Explaining Armstrong

Hero of civil rights or a grinning demon of stereotype?
Armstrong apologists and critics have been outspoken since 1928, the supposed “turning point” in his career when he achieved celebrity status and his musical work was less purely artistic. Of course, the question of whether Armstrong considered himself an artist at all is an open one. Some writers, when considering the new “popular” Armstrong, see a case of unrealized potential:

“Had Armstrong understood his responsibility as clearly as he perceived his own growing artistic power-- had his individual genius been deeply integrated with that of the music, and thus ultimately with the destiny, of his race-- designated leadership would have been just... Around Louis clustered growing public cognizance of hot music and those commercial forces, equally strong and more persistent, which utilize the musical communications system of the phonograph record, the then new radio and talking motion picture, and the printed sheets of the Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. And behind this new symbolic figure was aligned the overwhelming and immemorial need of his own race to find a Moses to lead it out of Egypt” (Blesh 257-58).

To some, then, Armstrong is a tragic figure, an immense talent who was taken advantage of by a hungry entertainment machine. His true abilities were underutilized while filmakers and radio programmers concentrated on shallower aspects of his personality and race to provide a laugh for audiences. His singing was not as important as his trademark gravely voice, the tranquil determination on his face when he played trumpet wasn’t as commercially successful as his mugging laugh. And in the eyes of James Collier, who wrote a biography of Armstrong, this overwhelming commercial juggernaut was all too tempting for the man from the Colored Waif’s Home, whose poverty-stricken upbringing and insecurity led him to seek the brightest limelight possible:

“Armstrong was clearly a man afflicted with deep and well-entrenched insecurity, a sense of his own worthlessness so thoroughly fixed that he was never to shake if off, even after he had become one of the most famous men in the world. But he could quench that relentless, sickening, interior assault on his self-respect, at least temporarily, by performing, standing up there before dozens or thousands or millions of people and playing and singing and smiling and mugging and soaking up the haling applause, which for a moment pushed away the feeling that nobody like him, that he was basically no good. And when he was offered the chance to earn ever larger doses of that healing balm, he could hardly have turned it down” (Collier 202-203).

Armstrong received the most criticism during the Bop era, roughly 1945-1950, as a new generation of jazz musicians, empowered by a slowly developing civil rights movement, put a new emphasis on professionalism in their trade. These musicians strongly believed themselves to be artists above entertainers, resurrecting all the elements of professionalism (technical virtuosity, poker-face demeanor) that Armstrong had encountered in his first trip to New York. But where Armstrong’s talent had proved that professionalism wasn’t all in the music business, the changing tide of political opinion conversely proved in the 50s that talent couldn’t excuse certain types of behavior. Gabbard notes that Miles Davis included a photo series of Beulah, Buckwheat, Rochester, and Armstrong in his autobiography as examples of “some of the images of black people that I would fight against all through my career. I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did” (Gabbard 213). It was James Baldwin, however, who best crystallized the disdain boppers held for Armstrong in his 1957 story “Sonny’s Blues” during a scene in which a young man tells his brother that he wants to be a jazz musician:

“I suggested helpfully: ‘You mean-- like Louis Armstrong?’ His face closed as though I’d struck him. “No. I’m not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap.’”

Armstrong enjoyed consorting with non-musical entertainers.
Many modern jazz critics, however, search for more than an explanation of Armstrong’s behavior; blaming a demanding entertainment industry is convincing and excuses Armstrong somewhat, but it is evidence that Armstrong both knew what he was doing and was attempting to transcend his material is a jazz fan’s dream. Giddins’ authoritative biography, for example, chooses to capitalize on, and not sidestep, the fact that Armstrong loved being an entertainer as well as a great musician, and didn’t try very hard to distance himself from the long history of African-American humor, no matter how dark it became. “He also relished the tradition of humor that had grown out of the black archetype in minstrel shows and had become a mainstay of black entertainment throughout the first two decades of his life... to separate Armstrong the sublime trumpeter from Armstrong the irrepressible stage wag not only curbs a magnanimous artist... but underestimates the absurdist humor that informs his serious side. His ability to balance the emotional gravity of the artist with the communal good cheer of the entertainer helped enable him to demolish the Jim Crow/ Zip Coon/ Ol’ Dan Tucker stereotypes” (Giddins 34). One positive verdict on the insulting performance in Rhapsody in Black and Blue is that he “transcends the racist trappings by his indifference to every sling and arrow. The director/writer is trying to tell the audience one thing. Armstrong is telling it something entirely different-- he’s doing it not only with the magnificence of his music, but with his physical muscularity, his carriage, his boding sexuality...” (Giddins 36). Such a claim actually doesn’t seem to far off the mark, for when Armstrong brings his trumpet to his lips (view the clip in modem format or ethernet format) , suddenly it’s no longer a mugging black sellout on screen; it is a powerful black man whose talent overwhelms even the ridiculous setting.

Armstrong the man is simply too complicated to ever explain. Any critic can be contradicted and countered; any assertion can be undone by a puzzling film clip or an unsettling quip from an interview. But to focus on Armstrong alone is to ignore an interesting, and often overlooked, piece of the puzzle. Justifying Armstrong’s film roles involves a necessary assumption: American film of the day was racist. Armstrong, however, serves as a perfect starting point to question the temper of the times. The 30s were turbulent, a time when a white millionaire stockholder could plummet into poverty and a black nobody from New Orleans could rocket to international fame. The established order was not depressed: it was shaken up, and Depression-era audiences sought answers, comfort, or simple confirmation that everything wasn’t quite right at the movies. Armstrong’s performances do not definitively indicate that he was an Uncle Tom or a witty advocate of civil rights. What they do indicate, however, is that as the world turned upside down, Americans needed to know that traditional and old-fashioned values would stay the same. Armstrong, who was to many a threatening symbol of things to come, was just the man to make an example of.

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