Revisiting Louis Armstrong in the Context of Civil Rights

Time/Life recently released a retrospective box set of Louis Armstrong. The material may show why Armstrong was not just a giant of jazz music, but a civil rights leader as well.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Louis Armstrong reshaped American music, but he also made a deep impact on race relations. NPR's Roy Hurst reports.

(Soundbite of music, “What a Wonderful World”)

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Late Singer): (Singing) I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you, and I think to myself what a wonderful world…

ROY HURST: By the time this record was recorded Louis Armstrong had been a major force in American culture for decades. He was a pop icon as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. But how did the first African-American crossover artist help set the stage for the civil rights movement? The clue to that question is in what Armstrong brought to American music.

Armstrong hit the scene like a dynamo in 1925. With his trumpet and voice, he took on popular songs of the day. He stretched the boundaries of their rhythms and their melodies so profoundly that American music has never been the same since. Here's an example: Before Louis Armstrong, pop songs were sung pretty much like this.

(Soundbite of music, “Ain't Misbehavin'”)

Mr. WALLER FATS (Late Singer): (Singing) But I'm happy on the shelf, ain't misbehavin', I'm saving my love for you…

HURST: With Armstrong, interpretation is radically different.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) (unintelligible) baby loves you, really baby loves you. I know it's certain why my love, through my flirtin', it's you that I'm thinking of. Ain't misbehavin', I'm saving my love, oh baby, my love for you. Jackie Horner in a corner, don't go nowhere…

Mr. ROY HARGROVE (Trumpet Player): Louis was like the original funkster.

HURST: That's Roy Hargrove. He's among today's best-known trumpet players, and he reveres Armstrong even though he was only two years old when the jazz giant died in 1971.

Mr. HARGROVE: Yeah. That was like a show tune, you know. But then he turned it into something that was really, you know, very personal, all his own. You know what I mean? The way he would sing it or play it, the way he would interpret the melody. It was just so personal.

(Soundbite of music)

HURST: And this is the point you'll get from most experts of American music. The man they call Pops gave musicians the freedom to be individuals. Jazz historian Will Friedwald.

Mr. WILL FRIEDWALD (Jazz Historian): Just the sound of even one note is enough to tell you it's Louis Armstrong. He was sort of one of the very first people not just in jazz but in all kinds of American music to bring that kind of personality to it. Just that concept alone, even before you get to the musicianship itself and the vocabulary, I mean that concept alone was a tremendous on people like Bing Crosby and later Frank Sinatra and virtually everybody in all of popular music. A lot of the idea of what a pop music star is comes directly from Louis Armstrong because there was nobody that was doing that before him.

HURST: Will Friedwald contributed liner notes to a new Time/Life retrospective box set called “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.” The box set features two CDs of Armstrong music and a DVD of a few of his TV and film appearances. But it's through the TV footage that you get the strongest sense of Armstrong as the civil rights figure by default.

Over and over again you find him teaching white Americans the virtues of the black aesthetic, like in this clip with Jackie Gleason from 1959.

(Soundbite of Louis Armstrong TV appearance)

Mr. JACKIE GLEASON (Actor): Suppose - you tell them in your own swinging way - just exactly what jazz is.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I'd be real delighted, sir. Now let me tell you this…

(Singing) And now you take some skin, jazz begins…

Mr. GLEASON: Oh yes it does.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Take some (unintelligible)…

Mr. GLEASON: Yeah…

HURST: By 1959 the civil rights movement was in full swing, and to many whites Armstrong, with his trademark handkerchief, his big smile and down home demeanor, represented something less threatening to the status quo.

Mr. JOE MORANI(ph) (Musician): He wasn't that political.

HURST: Joe Morani is white. He played clarinet in Armstrong's band from 1967 until Armstrong passed. Morani is full of stories about Armstrong, including this one about a conversation he overheard the trumpeter having with another African-American of his generation.

Mr. MORANI: And Pop says, yeah, I had $2,000 in my back pocket and no place to eat. And they're going on and on about the horrors of racism and stuff. And I'm sort of shifting from one foot to the other like a little uncomfortable, you know. And he sees it, and he looks over, puts his hand on my shoulder, says, oh, Josephus, that was before you time.

HURST: And Morani says it was precisely that comforting aspect of Armstrong's nature that by the 1960s had turned many black Americans against him.

Mr. MORANI: Most blacks hated Louis Armstrong. The older ones didn't. The younger ones, no. He was old Uncle Tom, handkerchief head. I talked to Louis Armstrong about this. He was hurt.

Mr. AMIRI BARAKA (Writer): Amiri Baraka here.

HURST: In the early 1960s Amiri Baraka was known as Leroy Jones, a brilliant young writer and a leader of an emerging new black arts movement. He was among those who criticized Armstrong's old-fashioned demeanor. Today he says hindsight is 20/20.

Mr. BARAKA: We confused what we perceived as the social demeanor in that context of lynching. You understand? Overt segregation. And we thought that Louis was submitting to that. You know, Louis's expression was musical and artistic and transcended that. When it was possible for Louis to speak, he spoke.

HURST: Armstrong did lay his career on the line during the civil rights movement. In 1957 he criticized President Eisenhower for his initial refusal to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Again, jazz historian Will Friedwald.

Mr. FRIEDWALD: He was certainly the first black entertainer to be that outspoken at that particular time. And in fact he was so sort of outspoken about it he was even criticized by other black entertainers, which was kind of a very strange thing to happen.

HURST: Amiri Baraka recounts a TV interview that Armstrong once did in the late ‘60s.

Mr. BARAKA: They guy asked him, he said, well, you know, Mr. Armstrong, what has been the key to your success. And Louis goes, he said, you know, well - and his manager, Joe Glazer was sitting there. And he says, well, you know, the key to success is this. See, you got to find yourself some white man and make yourself that white man's (beep). Ain't that true, Joe?

Now how many years has that sentiment broiled in his heart, which had to be prompted by the fact that young people like myself were casting, you know, a dubious eye on, you know, his stage antics.

Mr. MORANI: At his funeral when he was laid out on Park Avenue, and I saw quite a few black faces, I said to him, although he was dead, I said, Pops, some of your people showed up.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Unintelligible)

HURST: Joe Morani admits to being sentimental about Louis Armstrong, but he says he doesn't know anyone who's done more for civil rights.

Mr. MORANI: He did it by being a wonderful artist. And that really - in the long run that lasts and that's very, very effective.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Unintelligible)

HURST: For NPR News, I'm Roy Hurst.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Blue skies up above, everyone in love, of the lazy river how happy we will be, mama, mama…

CHIDEYA: Well, that's our show for today and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org.

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