The Moral Affirmations of Louis Armstrong

The iconic musician drew criticism for being apolitical, but his joyful humanism was a gift to be cherished, representing its own kind of politics

The Moral Affirmations of Louis Armstrong
Trumpeter Louis Armstrong performs on the “Kraft Music Hall” television show filmed at the NBC studios in New York City in June 1967. (David Redfern/Redferns)

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In the middle of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong was the most recognizable and appreciated American — and artist — on the planet. Satchmo, as he was affectionately known, was the universal embodiment of both freedom and art. He represented a veritable monument to the quintessentially American art of self-invention. Insofar as the art of jazz improvisation that he helped create and popularize is one in which spontaneity is a form of honesty, his ongoing self-creation was both audible and visible to everyone. This made him especially eligible to become America’s goodwill ambassador around the world, a role that grew out of his status as a jazz pioneer.

Sacha Jenkins’ recent documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,” released in October 2022, brings all of this into sharp focus. But it also revisits some of the thornier aspects of Armstrong’s legacy. The two best talking heads in the film are those of the legendary director Orson Welles and the famed actor Ossie Davis, both of whom — significantly — started out as performers and worked in theater. As the film begins, we hear Welles warmly introducing Armstrong on a TV talk show, explaining that he once planned to make a film that would recount the history of jazz through Armstrong’s life. Welles insists on Armstrong’s preeminence as a performer, “not on the principle of escapism but on the principle of affirmation.” Given that Armstrong’s entire career as a blazing maestro of the cornet and trumpet can be summed up by the word “affirmation,” Welles’ introduction couldn’t have been more apt.

Davis, who once had a character in his play “Purlie Victorious” (1961) say to someone, “You’re a disgrace to the Negro profession!” recalls that he and his friends used to laugh derisively at Armstrong’s performance antics and clowning as a creepy form of Uncle Tomism, until the two of them worked together on the movie “A Man Called Adam” (1966). Sitting with Armstrong in a dressing room, Davis was struck by how sad the man looked during a reflective “off” moment, until he was called back to work and snapped back into his signature toothy grin, suddenly alerting Davis to the sort of behavior his own Black parents and grandparents had to display in order to survive. Thereafter, he admits, he never laughed at Armstrong again.

Dealing with Armstrong today requires confronting a complicated historical past — including on a personal level, if you’re a white Southerner such as I am. A few days before my 14th birthday, in 1957, I attended an Armstrong concert in Sheffield, Alabama — the 7 p.m. show for “whites,” not the 9:30 p.m. one for “colored,” according to the Jim Crow protocols of the time. Armstrong played in Sheffield with Barrett Deems, the white drummer in his band for many years. He might have been the only jazz musician at the time to play in a racially mixed group in the Deep South (apart from the pitifully few venues held in that period for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which lost most of its play dates because of its insistence on retaining its Black bassist, Eugene Wright). But even Armstrong was taking a risk with Deems. On the same 1957 Southern tour, a bomb exploded in Knoxville, Tennessee, outside an Armstrong All-Stars concert. Armstrong diplomatically stepped up to the microphone and said, “That’s OK, folks — it was jus’ my phone ringin’.” Recalling Welles’ introduction, what could be more affirmative than that?

Armstrong grew up at an international crossroads — New Orleans at the dawn of the 20th century — and was nurtured by his unmarried mother, a sex worker who sang in church; a family of Lithuanian Jewish rag merchants who helped him purchase his first cornet; and a reform-school orphanage with military-style discipline. (The young Armstrong landed in the orphanage on the city’s outskirts after firing his mother’s pistol on New Year’s Eve.) Armstrong later recalled his time at the orphanage fondly, even nostalgically, perhaps because it gave order and purpose to a life that had, until then, been mainly chaotic. And even if he hadn’t been born on July 4, 1900, as he later claimed (his registered birth was Aug. 4, 1901), the symbolic myth seemed appropriate for someone who would go on to symbolize America on the world stage.

This was later celebrated in a musical written by the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola, that premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962 and became an ambitious soundtrack album the same year. Felicitously titled “The Real Ambassadors,” it featured Armstrong, Brubeck’s Quartet, the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan and Carmen McRae, with music by Brubeck and lyrics by Iola. It dealt with such issues as America’s place in the world during the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the image and nature of God and the music business. Set in a fictional African country, “The Real Ambassadors” features Armstrong as its star and central character, with his shining trumpet and gravel-mouthed vocals delivering the memorable Brubeck score.

The implication was that Armstrong, like America, was a beacon for the entire world. But if you belong to everyone in the world, this means‌ that you’ve taken, or at the very least assumed, a particular position in relation to that world. And if you belong to the American mainstream, as Armstrong did, perhaps the most effective way to be political without creating a disturbance is to pretend you have no politics at all. The European lesson for this very American form of self-deception is that claiming to have no politics ultimately means adopting the sort of bad politics that entails accepting the status quo. This was far from the message of “The Real Ambassadors,” but for many people, even today, it often registers as the Armstrong persona.

