August 4 marks the 110th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s birth.
His music and singing were revolutionary, shaping the jazz idiom of the 1920s as the first great solo artist, elevating the individual with the clarion horn above the ensemble or orchestra by laying out ballads and up-tempo rollers with such passionate beauty that he became, in time, an international legend.
Armstrong grew up, severely impoverished, with his mother and sister; he barely knew his father and by mid-adolescence he was building his reputation as a powerful cornet player in the Onward Brass Band. At 22 he caught the train to Chicago and joined the band of his mentor, Joe King Oliver.
Musicians in Chicago who heard the Creole Jazz Band were dazzled by his solos and, within a few years as he pushed on to New York, the poetic force of Armstrong’s instrumental work – matched by the gravelly tenderness of his voice – put him at the apex of the new American music as he galvanized audiences in Europe. That so many of his records are still played today, 40 years after his death, is a sign of his universal appeal.
His influence on American culture was greater than that of most novelists, painters, film stars, other musicians and a great many politicians to boot. The magic of his singing touched a dancehall sensibility rooted in American vernacular art; his trumpet work, particularly on classics such as “West End Blues,” has a springtime freshness that brings to mind the pristine quality that does each reading of The Old Man and the Sea. Works like that have a purity and depth that sounds through each encounter; a classic never gets stale.
Like Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong symbolizes something greater than his art form; his life’s struggle and the quality of his work made him an American original. The rough-hewn vocalist with brilliant trumpet work had a comic persona, easy jokes and the Cheshire Cat’s grin, while the off-stage sense of humor saw the world as it was. Once, when Artie Shaw asked him what was going on, he shot back: “White folks still in the lead.” In 1956, when he rebuked President Eisenhower after the Little Rock desegregation crisis, and in the years leading up to his death in ’71 when he refused to play in New Orleans because of the way black people had been treated, he evinced a cold candor that for most of his career he had kept carefully in check.
“Armstrong’s open-heartedness was central to his character,” writes Terry Teachout in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, an able biography. “Though he loved the New Orleans of his childhood, he never claimed that it had been anything other than ‘Disgustingly Segregated and Prejudiced (sic).’ Yet he never yielded to the temptation to treat white musicians as he had been treated by whites.”
That he adored his mother is clear from Satchmo, the 1954 memoir he wrote on his own typewriter, as he did letters, articles and shards of reminiscences that would later be published in anthologies of his work. A grade-school dropout and self-taught writer, he looked back on his early years in the rough central city neighborhood called Back O’ Town with an amalgam of tenderness, humor and gritty realism.
The most important event of his life is one this city – blood-spattered, full of youths shooting youths in drug battles – should heed. He was arrested at 11 for shooting a gun on New Year’s Eve. A judge sent him to the Colored Waifs’ Home, where he got structure, a horn, music lessons and an idea of the rewards – a good life – that come to those who work straight and hard. For the rest of his life he credited that period of his early adolescence in “the Home” for changing his life.
Well before Hurricane Katrina hit there was no equivalent of the Colored Waifs Home, or its later incarnation on the same pastoral grounds in Gentilly called the Milne Boys Home. The Youth Study Center, a city-run warehouse for at-risk youth, is a miserable failure, and there’s nothing in our city of juvenile drug wars to remotely resemble the facility that turned little Armstrong’s life around.
As the bands turn out for Satchmo SummerFest this month, the tourism industry will – for the millionth time – put jazz music and its makers in the marketing parade. The story of Armstrong’s life, and the lessons of character and discipline that come with true musicianship, stand as a model of redemption that could be taught to street-hardened youths whose first crimes merit a second chance. That is what Louis Armstrong got in 1913, under a segregationist court system; he more than made the most of it. If the city built a Louis Armstrong Home for Boys and handed a shot at redemption to those on the bottom, we’d hear fewer gunshots and sirens at night, and find not as many obituaries of young gun victims in the daily press. Pops would nod at that.
“The Waifs’ Home was surely a very clean place, and we did all the work ourselves. That’s where I learned how to scrub floors, wash and iron, cook, make up beds, do a little of everything around the house. The first thing we did to a newcomer was make him take a good shower, and his head and body were examined to make sure he did not bring any vermin into the Home. Every day we had to line up for inspection.
Anyone whose clothes were not in proper condition was pulled out of line and make to fix them himself. … The place was more like a health center or a boarding school than a boys’ jail. We played all kinds of sports, and we turned out some very fine baseball players, swimmers and musicians. All in all I am proud of the days I spent at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys.”
– Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans.