in the Ninth Ward.
“It was my mother’s [Herreast Harrison] idea,” Queen Reesie explains. “She’s going to do things in a manner to celebrate the culture in the ways that the people who birthed the culture and bore the culture celebrated it. So he celebrated his birthday on July 4th and that’s good enough for her. A lot of people called and said, ‘Right on!’”
“My feeling is that people tend to dwell into the social lives of black people and sometimes don’t understand the way black people live,” agrees Stafford, who, soon after the issue came to light, second lined in protest with the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club of which he is a founding member.
“There was a little old white lady that came out there and she was about 90-something years old and she came out of nowhere,” Stafford remembers with an affectionate laugh. “She was standing to the side and said ‘Yeah, that’s right, that’s why I’m out here too. If Louis Armstrong said he was born on the Fourth of July then that’s when it should be. I was around when he was playing in New Orleans.’ She was right there with us.”
On a light-hearted take, trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins, who adores “Pops” and was hugely influenced by watching his videos, admits he doesn’t know the validity of the dates. “I think he’s always been one of the most blessed men in the world so maybe he should have two birthdays.”
“I think of all the years he enjoyed his life celebrating his day on that day,” Stafford says. “For that reason in itself, they shouldn’t have changed it.”
The love and admiration of Louis Armstrong will abound at Satchmo SummerFest from all the musicians on every stage. A piece of paper can’t change that.