Cool versus Fool—Criticisms of Louis Armstrong

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

By Shannon Stockwell

In the beginning of his career, Louis Armstrong successfully walked the thin line between art and entertainment. His jazz recordings with the Hot Five were regarded as some of the most influential in music history, but at the same time, the records contained enough of his comedy and his distinctive singing to attract those who weren’t jazz aficionados. By the end of the 1930s, however, it was clear that Armstrong’s music was decidedly pop oriented. As he grew more popular with mainstream audiences, jazz scholars turned up their noses at him. Among these purists, the consent was that Armstrong didn’t have the same technical proficiency that he once did, his repertoire was stale, and he gave up musicality for mainstream entertainment value.
            Around the 1940s, young black jazz musicians who had once admired Armstrong found themselves with similar criticisms, but they believed Armstrong had sold out in another way. They believed he had sold out his race. They called him an “Uncle Tom,” an insult that implied a black person was overly subservient and compliant in order to please white people. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis said:

I always hated the way they [Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie] used to laugh and grin to the audiences. I know why they did it—to make money and because they were entertainers as well as trumpet players. They had families to feed. Plus they both liked acting the clown; it’s just the way Dizzy and Satch were. I don’t have nothing against them doing it if they want to. But I didn’t like it and didn’t have to like it.

For Davis and critics like him, Armstrong’s comedy routines, mugging, popping eyes, and giant grin were too close to the minstrel performances of the past, when white people—and later black people—donned blackface and acted out stereotypes of African Americans that portrayed them as happy-go-lucky, dumb, and subservient.  

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet 1953. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
            These critics weren’t entirely wrong. Armstrong had been influenced by minstrelsy. Many black Americans who had grown up at that time were, because minstrel shows were among the most popular form of entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century. In the world of Armstrong’s youth, minstrelsy was often white people’s primary exposure to black men, so white people came to expect minstrel-character behavior from actual black men. And because of the white-supremacist social system of the time, black men were forced to succumb to the behavior that white people expected of them. By taking on minstrel characteristics like subservience and docility, these black men were actually donning a form of protection. According to sociologist Joel Dinerstein, “Hiding one’s feelings under the grinning black mask was a survival skill of great importance to all black males up through World War II; a black man could get lynched for pretending to be on equal terms with a white man under almost any circumstances.”
            As time went on, black American culture began to shift. During the 1920s and ’30s, many African Americans living in the South sought work opportunities in cities in the North and Midwest. The Great Migration, as it came to be called, instilled feelings of opportunity and economic freedom in many of these black Americans. These improved conditions suggested that there was hope that further social change was on the way.
            Change was coming, but it was a long way off. Although the Northeast and Midwest were marginally less racist than the South, black people still faced discrimination in employment, housing, and nearly every other part of their lives. Some young African Americans, however, had gotten a taste of improvement, and the potential of bettered conditions was enough to make it clear that a happy-go-lucky minstrel attitude was no long appropriate. A demeanor was needed that was antithetical to the docile, compliant stance that white people had expected of African Americans for so long. The answer was “cool.” Writer and activist Amiri Baraka said, “To be cool was . . . to be calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose . . . [such as] the deadingly predictable mind of white Americans.” “Cool” meant that one was reserved, quiet, and in control—a countenance in direct opposition to the exuberant stage manner of Louis Armstrong.
            The philosophy of cool was particularly important to a new genre of jazz that began to appear in the mid-’40s. Bebop was a response contrary to the mainstream pop jazz. Pop jazz was dance music—fast, fun, easy to listen to. Bebop was different. Like “cool,” bebop did not exist to entertain white audiences. To young African American jazz lovers, this was preferable to the ingratiating presence of artists like Armstrong. Some of the major originators of bebop, like jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, were heavily involved in promoting the rights of African Americans, and bebop came to be associated with rising black political consciousness. This also set up a contrast to Armstrong, who often proclaimed, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.”
            As one of the most famous black men of the mid-twentieth century, did Armstrong have an obligation to be a more outspoken crusader for Civil Rights? By not doing more, or by performing the way he did, was he somehow betraying his race?
Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer, first and foremost. He felt he was in the business of making people happy. But he also felt that his entertainment value—the same thing jazz purists and young black musicians criticized—was actually the most powerful aspect to his fight for equality among the races. He knew most of his fans were white, and he knew many of them could very well be racist. “These same . . . people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro,” he said. But he didn’t believe that entertaining racist white audiences encouraged them to be more racist. In fact, he felt it had the opposite effect: “While they’re listening to our music, they don’t think about trouble. What’s more, they’re watching Negro and white musicians play side by side. And we bring contentment and pleasure. I always say, ‘Look at the nice taste we leave. It’s bound to mean something.’” 

Christmas Spirits: Ghosts in the Time of Dickens

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

By Shannon Stockwell

In the 1800s, a strange and spooky fad took the Western world by storm: talking to ghosts. Mediums were in high demand as people organized séances to contact the dead. The craze, known as spiritualism, had a few different causes. It came from improvements in communication technology—if you could send near-immediate telegraphs to your cousin several hundred miles away, perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine you could contact your mother from beyond the grave. It came from an increase in hiring household staff; seen but never heard, a servant’s presence may have seemed rather ghostly to those living there. And it may have even been related to hallucinations brought on by carbon monoxide coming from the gas lamps popular at the time.

