Wednesday, 2 July 2014

What a Wonderful World

"My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn't be able to blow my horn ... they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched."
Louis Armstrong (via)

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was often accused of being an Uncle Tom by the jazz community, of buying in to the ethnic stereotypes, of not being active in the civil rights movement (via), of not marching against segregation. Armstrong, however, had already been the target of bombing and did not wish to become one again. The public image of him was one that showed a trumpet player who was "not very serious about art or politics, or even life". Armstrong did have political views. But they were hardly heard publicly and scattered about in uncollected letters, unpublished manuscripts and tape recordings (via).

Armstrong boycotted his home town New Orleans after it had banned integrated bands in 1956 (a law that was undone by the Civil Rights Act in 1964) (via). In 1957, Armstrong spoke out when nine black students were not allowed to attend Little Rock Central High School and cancelled a tour. Eisenhower forced the school to integrate, Armstrong sent him a telegramme: "Daddy. You have a good heart." (via).


His shows were popular among white people - the same people that cultivated segregation. Armstrong did not socialise with "top dogs of society after a dance or concert". He said: "The same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro." (via). In 1931, Armstrong was arrested by the Memphis Police Department and sent to prison for sitting next to his manager's wife - white wife - on the bus (via). He was always under white management since many record companies were owned by white businessmen who did not negotiate with African American agents (Reiff, 2010).

Armstrong was criticised for his "Unce Tom persona", Dizzy Gillespie called him an outdated embarrassment. However, since racism was rampant when he started his career (Reiff, 2010) he clearly knew what injustice meant and had a clear understanding of the limits of what he could do as an individual (Stricklin, 2010). Armstrong needed to accept the "public transcript of appeasement". He appealed as the "smiling, uncomplaining black man trying to integrate himself". And this "happy-go-lucky, minstrel persona" was not that insincere. Despite all the blatant racist abuse he had experienced throughout his life, he was described as a truly happy person (Reiff, 2010). He was able to resist hate and prefer happiness over controversy (Stricklin, 2010). Armstrong chose his sense of humour and his success (with which he demonstrated to be equal) as means to fight racism. His resistance was subtle, but it was there. He chose a hidden transcript. Later, Dizzy Gillespie changed his interpretation of Armstrong's "Tomming" character:
"If anybody asked me about a certain public image of him, handkerchief over his head, grinning in the face of white racism, I never hesitated to say I didn’t like it. I didn’t want the white man to expect me to allow the same things Louis did. Hell, I had my own way of “Tomming”... Later on, I began to recognize what I had considered Pop’s grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile. Coming from a younger generation, I misjudged him." (Reiff, 2010)

I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom, for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky. Are also on the faces, of people going by. I see friends shaking hands. Saying "How do you do?" They're really saying "I love you." I hear babies cry, I watch them grow. They'll learn much more, than I'll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world. Oh yeah.

- Reiff, M. (2010) Unexpected Activism: A Study of Louis Armstrong and Charles Mingus as Activists Using James Scott's Theory of Public Versus Hidden Transcripts. Summer Research, Paper 55, University of Puget Sound
- Stricklin, D. (2010) Louis Armstrong: The Soundtrack of the American Experience. Library of African-American Biography.
- photos of Louis Armstrong with children at the Tahhseen Al-Sahha Medica Centre in Cairo via, with his wife Lucille Wilson in Egypt (1961) via and via, in Rome via, photo of Armstrong performing with All Stars (1956) via