“He was born poor and died rich and never hurt anyone along the way.”
That’s how Duke Ellington described Louis Armstrong, that remarkable man who changed the face of music in the 20th century forever. His biography is just the kind of rags to riches tales we Americans love, but with one big difference. He didn’t see his childhood as squalor to escape from, though by all sociological standards it was. Speaking of it in his autobiography, he writes:
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. 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 e people, being high on the horse, all grandioso. All I 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 come about. I couldn’t get away from what’s happened to me.
But man, I sure had a ball there growing up in New Orleans as a kid. We were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you. Music kept you rolling.”
And music kept him rolling his whole life. He resisted the trappings of fame and fortune, never built a Graceland or Never-Never Land or moved to Beverly Hills or a penthouse in Manhattan. He lived in a modest house in Queens (still there to tour—I recommend it) and hung out on the stoop with the neighborhood kids. He was America’s great cultural ambassador, funded by the State Department to bring jazz to England, Brazil, Ghana, Russia and beyond, hobnobbed with kings and presidents, while always remaining indisputably himself. My kind of guy.
Early in his performing career, his manager Joe Glaser encouraged him to smile for the audience and he adopted a trademark grin that endeared him to the white audiences, but later drew “Uncle Tom” criticism from the next generation of black musicians. He suffered greatly from that criticism, but he was from another time and by then the man and his grin were fused in a forever persona.
But from what I can gather, it was also wholly sincere. He just loved music and loved playing music and loved what music did to a group of people gathered in a room. He had no thoughts of using music to right society’s wrongs, just wanted to get up on that stage and blow and let the joy begin! Step to the side when politics came careening down the road. On one of his State Department tours to the Congo, he was asked a political question and replied:
“I don’t know anything about it. I’m just a trumpet player. The reason I don’t bother with politics is that the words are so big. By the time they break them down to my size, the joke is over.”
Let’s face it—politics is a dirty business filled with lies and false promises and shady deals, a joke that’s not funny when the laws get changed, the refuge of scoundrels who mostly want to get ahead and swing their heavy stick of power. Bring politics into the conversation at the family gathering or the neighborhood party and get out of the way—that will not be a pleasant evening. People will divide quickly, choose up sides, throw things at the other side, both of whom are certainly wrong while the other both are certainly right.
Ah, but music is filled with truth, all notes properly felt and played fulfilling their promise, no notes scampering over the heads of the next note in the scale to get to the top first. The lies in music, the inauthentic, the trivial, the merely commercial, are quickly sniffed out and unlike politics, the audience is not shy to declare emperors without clothes. Music crosses both sides of the lines we draw to keep us apart. Bring music into a gathering and all that squabbling puts up the white flag of truce.
That was what Louis stood for. And it turned out to be a major factor in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling to de-segregate schools. Read on to Part II to find out how.