To believe, as Davis once did, that Armstrong’s racial politics were set by the mercenary white folks who succeeded the slave owners was to believe that those politics were reactionary, that even Armstrong’s duet with Barbra Streisand in “Hello, Dolly!” or his crooning “What a Wonderful World” was corny and shopworn. It’s worth noting that Armstrong’s disdain for bebop — expressed in one interview as his enthusiastic preference for Guy Lombardo, a non-jazz bandleader associated with mainstream schmaltz — probably had as much to do with the lifestyles of beboppers as it did with modernist musical forms. As recounted by one of his biographers, the late Terry Teachout (a former jazz musician himself):

Except for [Dizzy] Gillespie, whose jokey demeanor on the bandstand was more like Armstrong’s than either man cared to admit, the boppers disdained the showmanship that was his trademark. More than a few of them were heroin addicts (that was what he had in mind when he spoke of their “pipe-dream music”) whose habits made it impossible for them to conduct themselves with the professionalism that was his byword. Above all, though, their music was uncompromising in a way that he saw as threatening to the public’s acceptance of jazz.

Yet Armstrong’s own musical genius could attain a burning and cascading complexity of its own — at least in his early recordings, and more fitfully afterward. To my untutored ear, his famous cadenza at the start of “West End Blues,” recorded with his Hot Five in 1928, even anticipates some of the multifaceted virtuoso breaks of the supreme bebopper Charlie Parker, which came two decades later. In “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” (2009), Teachout points to “a shift of gears known to contemporary classical composers as a ‘metric modulation,’ in which he turns a single beat in the second measure … into two-thirds of a beat in the third measure.”

Armstrong’s ascent from the bottom of society to the top of the entertainment world suggests a certain parallel with the career of another Charlie (and another autodidact), namely Chaplin — although the differences are as salient as the similarities. Chaplin’s leftist politics were plainly visible, as were his wealth and sexual lifestyle, which eventually led to him being barred from reentry into the United States in 1952. Armstrong, by contrast, chose to live in a working-class neighborhood in Queens and, quite the opposite of Chaplin, left all his business decisions, including the hiring of his sidemen, to his manager Joe Glaser, a former Al Capone associate whose mob connections helped to protect Armstrong from the gangsters who wanted to control his career. One might add that Glaser’s handling of the Armstrong trademark protected and sheltered his client from the uglier aspects of capitalism. “I never tried in no way to ever be real real filthy rich like some people do,” Armstrong wrote, “and after they do they die just the same.”

For the same reason, Glaser, who also became the manager of Brubeck and Billie Holiday, protected Armstrong from the controversy that would have come from expressing his political views more openly. Armstrong privately expressed his views in many of the tape recordings that he made for friends and for his own amusement, and the documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” allows us to hear several spirited patches from them.

Yet one of Armstrong’s self-selected theme songs was “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” which refers to “darkies [who] dance till the break of day” — though he started to substitute “people” for “darkies” during the 1950s. But it was during that same decade, during the racial turmoil over school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, that he broke with precedent by calling the much-beloved Dwight D. Eisenhower a “two-faced” president with “no guts.” He went on to call Orval Faubus, then governor of Arkansas, a “no-good motherfucker,” assigned the same epithet to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and canceled his planned tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department, saying, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

He refused to retract that statement. But three years later, Armstrong traveled to Congo (unwittingly) at the behest of the CIA. As reported by the historian Susan Williams in her 2021 book, “White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa,” the CIA cynically used Armstrong as a “Trojan horse” to further its interests, which included acquiring uranium and assassinating Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. This use of Armstrong as an innocent tool of Cold War propaganda and skulduggery put an ugly stain on his legacy.

After his 1957 outburst, Armstrong mostly restricted his dissenting comments to his tape recorder, preferring to send out his message of love to everyone. I find it difficult to blame him for this. Even when he dressed his love and celebration in the trappings of tired cliches and outworn stereotypes, I assume he believed that they still meant something — an assumption that carries a particular weight today, in a hyper-polarized America where everything that people share and commonly revere tends to be overlooked or else minimized by deafening and fearful battle cries.

The problem is that politics in the U.S. today, whether leftist, conservative or (most often) scrambled, abounds in linguistic misrepresentations and historical confusions and almost overwhelmingly takes the form of light entertainment. Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer as much as former President Donald Trump does, but the messages of the two couldn’t be more at odds. Armstrong’s bottom line was mutual trust with his public, the opposite of Trump’s divisive antagonism.

Armstrong’s art and gift to us is the happiness of camaraderie, expressed musically, personally, humorously, honestly and, at its best, spontaneously. Its morality is not vastly different from Huck Finn’s code of loyalty to an escaped slave who is also a pal in that most American of novels, Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Coming from a culture that arose out of slavery and social rejection and finding delight in its discovery of freedom, it’s something we should all continue to cherish.

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