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(Credit: Herbert Behrens / Anefo)

Music

Louis Armstrong and his complex relationship with race

Louis Armstrong is one of those rare artists that needs no real introduction. He was one of the most influential figures in the history and development of jazz, and over his five decades-long career, he saw the genre develop from its rudimentary form into the bebop, cool and free forms that we know and love today. 

Aside from being solely a jazz trumpeter, he was also a renowned vocalist, who was skilled at melodic vocal improvisations and scat. Of course, in the mainstream, he is best known for 1967’s ‘What a Wonderful World‘, an enduring hit that permeates popular culture. In short, Armstrong’s contributions to the development of many important facets of Western culture was enormous, and it’s reflective of his skill that he is still so lauded today, some 51 years after his passing. 

Of course, another significant factor of Armstrong’s life and career, and something that shouldn’t be understated, is the way that he was one of the first African-American entertainers to cross over into the mainstream and gain popularity within the black and white communities.

In terms of the profoundly insidious racism in America, Armstrong managed to dodge some of the de facto and de jure obstacles to success that an African-American man faced in the 1930s onwards. He enjoyed the status of a musical hero and all the trappings of fame that normally only a white star would have done. This doesn’t negate the fact that he was still a Black man in a deeply racist country, though. 

For someone who is hailed by many as such a critical figure in the development of jazz, Armstrong faced significant backlash from many sectors of the African-American community, who viewed him as a “sell-out”, and at the very worst, an ‘Uncle Tom’. Added to the fact that to many in his own community, he seemed to have personified the historical concept of the treacherous ‘Uncle Tom’, many also took issue with the fact that Armstrong rarely politicised his race, particularly at the time when the Civil Rights movement was starting to bubble up from the surface after years of oppression.

Now, when Black America was finding its voice and fighting back, it was time for Armstrong to use his platform for good. Understandably, his radio silence angered many.

It would be reductive to say that Armstrong never used his voice, as he did. You have to remember that he was something of a trailblazer. He was one of the first African-Americans to be accepted into parts of white high society, so his life, as soon as he reached the major leagues, was a balancing act between two very differing worlds. It was only natural that he faltered and contradicted what others were trying to achieve, as he was also on something of a mission to go where no one had ever gone before, testing white America from within. 

Most notably, he did use his voice on a couple of highly significant occasions. The first was in 1957 when he reacted to the American government and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s handling of the Little Rock crisis in 1957. He firmly pledged allegiance to desegregation in one of the most high-publicised calls for American lawmakers to abandon their de jure racism in schools. He made national news when he labelled Eisenhower “two-faced” and “gutless” because of the President’s dithering in relation to the tense racial flashpoint in Arkansas. He didn’t stop his criticism there, either. Armstrong called Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas an “uneducated plough boy”.

Showing just how prominent his position was, in protest at Eisenhower’s actions, Armstrong cancelled a tour of the Soviet Union that was planned on behalf of the State Department. He said at the time: “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell”. Armstrong elucidated on this, arguing that it was impossible for him to represent his government when it was in conflict with its own citizens.

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A stinging reading of the situation, Armstrong’s point was exact. He was quoted as saying, “It’s getting almost so bad a coloured man hasn’t got any country.” Due to his outspokenness on racial matters, the FBI then kept a file on Armstrong. So much for an ‘Uncle Tom’.

For an artist who was deemed such a sell-out, Armstrong also endured a lot of racism, even when a star. When on tour in the bastion of American racism, the deep south, Armstrong was constantly turned away from lodgings and struggled to secure shows from racist promoters. In addition to this, he was harassed by the police on numerous occasions. 

Famously, he was sent to jail whilst on a pit stop in Memphis, Tennessee, after locals grew suspicious after spotting a band of black men in nice suits with “fancy-looking cigarette holders”. The bigoted locals were incensed to find that the band manager’s white wife was sitting on the bus, so they put two and two together and made nine. 

The following revelation may shock you – especially given that Armstrong was often regarded as an ‘Uncle Tom’. He grew up impoverished, without a father, and after living with his grandmother for a time, from the age of seven, he moved in with the Karnoffsky’s, a family of Lithuanian Jews at their home. The family took the young Armstrong in, gave him a job, and treated him like family. They knew of the absence of his father and so fed and nurtured him as any good family would.

It was with the Karnoffsky’s that Armstrong would get another palpable taste of racism, something that compounded the socio-economic injustice he was born into as an African-American. In his 1969 memoir, Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, he described the day that he found that the Karnoffsky’s were also subject to discrimination by “other white folks”.

He recalled: “I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the white folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for”. Now fully understanding just how widespread the racism of white America was, Armstrong said that he learned from them “how to live—real life and determination”.

Perhaps the last passage accounts for why Armstrong refrained from using his voice in certain spheres; he wanted to enact change from within, by reaching the highest echelons that his skill would allow him to, and start to make changes from there, such as leading the charge to racial integration through music. For instance, the 1929 song ‘Knockin’ a Jug’ featured black and white musicians and was one of the US’ first mixed recordings and ‘Rockin’ Chair’, from the same year, was the first-ever integrated duet, alongside Indiana’s Hoagy Carmichael.

Of course, on reflection, it is wildly inaccurate to label Armstrong as an ‘Uncle Tom’. He had a profound understanding of racism, and in many ways, this perception allowed him to do what he did for both music and racial issues. Could have done more? Perhaps. But for Armstrong, maybe repetition of the message may have caused it to be negated, and if so, would his comments on the handling of Little Rock have been so powerful?

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