Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, but he didn’t stay in the city. This weekend is our annual Satchmo SummerFest, the festival that pays tribute to one of the musicians New Orleans claims as a “native son”: Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong was born in a very poor section of New Orleans into relatively dire circumstances on August 4, 1901; his father abandoned the family not long after he was born. His mother worked as a prostitute and left him largely in the care of his grandmother. He worked for the Karnofsky family as a kid; they encouraged his musical talent and even invited him to their home to share meals.
When Louis was only 12, he celebrated New Year’s Eve by firing a gun into the air (many still do this in New Orleans) and was arrested by police and placed in the “Colored Waif’s Home For Boys” where he was taught how to play cornet, and began to dream of being a musician. He was mentored by Joe “King” Oliver, a cornetist of local renown, and began to develop a reputation as a good player. But Armstrong still worked menial jobs to make ends meet, then married a girl when he was only 17—a marriage that was unhappy from the beginning. He also adopted his second cousin, a mentally disabled three-year-old, whom he cared for his entire life.
That same year, Armstrong ‘s chops were such that he replaced King Oliver in Kid Ory’s popular New Orleans band and made enough money to become a full-time musician. Eventually, Armstrong started playing summers on riverboats, playing with different bands, and in the process met other established jazz musicians. Ultimately, Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago when he received an offer from King Oliver to join his band. From there he moved to New York, then back to Chicago, and never returned to New Orleans to live, although he loved the city and cited it as a musical influence for the rest of his life.
This is a story that could have been written about many black musicians, to this day.
I thought about Armstrong when I saw Jon Batiste and his Stay Human Band perform on Stephen Colbert’s show last night. I heard the New Orleans in his music and saw it in his interactions with Colbert (priceless!), and saw him mesmerize a New York audience and lead them into the street to party and second line.
When I started OffBeat almost 30 years ago, I did so because I didn’t quite understand why there were so many fantastic, world-class musicians, and so little appreciation for their artistry at home. OffBeat was going to market and promote local music to both locals and reinforce the idea of New Orleans as a “music town” to visitors. I was brought up in the suburbs, had two parents present in the household, and frankly, wasn’t physically immersed in the culture that created New Orleans music (although I definitely was musically).
When you look at Louis Armstrong’s story, it seems almost like it could have happened today. Armstrong was a talented black kid who grew up dirt-poor, had a gift that was recognized by mentors, and who went on to become one of—if not the most—influential jazz musician of all time.
This is an age-old story.
It’s rather easy for white people to have cavalier attitudes about life for black people in the South and in America as a whole. We cannot possibly comprehend what our brothers and sisters have gone through: what they have experienced—and sadly continue to experience–every day. The prejudice is real; it still exists; it’s propagated by stereotypes that still permeate our culture. What impact does this have on our musicians? Will they continue to stick it out and stay in a place where they’re disrespected and not treasured, just because of the color of their skin? Or will they ultimately leave this place and go somewhere where they are respected, similar to what happened to Louis Armstrong?
These thoughts were resurrected by the recent experience of trumpet player/educator Shamarr Allen, who was stopped by police last week, handcuffed and manhandled, for no reason at all, except for the fact that he is a young black man.
I’ve known Shamarr for several years and have nothing but admiration for him. He’s not only a great musician; he’s a responsible citizen and father. He takes his own time to educate kids from his neighborhood—the Ninth Ward, where he grew up—in music. “In my neighborhood, the only role models the kids see are drug dealers and criminals,” he said. “I want to a positive role model for these kids, to give them the chance to break out of the mold and do something positive.”
Allen puts himself out there, with no bones about it. His experience with a posse of State Police—who ostensibly say they were searching for an “escaped inmate” last week was horrific and totally uncalled for.
Think about how many times you may have had an interaction with the police. Were they polite? Respectful? Did they drag you out of your car and threaten you after handcuffing you? Did they throw you onto the ground while pointing a gun at you and putting a boot to hold your head down? Search your cell phones? Is this something that regularly happens to white people?
Even if these policemen suspected Allen of harboring or assisting the supposed escapee (which they told him was the reason for their actions), why was it necessary to abuse him? He had no weapon and cooperated with police.
The worst thing about this is that Allen has had several run-ins with police. He’s been followed, stopped; his gig money has been taken and not returned; he was stopped by police on his way to drive his son to school.
The guy doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. He’s a musician who makes a good living, takes care of his home, car and children (as well as others’ kids), teaches youngsters to give them a different and better outlook on life, and wants to serve as a role model in the community.
But he is a young black man, with long hair, who drives a nice car, and happens to frequent the Ninth Ward—because that’s where he grew up, and where his family still lives (the police who stopped him let him go—he had done nothing—but warned him not to go into the Ninth Ward again).
What’s wrong with this picture?
If you will take the time, I want to introduce you to Shamarr, and you decide after hearing his side of the story in this exclusive in-depth interview with OffBeat. Listen to what a young black person has to endure—not in the time of Louis Armstrong—but last week.