A friend I know as intellectual and a roots music aficionado waved off Satchmo, saying the man’s main interests “were pot and Swiss Kriss.” When I told her that the late Louis Armstrong gave Eisenhower the finger, metaphorically, she lightened up a bit: “I would have given him the finger too.”
For those who don’t know, Armstrong’s “finger” flew during a 1957 interview with reporter Larry Lubenow
from the University of Arkansas. Satchmo called Ike “two-faced” and condemned him for having “no guts,” after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to temporarily preserve segregation in Little Rock.
For good measure, the trumpeter called Faubus a “no-good motherfucker,” but Lubenow could of course not go to press with that. He did allow the reporter back into his hotel room after the Associated Press demanded proof of the two-faced, no guts remarks. “Don’t take nothing out that story,” said Satchmo. “That’s just what I said and still say.” At the bottom of Lubenow’s copy he wrote one word. “Solid.”
And that word can stand in, surprisingly enough, for most of Armstrong’s “decline,” defined by Riccardi as the span from the 1947 NYC Town Hall concert, until Satchmo’s overworked heart gave out in 1971. Riccardi finds much less fault with these years than most jazzbos and even most Satchmo-watchers. He methodically goes about rehabilitating Armstrong’s Act II.
And comes up with a fetching, sticky web of evidence. Armstrong taught “Mack the Knife” to swing before Bobby Darin turned it into a theme song. He let his heart show on “Blueberry Hill” before Fats Domino cut it a shade more smug. He led his All-Stars band all across the globe playing music planted in New Orleans’ classic style, but green and growing from its roots.
Many dismissals of latter-day Satchmo, the author argues, stem from misunderstandings. His upbringing taught him to value showmanship and entertainment as much as “artistry.”On race, he’ll always suffer for not marching; even Riccardi concludes as much, but his New Orleans upbringing taught him to cling to the nearest powerful white man (i.e. manager Joe Glaser). In those days, that was not an option as much as a survival tactic.
“They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I would not be able to blow my horn,” he told a reporter in Denmark after the Montgomery riots in 1965. “They would even beat Jesus if he was black and marched.” But onstage that night he blew “Black and Blue” until everyone knew what he was talking about. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country,” he’d told Lubenow about a proposed trip to the USSR. “What am I supposed to say?” He said it with song, with the horn, with all-inclusive artistry.