In addition to being the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong was also the most beloved. “I never met anybody that didn’t love him that ever saw him work or ever has encountered him, had any connection or any business with him,” said Bing Crosby. The secret of Armstrong’s charm lay in the straightforward openness of his character. Though his personality was more complex than his fans realized, his public and private sides were essentially identical. One of his friends described him as “down-to-earth, natural, completely unpretentious, simple in the best sense of the word.”
Armstrong’s openness was not limited to his fellow blacks. To be sure, he had no illusions about the racism of the society into which he had been born. A colleague once dropped in on him after a performance and asked what was new. “Nothin’ new,” he replied. “White folks still ahead.” Yet he never yielded to the temptation to treat white musicians as he had been treated by whites. He was devoid of personal prejudice, and the All Stars, the band he led from 1947 until his death in 1971, were integrated at a time when it was still uncommon for a working jazz group to be racially mixed—especially one whose leader was black. “Those people who make the restrictions, they don’t know nothing about music, it’s no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow,” he said.
Armstrong’s lack of prejudice extended to Jews, an attitude that was comparatively rare among blacks of his generation. Outside his marriages, his closest adult relationship was with Joe Glaser, a Jewish gangster from Chicago who became his manager in 1935 and with whom he was intimately associated from then on. Armstrong described Glaser as “my dearest friend,” and those who knew both men well agreed that this was nothing more than the truth.
He was similarly admiring of the Karnofskys, a family of Jewish peddlers from Lithuania for whom he had worked as a boy in New Orleans. In 1969 he wrote a lengthy memoir of his relationship with the Karnofskys called “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.” In it he told of how surprised he had been to discover that they “were having problems of their own—[a]long with hard times from the other white folks[’] nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race.?.?.?.?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.”
The young Armstrong saw the Karnofskys’ problems up close, for they took him under their wing, treating him almost like a relative. “They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me—just a kid who could use a little word of kindness,” he recalled. He shared meals with them and borrowed money from them to buy his first cornet. Thereafter he would identify with the Karnofskys and the other Jews of New Orleans so closely that he became an ardent philo-Semite who wore a Star of David around his neck (Joe Glaser gave it to him). “I will love the Jewish people, all of my life,” he wrote in “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,” adding that he learned from them “how to live—real life and determination.”
One of the most striking aspects of Armstrong’s memoir of the Karnofskys is the explicitness with which it compares their conduct to that of New Orleans’s black community. Armstrong was impressed by the way in which the Jews whom he knew banded together in the face of prejudice, seeking to better their lot through work, and he was dismayed by the contrast with the irresponsibility of the fathers of the black children in his neighborhood. “Many [black] kids suffered with hunger because their Fathers could have done some honest work for a change,” he wrote. “No, they would not do that. It would be too much like Right. They’d rather lazy around + gamble, etc.”
Among the men whom Armstrong had in mind was his own father. Not only did Willie Armstrong refuse to marry Mayann Albert, Louis’s mother, but he left her for another woman on the day his son was born and apparently made no attempt to support Mayann or the two children whom he had by her. Armstrong did not spend any significant amount of time with his father until he was a teenager, and in later years he shunned Willie, whom he regarded with contempt. “Didn’t go to his funeral and didn’t send nothing,” he told a reporter in 1967. “Why should I? He never had no time for me or Mayann.”
Beyond describing Willie as “tall and handsome and well built” in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, his 1954 autobiography, Armstrong would never have anything good to say about his father. In the same breath that he praised Willie’s looks, he added that “my father did not have time to teach me anything; he was too busy chasing chippies.”
In “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,” he was franker still:
The next time we heard of him—he had gone into an uptown neighborhood and made several other children by another woman. Whether he married the other woman, we’re not sure. One thing—he did not marry [Mayann]. She had to struggle all by herself, bringing us up.
Armstrong revered Mayann, who did her best to raise him and his younger sister as well as she could. Not so Willie, whom he took as a role model—in reverse. As a boy he worked hard to help feed his family, and as a man he labored no less ceaselessly to perfect the artistry that made him rich and famous. “I think I had a beautiful life,” he told an interviewer in 1970. “I didn’t wish for anything I couldn’t get, and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it.”
Armstrong wrote his memoir of the Karnofskys around the time that black anti-Semitism, which had showed signs of subsiding in the early years of the civil-rights movement, underwent a recrudescence that was fueled by the anti-Semitic statements of such black leaders as Malcolm X. Few prominent blacks were willing to speak out in praise of Jews in 1969. Yet Armstrong actually wanted to publish “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,” in which he explicitly attributed black anti-Semitism to envy of the superior achievements of the Jews: “The Negroes always hated the Jewish people who never harmed anybody, but they stuck together. And by doing that, they had to have success.”
