Commentary Magazine

Satchmo and the Scholars

The trumpeter Louis Armstrong was universally recognized in his own lifetime as the key figure in the history of jazz. Though his reputation with the general public went into a partial eclipse after his death in 1971, the filmmaker Ken Burns rehabilitated him 29 years later with Jazz, a widely viewed (if controversial) 10-part PBS documentary in which Armstrong's pivotal contribution was extensively discussed. Virtually all of his commercial recordings have been transferred to CD, and his New York City home has been restored to its original condition and opened to the public as a museum.


Despite his unquestioned preeminence, however, there has been surprisingly little serious academic research into Armstrong's life and work. Moreover, the only primary-source biography, Laurence Bergreen's Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (1997), is so full of errors and misinterpretations that it cannot be considered a reliable source.
2 And while Armstrong gave hundreds of interviews and published numerous essays and articles (many of them written without editorial assistance of any kind), few have been collected. Of his surviving correspondence, only a small portion has been published in book form.

The publication of two new studies of Armstrong is thus especially worthy of note, not least because they appear at first glance to be very dissimilar undertakings. Penny M. Von Eschen's Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, a study of the world tours conducted by Armstrong and other musicians under the auspices of the U.S. State Department starting in the 50's, is essentially non-musical in its approach.

3 Thomas Brothers's Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, by contrast, is a detailed account of the trumpeter's early life (he lived in New Orleans from 1901, the year of his birth, until 1922, when he moved to Chicago) in which close and scrupulous attention is paid to the details of his musical development.

Yet for all their differences, Satchmo Blows Up the World and Louis Armstrong's New Orleans have two important things in common. Both authors are out to prove a point—and the points they seek to prove, while arguable, are not so self-evident as they think.


The involvement of the U.S. State Department with jazz is an obscure but fascinating chapter in the history of the cold war. It is not primarily a musical story—which is fortunate, since Von Eschen, who teaches history and African-American studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is not a musician and knows little about jazz. She is, however, an assiduous researcher and skilled interviewer, and Satchmo Blows Up the World fills in many of the gaps in our knowledge of the program that sent Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and other noted American musicians abroad to represent the United States between 1956 and 1978.

As has often been remarked, jazz was widely perceived throughout the postwar world as a musical epitome of democratic values. This was one of the reasons why the State Department underwrote foreign tours by jazz musicians and broadcast their recordings behind the Iron Curtain on the Voice of America. Although similar claims were made for abstract expressionist painting, the fact that so many jazz musicians were black was seen as another point in its favor—for jazz, as Von Eschen observes, could “speak to America's Achilles heel of racism in [a] way that a painting by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock could not.”

Von Eschen is keenly aware—as well she should be—of the cruel irony inherent in the fact that the tours were meant to burnish the reputation of the U.S., especially in the new nations of Asia and Africa, at a time when many of the musicians serving as informal “ambassadors” were still being treated as second-class citizens in large parts of their own country. She points to this contradiction, however, not as part of a balanced assessment of a complex reality but in support of her wholesale condemnation of “the magnitude and hubris of the multifaceted American projects of global expansion in the post-World War II world.”

Revealingly, Von Eschen also dismisses as mere “post-cold-war triumphalism” the now common claim that jazz musicians played a part in winning the cold war, a notion that in her view serves only to obscure the myriad evils of “an America deeply implicated in the machinations and violence of global modernization.” Even more revealingly, she refers to “the boisterous one-upmanship” and “masculinist adventurism” of the cold war as if U.S. opposition to Soviet Communism were nothing more than a rivalry between two sexually unsure teenage boys.

This, of course, is the way the cold war is now often portrayed in the American academy. Still, it is both jarring and exasperating when an otherwise useful piece of scholarship is disfigured by such strident excursions into hard-Left politics. One can scarcely help feeling that Von Eschen is “using” jazz in no less cynical a manner than did, allegedly, the State Department officials whose good intentions she impugns in Satchmo Blows Up the World.


Thomas Brothers is a scholar of an altogether different sort. A professor of music at Duke University, he is the editor of Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings (1999), a collection of letters and autobiographical writings many of which had been previously unpublished and all of which were presented here for the first time in authoritative texts. Now, in Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, he has turned his attention to the largely untapped body of oral-history depositions and first-person memoirs left behind by Armstrong and the other New Orleans musicians who took part in the creation and early development of jazz.

Brothers's purpose is not merely to provide the first factually reliable account of Armstrong's early years but to describe in detail the complicated and poorly understood culture into which the trumpeter was born. As he explains in his introduction:

Armstrong's image has often been tied up with stereotypes of noble-savage primitivism and God-given talent that is born and not made, but it is more interesting to discover how he was shaped by the musical and social complexities of New Orleans. . . . Armstrong lived a childhood of poverty, on the margins of society, and this position put him right in the middle of the vernacular traditions that were fueling the new music of which he would eventually become one of the world's greatest masters.

In all this, Brothers has succeeded beyond even the most fervent expectations of those who have eagerly awaited the publication of this book. Having read virtually the whole of the existing Armstrong literature, I can say unequivocally that Louis Armstrong's New Orleans is the best book ever produced about Louis Armstrong by anyone other than the man himself. Whoever writes about the musician from now on—myself included—will draw on it heavily and gratefully.


Central to Brothers's understanding of Armstrong's artistic development is the chaotic world of the young artist-to-be, which he sketches with clarity. The child of a fifteen-year-old part-time prostitute who lived in the roughest quarter of New Orleans, Armstrong was deserted by his natural father and later sentenced at the age of eleven to the Colored Waif's Home, an orphanage-like reform school, for the crime of firing a pistol loaded with blanks on New Year's Eve. “Many of the people who nurtured him,” Brothers writes, “were impoverished, illiterate, and from broken homes.”

