Racial discrimination had a deep impact on the life and, consequentially, the music of Louis Armstrong. Such a pervasive force would have to affect the choices one makes on and off the bandstand.
There are three anecdotes about Pops that illustrate this:
>At a formal dinner, I believe in Europe, Pops was asked how it was that he could enjoy such success when other black musicians struggled. Pops looked the woman in the eye and said, “Well, Miss, you just gotta find some white man to put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘This is my nigger’, and then you got no problem. That’s what Mr. Glaser does for me (with all the money and fame, the world called Armstrong Louis, Louie, Satchmo or Satch, Gates (for Gatemouth) and Pops; Armstrong called Joe Glaser, his manager, ‘Mr. Glaser’ till the day he died). Let’s face it, if ‘race records’ were found in the regular bins, instead of in cardboard boxes on the floor in the back of record stores, we may have heard a dozen more Armstrong-esque talents who hadn’t yet become somebody’s ‘nigger’. Not likely, but there would have been more competition in the record and concert markets.
>”Black and Blue” and “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” were 2 songs that, as Pops said,”ain’t no white singer got no business singing ’em, ’cause they don’t know what they’re singing about.”
‘Sleepy Time’, with its gently crooned lyrics about an idyllic southland, mentions mammies and singing and dancing as though black people have no cares in the world, but when Pops delivers those words you can see why many from the south would want to believe them. ‘Black and Blue’, with the lines “my only sin is in my skin; what did I do to be so black and blue?” could not have been introduced to white America by anyone but the beloved Armstrong, who used his popularity as a laughing, mugging jazz entertainer to get into people’s heads when the Paul Robesons, Gil Scott Herons and Public Enemy’s could not. With these very outspoken social commentators, one expects to be challenged, offended, even; to hear the loquacious Louis singing such a lament was a stinging slap in the face of all those who tap their feet to Pops thinking to themselves “I like Louis- he’s not like the others…”
>In the 1920s, when she was still married to Pops, Lil Hardin (a member of his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands) witnessed another side of his personality.
At one of their gigs, a well-known white trumpeter came to hear them. The visitor was asked by his entourage to play something. He came to Pops and said, “hand me that horn, boy” and Armstrong, head bowed, complied. The man played a song or two, got a nice hand, and returned the trumpet to Pops. What happened next was something that Lil Hardin said she’d never forget:
Satch burned the place to the ground.
He blew notes even he hadn’t gone for before. Solo after solo, line after line, wave upon wave of sheer creative fire and fury. Every note he played screamed- to the rafters, out through the roof and across the countryside–
“THIS is who this horn belongs to. THIS is how it’s meant to be played. And THIS is who you have to deal with if, in your wildest dreams, you think you’ve got something to say on a trumpet, ANY trumpet, ’cause I own ALL of them!!”
The audience went crazy.
For him to have refused his horn to the visitor, he could have been scorned, fired, beaten, hung. And, worse yet, no one there that night would have understood who they were blessed to hear. The other player was merely a yardstick- a measuring tool by which Pops showed the difference between blowing air through a tube of metal and exhaling every ounce of pride, passion, hurt, joy, fear, frustration and utter defiance into the room, into the world, out over the confines of time into the 21st century, where we still marvel at the beauty and genius of the Satchelmouth.
Lil Hardin wrote of that night, “You want to hear Louis really play, just get him mad.”
Should we then thank racial discrimination for inspiring perhaps the finest soloist in the history of jazz?…
©2005 by Scotty Writes Music
Scotty Wright – jazz voice