Issue of: May 20, 1998  


Thinking of Louis Armstrong

Commentary by Dick Dorworth

Louis Armstrong. Satchmo. A trumpet played with a sound like no other. An inimitable singing voice resonating life, joy, humor and strength. An improvisational genius of jazz. The name, the nickname, the horn, the voice and the artistic imagination would never be mistaken for anyone besides the man we know as Louis Armstrong.

His music is an integral part of the fabric of 20th century American life and culture. As with many Americans and jazz fans from all over the world, Armstrong has been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember. In many ways he is the quintessential 20th century American, part myth, part legend, completely human and as vital as a heartbeat.

In recent months his music has arrived over the radio, often while I’ve been working early in the morning or late at night. In that peculiar way of all music and genius musicians particularly, the sound of Louis Armstrong loosens the imagination, warms the heart, and entices the mind to wander into memory and away from the task at hand. Whether this phenomenon contributes to or damages the work in progress is, maybe, something to consider; but it is unquestionable that the music of Louis Armstrong enhances the lives of his listeners.

Though Armstrong died in 1971, I use the present tense because, in truth, the music never dies. His music speaks to the present moment as clearly and with as much vitality as the day it was played.

I saw Armstrong in concert several times in the 1950s and 1960s in the casinos of Reno and Lake Tahoe where I grew up. Until the early 1960s the only black people allowed in the majority of Nevada casinos were entertainers like Armstrong and his band, and they were only allowed on stage and in the dressing rooms.

Since my father was the manager of the New China Club, the only casino in Reno that allowed black people to spend their money within its doors at that time, the subject of racial inequality, prejudice and injustice was familiar to me. An audience of raucous white people (myself included) paying homage to and being entertained by the great Louis Armstrong was a twisted, undelicious irony.

He wouldn’t have been allowed to join his own audiences in Nevada to see, say, Frank Sinatra on the same stages. This beautiful man with black skin gave his all in every performance to every audience, black and white and tan. If he resented the racism of his country, it didn’t show through his smile and his music and his song.

Armstrong wasn’t an angry black man, a social activist or even critic. He was the greatest jazz trumpet player of his time, a happy conjunction of talent and soul. His distinctive rough, hoarse singing voice was part of his personality but, in fact ,was caused by polyps on his vocal cords. It was his infectious spirit in combination with talent and soul, personality and polyps, that made him a major influence in the evolution of jazz, American entertainment and the culture of the world. Armstrong was as American as America gets.

He even made a connection with the world of skiing.

There exists a silly but happy photograph taken in Sun Valley of Armstrong on skis with Andrel Molterer, Roger Staub, Dieter Grieser, Pepi Gramshammer and Stein Eriksen. Armstrong is the dominant person in the group, and it is his smile that stands out among these pale face/Aryan/Nordic grinners. Sun Valley is a long way from the New Orleans ghetto of Storyville where he grew up and the Coloured Waifs’ Home where he learned the rudiments of his music.

One of my associations with Armstrong’s music is with skiing in Italy. In the competition days I was dining in a small restaurant in a village in the Italian Alps and feeling the weight of competitive expectation, the alienation of being the lone American competing against a bevy of Europeans on their turf within their culture trying with inconsistent success to speak their languages, and feeling the will of toughness and constancy dribble away into homesickness and longing for the familiar.

Louis Armstrong’s music began playing over the restaurant loudspeakers. Satchmo’s horn and voice and spirit spoke to me in that little restaurant. Armstrong chased my blues away and allowed my resolve to come back home to my mind where it belong. Hearing Louis Armstrong in that restaurant was like having a paragraph of encouragement and a good joke from a best friend and advisor at just the right time.

The music of Louis Armstrong has been a friend and balm for the spirit on more than one occasion. In this I am not alone.

Armstrong worked incessantly his entire life, playing his last gig two months before he died. He was a lifelong smoker of the dreaded marijuana, he married three times and he was probably one of the earliest of American draft dodgers.

It is likely that the generally accepted myth of his birthdate of July 4, 1900, is a fabrication. His parents were illiterate and many people without birthdays chose July 4th at that time. He was probably born in 1898, though not on July 4, and he would have lied about his age to avoid the draft in world War I.

He had music to play, not wars to fight, and, though the man is gone and the wars are history, the music never dies.


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