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 “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You.”
Perhaps the cops who thanked the band afterward were unfamiliar with the tune and its title. Maybe they couldn’t make out the words. In one version of the story, Armstrong replaced the lyrics (e.g., “I’ll be tickled to death when you leave this earth, you dog”) with scatting, which sounds like glossolalia, speaking in tongues. Details of the incident vary from one account to another. Always, though, the point of the anecdote is the same: Armstrong improvised a joke on his erstwhile jailers and took care not to let them in on it.
That episode in the legend of Louis Armstrong illustrates a certain theory about his controversial onstage demeanor: that it was cagey. More common has been the complaint that it was cringeworthy, a minstrel’s mask signifying submissiveness. I didn’t know what to make of it when out of curiosity, back in November, I started watching whatever I could find of him on YouTube. I had just returned from New Orleans. It was my first time in the Big Easy. Lo, the airport there is named after him. So is a large park in the center of the city, just outside the French Quarter. He’s a towering figure in the history of American culture, but I had never given him much thought. Now I do.
When performing, he smiled almost painfully big, lifting his upper lip higher than it looked like it was meant to go, exposing “all that mouth, with more teeth than a piano had keys,” as Ossie Davis described it. In a video of Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” on TV toward the end of his life, when he’s in his late 60s, he carries his trumpet but doesn’t play it. It’s a prop. Stiff and frail before the microphone, daring not to create much disturbance below the neck, he channels his energy to his throat and face. If you didn’t know better, you might think he was mimicking risus sardonicus, a medical condition marked by spasms of facial muscles, which lock themselves into the appearance of a grossly exaggerated grin. Spectacular but strange, Armstrong’s blazes of hyper-smile demanded a response. Mine was twofold.
Out of reflex, I reciprocated, mirroring — in my heart, if not on my face — the benignity that his animated features expressed at least in theory. And I thought to myself, What a wonderful world. But an undercurrent of suspicion spoiled the feeling. In my experience, smiles of that magnitude don’t occur in nature, offstage and spontaneously, or even onstage and self-consciously — except here, in the case of Satchmo, a nickname (short for “Satchelmouth”) whose assonance with “Sambo,” as in “Little Black Sambo,” adds definition to the impression that at the heart of his act some disturbing innuendo lay dormant and coiled, like a snake.
He appeared to be trying too hard and making no attempt to pretend that he wasn’t. That strenuous facial expression — too extraordinary, really, for the word “smile” to do it justice — was exhausting even to look at. What did he expect his audience to think? His affect was so intense that for a day or two I wondered whether it was sarcasm, a bitter ruse buried under just enough irony that his adoring international audience would never get it. Was it equivalent to the southern church lady’s “Bless your heart”? Or was he being sincerely obsequious? The questions nagged at me. The more I study him, the surer I am that the answers are no and no.
No surprise, contemporaries accused him of Uncle Tomism. Miles Davis, a prodigious trumpeter like Armstrong but young enough to be his son, despised his mugging for the audience. “I loved the way Louis played trumpet,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, “man, but I hated the way he had to grin in order to get over with some tired white folks. Man, I just hated when I saw him doing that, because Louis was hip, had a consciousness about black people, and was a real nice man. But the only image people have of him is that grinning image off TV.”
“Guys of younger generations were frowned upon if they smiled on stage,” the jazz critic Stanley Crouch explained in a magazine interview in 2002. He told of going to hear Oscar Peterson, the jazz pianist,
sometime in the early 1960s, . . . and some guy was saying to me “I don’t like Peterson. I like to hear him play but he toms too much.” And essentially what they meant by tommin’ was smiling on stage. [Here, Crouch cracks up laughing.] The last thing you were supposed to do was be funny — if you were black — in front of some white people.
“Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart,” Billie Holiday said in his defense, calling Armstrong by his nickname among friends. She packed into those ten words an awful lot. First, the affection for Armstrong that his admirers were wont to intimate. Then the wrenching ambivalence that black Americans felt about their various methods for negotiating not only Jim Crow laws but, what could be more complicated, also the unwritten racial codes of their day.
At Armstrong’s last gig, at the Waldorf Astoria in the spring of 1971, a few months before his death, his drummer from way back when paid him a visit backstage. They got to reminiscing. “There I was in Oklahoma, with $2,000 in my pocket and nowhere to eat,” Armstrong recounted. Overhearing their conversation about segregation was his clarinetist, Joe Muranyi, Hungarian American, standing around, trying not to look awkward. He described the scene in his notes to Laughin’ Louie, a posthumous compilation of recordings that Armstrong had made in the 1930s:
The talk got into how tough it was for travelling “spade” (Louis’ word) musicians in the South in 1933. I began to feel a little uncomfortable with the subject: they were into the injustice of it all. Louis noticed and turned to me — “Aw Josephus (he often called me that), don’t worry about it, this was before your time!”
Sammy Davis Jr., among others, slammed Armstrong for playing for segregated audiences in the South. In 1956, Louisiana banned integrated bands, and there Armstrong drew a line. He boycotted his hometown. (He wouldn’t play in New Orleans again until ten years later, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went into effect.) “There’s a state law that doesn’t allow mixing of Negro and white musicians,” he told a TV reporter. “They want me to leave the two white boys in my band home. But I say, ‘That wouldn’t be my band.’ So I don’t go.” It was an astute turning of the tables, to point out that the offense in this instance was the exclusion not of blacks from white society but of white musicians from the majority-black band that was Louis Armstrong and His All Stars.
Armstrong’s readiness to light up his face and produce his “professional smile” (Ossie Davis again) was, in the eyes of his detractors, an insult to his art as well as a surrender to racial typecasting. They said he was unserious about his music. At his death, he was at the peak of his fame and popular success; his standing with the tastemakers had never been lower. Bebop had passed him by, or vice versa, in the 1940s. He shook his head at its “weird chords” and complained that it had “no melody to remember and no beat to dance to.” Its practitioners and devotees sniffed and suggested that he wasn’t musically sophisticated enough to keep up. When musicians and critics found fault with his work, what they often meant was that he mixed — let’s say “integrated” — art and entertainment.
“He did not distinguish between being an artist and being an entertainer,” music critic Gary Giddins observes in the Ken Burns documentary series Jazz (2001). Giddins wrote a biography of Armstrong and, together with Burns, Crouch, Terry Teachout, and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, has done much to rehabilitate the reputation of the genius musician who, in the second half of his career, was routinely dismissed as “the square’s jazzman.” Armstrong “was a great artist,” Giddins stresses,
but he did entertain you. He wasn’t offering his art as, you know, homework. It wasn’t for credits. It was to have fun. He could be almost a vaudevillian and do a kind of low-humor routine. . . . He could joke with the musicians, with the audience. He could tell slightly off-color stories, and then he could pick up the trumpet and play something that would bring tears to your eyes. He did not distinguish. And this drove a lot of people — nuts.
In the documentary On the Road with Duke Ellington (1967), Armstrong, who went to hear the Duke in concert, visits him backstage afterward. As they banter, Ellington kisses him, twice on each cheek. “I always come backstage,” Armstrong comments to onlookers in the dressing room. “Not for no particular reason, but” — here he folds his hands over his chest — “for warmth.” Hearing himself, he stops for a second and widens his eyes and then his whole face, a peacock spreading his feathers. With the back of his hand he taps Ellington on the chest. “Ohh! Dig that word.”