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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 149

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This is the grave of Louis Armstrong.

One of the greatest and most important musicians of all time, Armstrong was born in 1901 to a poor family in New Orleans. Like many poor kids, he grew up in a broken home and spent a lot of time on the streets, in his case in Storyville, the legendary red light district of New Orleans. In fact, his mother worked as a prostitute in the brothels. Spending a childhood like that could lead to a lot of things, many of them pretty bad, but he was also exposed to a tremendous amount of music, hearing jazz pioneers such as King Oliver play in the brothels. Interestingly, Armstrong was semi-adopted by a family of Jewish immigrants who ran a junk business. They put him to work and fed him. He learned about anti-Semitism and became a great respecter of Judaism for the rest of his life. He also started playing the cornet. King Oliver, a great in his own right, took a liking to the young musician and mentored him. He moved to Chicago in 1922 to play in Oliver’s band and started making professional music at that time. He married his pianist Lil Hardin and she not only saw his talent but pushed him very hard to become a successful and independent musician. That meant breaking from Oliver, moving to New York to join Fletcher Henderson’s band, and then moving back to Chicago to break away from him too. The marriage didn’t last that long, but it was highly significant for his music.

It worked. Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings defined a new generation of jazz. Through the 30s, he went far to expand the genre. Rather than just read me describing this, let’s include some examples.

Pretty amazing stuff.

Armstrong peaked early, which is hardly unusual for a musician. By the mid-30s, he was touring with a large orchestra but wasn’t really breaking too much new ground. Thanks to bad management, he also wasn’t making much money. When the big band era faded by the mid-40s, Armstrong moved to New York, but continued to tour heavily with smaller groups. He was more of an icon by this point than a young lion pushing the boundaries. By the 1950s, while people such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis had moved far beyond Armstrong’s groundbreaking work, he was touring Europe on American goodwill tours for the State Department and went to Africa, Asia, and Latin American during the 1960s.

Politically and culturally, Armstrong’s influence is more complicated. He was quite reticent to take the kind of stands other black musicians did and did very little to challenge stereotypes. Other black artists found this infuriating and attacked him, going so far as to call him an Uncle Tom. There was one critical exception, when he openly lambasted Dwight Eisenhower for allowing Orval Faubus to defy integration for so long. This is notable and praiseworthy. But Satchmo also, and this was still very much true as he aged through the civil rights movement, had no real problem playing a character very comfortable to white folks, the smiling entertainer that is almost a minstrel character. That discussions of his life note how he was so accepted among white audiences is hardly an unrelated fact. They had a good time at his shows and listening to his albums, but he did not make them feel uncomfortable. He was not going to record an album like We Insist! I don’t say any of this in judgment. Armstrong understood the horrors of Jim Crow as much as anyone and had to make choices about how to be a performer at a high level.

That he is known for his late life “What a Wonderful World” recording instead of his innovative early work is frustrating to me, but is hardly surprising either. After all, those Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings were nearly forty years old.

Armstrong had a bad heart and that finally killed him in 1971.

I have no doubt that many of you are more Armstrong-knowledgeable than I, so have at it.

Louis Armstrong is buried in Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York.

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