Might Armstrong have written “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family” in response to the rising tide of black anti-Semitism? It seems unlikely. He was almost entirely apolitical, both in public and in private. “I don’t dive into politics, haven’t voted since I’ve lived in New York, ain’t no use messing with something you don’t know anything about,” he said. Only once did he deviate from this stance. In 1957, Armstrong attacked President Eisenhower for initially refusing to take action to desegregate the public schools of Little Rock, declaring that the president was “two-faced” and had “no guts.” In years to come, he would occasionally make forceful statements about racial matters but only when specifically asked to do so by reporters, and he never took part in civil-rights demonstrations. As a result, many younger blacks, either forgetting or ignoring his highly publicized quarrel with Eisenhower, dismissed him as an accommodationist.
But if Armstrong remained mostly silent about political matters, he was forthright when it came to what he regarded as the moral failings of his own people:
The Negroes always wanted pity. They did that in place of going to work?.?.?.?they were in an alley or in the street corner shooting dice for nickels and dimes, etc. (mere pittances) trying to win the little money from [their] Soul Brothers who might be gambling off the money [they] should take home to feed their starving children or pay their small rents, or very important needs, etc.
The bluntness with which Armstrong expressed himself in this 1969 memoir was more than just the remembered resentment of an old man. On numerous other occasions, he made it clear that he believed poor people, regardless of their color, to be largely responsible for their own fate. “You don’t have to do a damn thing bad unless you want to,” he had told a reporter nine years earlier. “Other than that, you weak-minded, you should go to a hospital or somethin’.” In 1940 he went so far as to record “W.P.A.,” a controversial novelty song by the black songwriter Jesse Stone, whose lyrics poked fun at the relief programs sponsored by Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration:
Sleep while you work,
while you rest, while you play,
Lean on your shovel
to pass time away.
That the song’s lyrics reflected his own point of view cannot be doubted. “The Lord will help the poor, but not the poor lazy,” he said in a 1961 TV interview.
Armstrong’s autobiography is the definitive statement of his belief in the hard gospel of self-help. Though he did not speak critically in Satchmo of anyone other than his father, it was clear that he saw his own life as proof of the value of deferred gratification. “I was determined to play my horn against all odds, and I had to sacrifice a whole lot of pleasure to do so,” he wrote. No Horatio Alger hero could have improved on his iron determination to get ahead in the world, and once he did so, he felt an obligation to tell others how to do the same.
Today Armstrong’s views on individual responsibility are the source of considerable disquiet among his admirers, many of whom prefer to ignore them altogether. Contrary to his desire that it be published, “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish People” was buried among his personal papers after his death and was not published in its original form until 1999. To this day, most scholars cite it cautiously, if at all.
The reason for this caution is plain to see. What is mostly left implicit in Satchmo is made wholly explicit in “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,” many parts of which are startlingly contemporary in tone:
[Blacks] hold too much malice—Jealousy deep down in their heart for the few Negroes who tries .?.?.?they know within themselves that they’re doing the wrong things, but expects everybody just because he is a Negro to give up everything he has struggled for in life such as a decent family—a living, a plain life—the respect.
Armstrong would appear to have had little in common with those latter-day “white-acting blacks” whose adherence to middle-class codes of social conduct is viewed with suspicion by many of their peers. He never shed the homespun manners of his New Orleans youth, and throughout his life he would criticize blacks (including two of his wives) who had what he called “a sense of ‘Aires.’” But though he never aspired to the refined “airs” of the black bourgeoisie, he believed no less devoutly in the transformational power of middle-class values and resolved to lead his own life according to their lights.
On occasion Armstrong has been compared to Booker T. Washington, whose long-unfashionable vision of racial redemption through self-improvement had a powerful influence on the turn-of-the-century blacks who heeded his call to “cast down your bucket where you are.” Louis Armstrong was one of them, as can be seen by visiting his New York home, an elaborately decorated three–story brick-covered frame house located seven blocks from Citi Field in a rundown but respectable working-class neighborhood. The house, which Armstrong bought in 1943, looks like what it is: the residence of a poor boy who cast down his bucket and pulled it up overflowing. Yet it says as much about him that even after he became wealthy enough to live in a tonier neighborhood, he preferred to stay in Queens. “My home?.?.?.?is good, but you don’t see me in no big estates and yachts, that ain’t gonna play your horn for you,” he wrote in his old age.
To visit the Armstrong house, which is now a museum, is to see how its proud owner achieved “everything he has struggled for in life.” It was the outward symbol of the lessons in life that he learned from Mayann, his devoted mother—and from the Jews of New Orleans, who helped teach him to return love for hatred and seek salvation in work.