One one side, he is the tuxedo-clad virtuoso, on the other a gruesome parody of blackness. On some occasions he is the first great jazz singer, and on others a nonsense-speaking savage. There has perhaps never been a figure in jazz history more admired and yet more controversial than Louis Armstrong. He was the first great soloist, a pioneer vocalist, and the fledgling music's first major celebrity. Despite all this, however, Armstrong was first and foremost an African-American male living during a turbulent time in our nation's history, and, because of his race, he has been the subject of extensive and irresolvable debate.

"Movie Star" was one of many hats Armstrong wore during the 1930s, but the roles he played were stereotyped, demeaning, and unimaginable to modern audiences. Scholars and fans have argued Armstrong's motivations for years, but an examination of the circumstances of the time in which Armstrong entertained is more enlightening. Who was watching him display his bizarre range to talents and, more importantly, what did they want to see? This project will focus on Armstrong the man, but also on the history of jazz and race in American film in an attempt to explain, or at least speculate, on what forces could meld a dazzling musician and puzzling movie star into the same person.

Film and Audience Expectations|The New Jazz Scene|Race in Early American Film|The Genius of Armstrong|The Undignified Roles|The Great Debate|Further Reading

Project Created by Austin Graham

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