March 8, 2014

KNOWING WHO YOU ARE:

WHAT LOUIS ARMSTRONG REALLY THINKS (BEN SCHWARTZ, 2/27/14, The New Yorker)

Race pervaded every aspect of Armstrong's career. After he began making movies, he was given an embarrassing jungle outfit to wear in "A Rhapsody in Black and Blue" (1932), a betrayal of everything in his music. Brothers likens the ideology of nineteen-thirties racism that Armstrong lived under to what other musical geniuses suffered overseas at the time:

In Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich came under attack for composing music that did not fit official Soviet expectations; his efforts to make up for such "errors" in artistic judgment lay at the root of a tortured life. Richard Strauss's German-themed compositions were easily appropriated by the Nazis, boxing him into an image that he wanted nothing do with.
Armstrong, in his own way, made that same point. During the Little Rock schools standoff, he cancelled a planned tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department. As Teachout quotes him in "Pops," "The people over there ask me what's wrong with my country? What am I supposed to say?" Yes, Armstrong compromised. "If he was going to advance further on the ladder of his career--and he definitely was--he had to assure white audiences on a deep level that he had no designs on social progress," Brothers writes.

But, in fact, he did, which we see now in his art and in his racial politics, from his interactions with the Memphis police in 1931 and Eisenhower in 1957 to his return in 1965 to New Orleans, without grandstanding or incident. As the pieces come together, a consistency of thought in Armstrong once obscured to us has finally become clear: "You name the country and we've just about been there," he said of his travels with his wife Lucille. "We've been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We've had an audience with the Pope. We've even slept in Hitler's bed. But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I've got sense enough to know that I'm still Louis Armstrong--colored."

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Posted by at March 8, 2014 7:23 AM
  
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