Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Satchmo’s Smile

Louis Armstrong in 1958 (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
Too much, said Louis Armstrong’s critics, but they misread him

Louis Armstrong and his orchestra landed in jail for crossing Jim Crow. It was October 1931. They had stopped in Memphis, where they had a gig, when police discovered that traveling with them on the bus they’d rented was a white woman, the wife of Armstrong’s manager. The manager of the theater they were booked at put up bail. They were released on condition that they play a benefit concert the next day. There, before a white audience at a downtown hotel, Armstrong introduced a number by announcing that they were dedicating it to the police department. The song was

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