That Armstrong should have surmounted such overwhelming disadvantages to become one of the world's most famous musicians is quite incredible. Yet for all of his success, he remained loyal to the New Orleans of his youth (about which he had no illusions), and unlike the self-conscious members of what the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier famously dubbed the “black bourgeoisie,” he never made any attempt as an adult to acquire the social polish of the middle class. In Brothers's words:

[H]e showed no interest at all in assimilating to white culture. He understood the advantages of seeing the best in people, but he despised those who “put on airs.” His sharpest criticisms were directed at Negroes who were “dicty”—African-American slang for someone who pretentiously imitates whites.

Even at the height of his fame, Armstrong remained unpretentious and unassuming, and his worldview would always be that of a successful working-class black man who believed devoutly in the pedestrian virtues of hard work and persistence. “I think I had a beautiful life,” he said not long before his death in 1971. “I didn't wish for anything I couldn't get, and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it.” Accordingly, he had no patience with blacks who were unwilling to do as he had done, regarding them not with sympathy but contempt. “The Negroes always wanted pity,” he recalled in a 1969 reminiscence of New Orleans life. “They did that in place of going to work.”


Brothers rightly stresses Armstrong's close identification with “the common laborers, domestics, hustlers, and prostitutes who found themselves confined by the color line to the economic bottom of society.” He was, after all, one of them, and his musical style, as Brothers eloquently observes, reflected the tastes of

those people who loved to move their bodies in time with rhythmically exciting music, who spoke in musical ways, who admired instrumentally inflected singing and vocally inflected instruments, who regarded blue notes as the strongest notes you could play . . . who admired musicians with professional skills but could also appreciate music played by an amateur, as long as he showed willingness and heart.

Where Brothers goes astray, however, is in claiming that the origins of Armstrong's style were entirely vernacular, and that his lack of interest in “assimilating to white culture” extended to a similar lack of interest in Western music. It is true that Armstrong was shaped by the black popular music he heard as a boy, as well as by the “sanctified” gospel music he heard in church. Even so, he had an irresistibly curious ear, and from an early age it led him in unexpected directions. Late in life, for instance, he recalled buying his first record player, a windup Victrola, as a teenager. “Most of my records,” he remembered, “were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. . . . I had [ Enrico] Caruso, too, and Henry Burr, [Amelita] Galli-Curci, [Luisa] Tetrazzini—they were all my favorites. Then there was the Irish tenor, [John] McCormack—beautiful phrasing.”

In citing an all-white jazz band and four of the most celebrated opera singers of the day (the now-forgotten Henry Burr was a Canadian concert singer who recorded hundreds of ballads and popular songs between 1902 and 1929), Armstrong left no doubt of his willingness to learn from whatever caught his ear, including the harmonically sophisticated show and pop tunes by songwriters like Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Noël Coward that he played with relish from the late 20's on. Later on, he would astonish interviewers by declaring with utter sincerity that Guy Lombardo was his favorite bandleader, and when he made his debut in 1956 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, he told the conductor that “his most honored ambition” had been fulfilled.


None of this means that Armstrong's main influences were other than vernacular. Nor, to be fair, does Brothers claim that the trumpeter was altogether devoid of interest in other kinds of music. Still, it seems to me that Louis Armstrong's New Orleans protests too much in portraying Armstrong as a quasi-folk artist whose musical development “would not have been one bit different had he never heard an Italian aria or a French folk song.”

Why, indeed, should so fine a scholar insist on so exclusionary a view of so protean a musician? The answer may be found in the preface to Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, where Brothers remarks in passing that he sees jazz as “part of African-American history.” This remark deserves closer consideration.

Of course jazz is very much a part of black history, and its emergence and growth cannot be understood without reference to the black experience in America, any more than can the life of Louis Armstrong. But jazz was not created in racial isolation. As I have written before, its roots were partly in Africa and partly in the West, and it is best seen as a form of African-influenced Western music, created by blacks, to whose century-long development both black and white musicians have made major contributions.

To claim otherwise, as some critics and commentators have done, is to distort the history of jazz beyond recognition. Brothers does not make that mistake, but he does commit the lesser error of superimposing a political framework on the fruits of his research in something of the same way that Von Eschen insists on viewing the postwar history of U.S. foreign relations through the distorting prism of left-wing ideology.

It would be palpably nonsensical to contend that racial politics has had no effect on the development of jazz. But just as it is important to place Louis Armstrong within the context of the black experience that shaped his art, it is no less important to recognize that he was a universal artist, a man to whom nothing was alien, who transcended the particularity of his background, and who thereby embraced the world. That, as is the case with all truly great artists, is why he matters to us today.



1 The website of the Armstrong house is Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 (Sony 57176, three CD's), The Ultimate Collection (Polygram 54369, three CD's), and Sugar: The Best of the Complete RCA Victor Recordings (RCA Bluebird 63851) contain digitally remastered versions of most of Armstrong's major recordings. (Portrait of an Artist also contains an exceptionally fine biographical essay by the noted jazz critic Dan Morgenstern.) The best single-disc Armstrong anthology is Ken Burns Jazz: The Definitive Louis Armstrong (Sony 61440), a 25-track collection released in conjunction with the original telecast of Jazz.

2 The best short treatment of Armstrong's life is Gary Giddins's Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong, originally published in 1988 as an illustrated coffee-table book and reissued in 2001 as a text-only paperback. In addition, Armstrong published two memoirs, the largely ghost-written Swing That Music (1936) and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), an astonishingly vivid account of his youth that he wrote himself.

3 Harvard University Press, 329 pp., $29.95.

4 W.W. Norton, 336 pp., $26.95.

5 “The Color of Jazz,” COMMENTARY, September 1995, collected in A Terry Teachout Reader.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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