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Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Remembering a great American -- THIS year was the 100th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's birth. Before he died in 1971, his last recording was a reading of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" for HBO's "'Twas the Night," airing this month for very young children. In a time when we are keenly mindful of our struggle for our liberties, his story is especially luminous.

In the early 1950's, some of the younger black jazz musicians called Armstrong a "handkerchief head." Dizzy Gillespie, a rising star of modern jazz, spoke of Armstrong's "plantation image." Louis, the entertainer famous for his big grin, didn't seem in step with the civil rights movement.

By 1970, however, Dizzy Gillespie, at the Newport Jazz Festival said: "If it hadn't been for Louis, there wouldn't have been none of us. I want to thank Louis Armstrong for my livelihood." He, and everyone in jazz, realized that Armstrong was the most continually creative and influential soloist of the music.

Dizzy and other, younger musicians -- black and white -- had also discovered the fire for justice in Armstrong. In 1957, when Gov. Orville Faubus of Arkansas defied the Supreme Court and sent state troops to prevent black students from enrolling in a Little Rock public school, Armstrong said of Faubus and other white supremacists to the press: "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell."

Later, when police brutally beat whites and black during Martin Luther King's march on Selma, Ala., Louis, playing in Copenhagen, said: "They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched."

But Louis never let his anger at Jim Crow turn him into what used to be called a reverse racist. When he was very young and poor in New Orleans he worked for a Jewish family, the Karmofskys. He had been blowing a tin horn, but saw a cornet in a pawn shop window for five dollars one day. Through the Karmofskys, Louis bought his first real trumpet.

Mrs. Karmofsky insisted that he eat dinner regularly with the family, and she taught him to sing "Russian Lullaby." He never forgot how "soft and sweet" it was, and how gently they said goodnight to each other. As Gary Giddins quotes him in "Satchmo" (Da Capo Press, 2001): "They were always warm and kind to me. When I reached the age of 11, I began to realize it was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from the heart."

On the road, even after he had gone on overseas tours for the State Department and had become world famous, Armstrong remained familiar with Jim Crow. In 1960, when his band's bus was in Connecticut and Louis needed to use the bathroom, a restaurant owner refused him the use of the facilities.

Yet, as Dizzy Gillespie said, that grin -- that delight in sharing his music with anyone who wanted to hear it -- "showed his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger over racism, steal the joy from his life."

And he knew that changes in the country were taking place. In a letter to jazz writer Leonard Feather, Louis spoke of "one of my most inspiring moments. I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor, just all together -- naturally. When you see things like that, you know you're going forward."

Louis had considerable impact on that forward motion. The late Charles Black, a longtime law professor at Yale University, was a key member of Thurgood Marshall's legal team, which won a historic series of victories against segregated public schools -- reaching a climax in the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, declaring segregated public schools inherently unconstitutional.

Charles Black used to tell how, when he was 16 years old, in Texas, growing up as a racist, he heard Louis Armstrong in a hotel in Austin. "He was the first genius I had ever seen," Black wrote. "It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy's seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black then in any but a servant's capacity. It was just then that I started walking to the Brown case where I belonged."

And so, Louis Armstrong became part of American constitutional history. To hear what Charles Black heard, I recommend the Columbia/Legacy series, which includes, "The Complete Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings" and "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy." And you will also enjoy "Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings" (Bluebird). On the Verve label, there is "Louis Armstrong/Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography," with narration by Louis.

If it were up to me, Louis Armstrong would be on Mount Rushmore with other American icons. Louis, and jazz, are part of the spirit of freedom.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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