Local News: Jackson's First Presbyterian Church will be sponsoring "Gateway Canned Food Drive" on Sunday, February 24, from 4:45-6:15p.m. Those that can are asked to bring a canned good, which will be donated to Jackson's Gateway Rescue Mission. To learn more about this, call First Pres. at 601-353-8316.
In her 2004 juvenile biography, Who Was Louis Armstrong?, (illustrated by John O-Brien, published by Grosset & Dunlap), Yona Zeldis McDonough raises and answers far more questions than simply the one posed in the title. She also explains to young readers what Jazz music is, how it started, and what type of discrimination black musicians (and black citizens, in general) encountered in the early 20th century.
Armstrong (1901 to 1971), best-known for his gravely voice, his inimitable trumpet playing, and his hits, which included “Hello, Dolly”, “What a Wonderful World” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, revolutionized Jazz music, which began around the turn of the 20th century. Though aimed at an elementary school audience, McDonough doesn’t glamorize or gloss over the unfortunate details of Armstrong’s childhood. Armstrong himself wrote more than one book about himself during his lifetime, and McDonough made use of it, as well other numerous biographies of the Jazz star written over the years.
1. Brief overview of Armstrong’s life
Armstrong and his younger sister were raised in a single parent household and had minimal contact with their father. McDonough relates how, at age 14, Armstrong quit school and began earning money doing odd jobs, picking up music gigs when he could. By age 21, he was good enough to leave New Orleans and make it as a Chicago musician. McDonough explains Armstrong’s decision in the context of what has become known as the “Great Migration.” Whereas 80% of American blacks lived in the rural South in 1910, by 1970 only 25% remained in the rural south. Black citizens left en masse, generally, in order to economically better themselves and escape the harsh “Jim Crow” laws, which kept blacks from having equal opportunities.
Little known facts about Armstrong’s life that McDonough includes:
· Armstrong’s grandmother, Josephine, who helped raise him had formerly been a slave.
· Armstrong’s lifelong nickname “Satchmo” was condensed from “Satchelmouth”—a name he received, McDonough explains, “because his wide, full mouth looked like an open suitcase, or satchel, as it used to be called.”
· At age 10, Armstrong formed a singing group with three other boys and they earned money singing on the streets of Storyville, the poor, black section of New Orleans Armstrong was from.
· At age 12, after firing a gun in a public place, Armstrong was ordered by a Juvenile Court to live at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. In hindsight, Armstrong was grateful for this turn of events because it was here that he learned how to play the cornet.
· Armstrong is sometimes attributed with inventing “scat singing”, which was popularized by numerous jazz artists, including Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.
· Armstrong’s popularity led to a cigar being named in his honor—the Louis Armstrong Special.
· Armstrong made the cover of Time magazine in 1949, being dubbed the “King of Jazz”.
By the 1930s, Armstrong was popular enough to tour internationally. He traveled to England and France, and during World War II, traveled through Europe as well as Asia, entertaining American troops. In the 50s, Armstrong and his wife traveled to Africa, attracting approximately 100,000 people to his concert in Ghana.
McDonough explains that Armstrong had a big heart. Once while on tour in Baltimore, Maryland Armstrong ordered 2,000 pounds of coal from a local coal yard, brought it to the lobby of the theatre he was playing in, and invited the poor people who couldn’t afford to buy coal to come and get all they needed.
2. Racism Armstrong had to put up with
The institutional racism of early 20th century America was something Armstrong encountered at every turn. Finding lodging while on tour with his band could be difficult, especially in the South. When traveling by train, they would bring their own food since they weren’t allowed to eat in the train’s dining area. Many establishments even had “whites only” restrooms. Once when they were set to play on a live radio show, the announced walked off stage, unwilling to introduce a black band. Armstrong had to introduce the band himself (incidentally, the racist announcer later was fired).
Sort of a holdover from minstrel shows, where white actors painted themselves to look black and then proceeded to act like buffoons, when Armstrong was starting out in the music business “African-American performers were expected to entertain the audiences by acting silly onstage,” McDough said. “Louis understood this and went along with the routine… making funny faces, rolling his eyes, and goofing around.” McDonough also explained that Armstrong’s roles in 1930s movies, as was customary in Hollywood at the time, made black people look silly.
Armstrong was criticized by some for being so accommodating, and was even accused by some in the black community of being an “Uncle Tom”, meaning a black person willing to be subservient to white people. When the Civil Rights movement got in full swing, “many blacks felt that Louis had betrayed them—he hadn’t been active enough in the struggle for equality,” McDonough said. Similar accusations were leveled against Nat King Cole, one of the 20th centuries most popular “Easy Listening” singers. Armstrong, however, saw himself as paving the way for other black entertainers. He even earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in Going Places (1938). Armstrong felt he deserved credit for what he’d done, saying, “I’ve taken a lot of abuse… even been in some pretty dangerous spots through no fault of my own for almost forty years.”
During the 1950s, Armstrong did become more vocal. When the governor of Arkansas fought to prevent the integration of Little Rock’s public school’s, McDonough records how Armstrong derided the governor as “an ignorant plowboy”. Armstrong said that if the U.S. government wouldn’t step in to defend the harassed black youths of Arkansas, “the government can go to hell” (www.biography.com/people/louis-armstrong-9188912?page=5). Though some might jump on this as an unpatriotic statement, what Armstrong was really saying is that America should live up to its own ideals, being what it claims to be—if it wasn’t a country where all men were treated equally, it didn’t deserve to survive.
3. What we can learn from Armstrong’s life
What's most frustrating, when reading the biography, is to keep in mind how the blatant mistreatment and sometimes downright cruelty Armstrong put up with through the years ocurred in the United States, one of the globe's most Christian nations, and what's worse, in the "Bible Belt" of the U.S.
According to Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, written by Laurence Bergreen in 1997, Armstrong's religious affiliation is vague at best. At three weeks old, he was baptized at a Roman Catholic Church, it is believed, at the request of his Catholic grandmother. "Although baptized as a Catholic, Louis never thought of himself as a member of the Church," Begreen wrote. "He remained similarly aloof from Protestantism, the religion of his mother and other family members. Even so, he was vaguely religious, and, at times, deeply spiritual, but his approach to religious matters was always unorthodox."
Could Armstrong's ambiguous approach to religion stem from the watered down, hypocritical version of Christianity he encountered growing up? It surely wouldn't be a stretch to speculate and say so. McDonough portrays a man who, though flawed, managed to keep smiling through times that it's difficult to imagine smiling through. Whatever negative experiences he had at the hands of religious people, there's no evidence that it ever left Armstrong embittered. How many of us, if we had grown up in the poverty and discrimination Armstrong lived with, could, at the end of life, still have looked out and said, "What a wonderful world!"?