August 13, 2011
Sometime in the early 1960s, I went with a couple of my cousins to hear Louis Armstrong and his band play at Seton Hall University. I can’t remember how I decided to attend that show; there was not a single Armstrong recording among my LPs – which were dominated by operatic arias and country-and-western songs. I knew Armstrong from his television appearances, and I do recall finding him irresistible: not the trumpeter — I didn’t know from trumpets — the whole package. Whenever Armstrong’s image appeared on the black-and-white screen, I would pay attention. He was unique, and he was entertaining.
I was not aware until I read Ricky Riccardi’s recent book, What a Wonderful World, that the quality that attracted me to Louis Armstrong was the very thing that some folks found irritating, disappointing, even traitorous. Jazz purists objected to Armstrong’s departure from his musical roots in his native New Orleans, and many black Americans objected to his on-stage persona, in which they saw the perpetuation of the minstrel end man – a clown whose vocation was amusing white audiences. This was complicated by the fact that although Armstrong was at the height of his international fame in the heyday of the American civil rights movement, he played no visible part in the campaign — this, despite the fact that he and his band had often felt the sting of prejudice.
In fact, Armstrong refused for decades to appear in New Orleans as long as local laws prohibited mixed-race bands — perhaps an ironic position for him to take, given the fact that one of the raps on him was that he was willing to play before segregated audiences. His explanation was that he played where his manager booked him, and that he played for whoever wanted to hear him — and they were legion. Armstrong maintained that he contributed as much as anyone else to the progress of black Americans, because he paved the way for others to be received by white audiences.
His bookings are an interesting topic in Riccardi’s book. Armstrong’s manager during the last several decades of his career was Joe Glaser, a Chicago tough guy with a criminal background. There was some kind of bond between the two men — so much so that their arrangement was based on a handshake so that Glaser’s financial obligations to Armstrong were not spelled out. Glaser certainly got rich on the relationship, and Armstrong insisted that he had everything he wanted in life, including his daily regimen of marijuana and an herbal laxative that he treated as kind of a sacrament.
Riccardi describes in some detail the schedule kept by Armstrong and his band, the All Stars. It’s exhausting just to read about it. It was not unusual for the musicians to perform forty one-nighters in a row without a break — and this went on for decades. Outsiders thought Glaser was taking advantage of Armstrong, wringing out every dime he could before the man dropped dead. Armstrong denied this; Riccardi doesn’t seem to accept it, but even in the material the author provides in this book — such as a letter in which Armstrong complains to Glaser about being treated “like a baby” — there’s a strong insinuation that the critics were right. Armstrong himself insisted that he was doing what he wanted to do, but he also complained from time to time about exhaustion, and he lost more than one player from the All Stars because the grind was just too much.
Riccardi, who is a student of music and an authority on Armstrong, defends Armstrong’s repertoire; the subtitle of the book is The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Among the criticisms of Armstrong was that he played almost the same song set night after night, to which Armstrong replied that he played what the paying audience expected him to play. As for the indictment of Armstrong’ s wide grin and rolling eyes, it never occurred to me that those mannerisms were supposed to be a stereotype of a black man — if it had occurred to me, I would have been offended and would not have been at that show at Seton Hall. To me, Armstrong was just being himself. Still, his position on race, as Riccardi presents it in this book, was ambiguous at most. At times he would lose his temper and rant about the way black Americans were treated, but he was also capable of making a statement in which he adopted a shaky rationale based on a distinction between “lazy” black people and industrious ones like him. In the event, Armstrong had almost no black audience when he was recording his enormous pop hits, “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” and whether that was due to his play list or to his attitude toward his race remains a matter of conjecture.
You can watch and listen to Armstrong sing and play “Mack the Knife” by clicking HERE.