The upshot of all this was “a progressive internalization of horror,” according to author Dr. Andrew Smith. This proved to be irresistible psychology for many nineteenth-century Western authors, and thanks to the rise of the periodical press, spooky stories were able to flourish. Of course, there had always been spirits throughout the history of English literature, but their primary function had been to further the plot—take, for example, the ghost of the titular character’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Now, the phantoms had a new purpose: terrify the reader.

Couple with a young female spirit.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, like Green Tea (1869), had credible settings, which made the phantoms that appeared all the more realistic and therefore frightening. Henry James’s tales explored the psychological, internal aspects of horror in stories like Turn of the Screw (1898). M. R. James’s scary stories relied on realistic settings and were written as though they were factual accounts, such as “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (1895). With the innovations of these authors and many others, the Victorian era was when ghost stories truly came into their own.

In Victorian England, ghost stories were especially popular around Christmastime. These yuletide tales of specters and spirits tended to take on a less spooky tone, however—the intention wasn’t necessarily to scare. Instead, says Tara Moore in Victorian Christmas in Print, “supernatural agents enter the narrative to alter reality and . . . bring about a Christmas utopia of reunion and spiritual redemption.” Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was one of the most successful of these Yuletide ghost stories, and while the spirits in it can be frightening, they are carefully constructed to convince Ebenezer Scrooge to change his miserly ways.

For his part, Dickens tended toward scientific explanations of “supernatural” events and blamed them on “a disordered condition of the nerves or senses.” But he maintained a measure of agnosticism, writing to a friend, “Don’t suppose I am so bold and arrogant as to settle what can and what cannot be, after death.” He also joined the London Ghost Club, where he participated in several séances. He remained unconvinced of their legitimacy, believing that alcohol may have played more of a role than anything truly supernatural: “The seer had a vision,” he said, “which nothing but spirits could account for, and from which nothing but soda-water, or time, is likely to have recovered him.”

This notion—that the senses are easily affected by explainable physical circumstances—comes through in A Christmas Carol. After Scrooge questions the reality of the first ghost, the spirit asks him why he doesn’t trust his senses. Scrooge responds, “Because . . . a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But Dickens knew that, no matter how much scientific reasoning one could come up with, the vision of a ghost was still very real—and sometimes terrifying—to those who truly believed they saw one. The monsters might come from within our own psychology, but that does not mean we necessarily have the power to make the spirits go away. Scrooge certainly does not, which he realizes as each of the four ghosts force him to witness painful events from his past, present, and future. The inescapability of the ghosts serves to make the story that much more frightening, and, 172 years later, that which Virginia Woolf calls “the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid” keeps us coming back to A Christmas Carol again and again.

The Shadow of the Prison and the Novelist's Heart: The Personal Story Behind A Christmas Carol

Monday, December 7, 2015

Michael Paller

When Charles Dickens was 12, his father’s tenuous hold on the middle class collapsed in a heap of mounting debt. John Dickens was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where he was joined a few weeks later by his wife and four of their six children. Charles was put to work in a Thames warehouse that manufactured boot-blacking. The boy found himself alone in a world without comfort or security, living in a run-down rooming house in Camden Town. At night he played on coal barges or wandered the streets. So began his lifelong acquaintance with the meanest quarters and poorest people of London.

Although Charles’ time in the warehouse lasted at most five months, the sudden descent into the desperate world of London’s poor left a lifelong mark. Beginning at 15, he held a series of jobs that kept him in close contact with that world. The first, as an office boy in a law firm, introduced him to the workings of the legal system and its effects on the middle class and the poor. He saw how it might work for people on occasion, but that more often it benefited the lawyers, who never seemed to lack clients. His opinion of the law did not improve when he became a court reporter at an obscure institution, the Consistory Court of Doctors’ Commons. At 20, he became a journalist, covering Parliament. He observed the operation of a government controlled by aristocrats, industrialists, and wealthy merchants that blocked every attempt to aid the poor. 

Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his American tour (

Once Dickens saw the legal system at work, it did not take him long to find his true vocation. By the time he took a seat in the Visitors’ Gallery of the Houses of Parliament, he was turning the scenes he had witnessed in the law offices and courts into fiction. Two years later he was famous, thanks to a collection of short pieces called
Sketches by Boz. One described a visit to the Court of Doctors’ Commons, where a “hard-featured old man” with a “deeply wrinkled face,” whose every look and gesture “told of wealth, and penury, and avarice,” was busily planning to rob a poor man of a long-awaited inheritance.

By 1840, only about 20 percent of London’s children had any schooling. Education for all children regardless of class became another issue about which Dickens developed passionate feelings. He founded and edited two weekly newspapers in which he wrote about the need for universal education, sanitation laws, labor laws, and prison reform.

As potent as his speeches and journalism were, it is his fiction that made Dickens famous, and where he created the images that caused the world to take notice. In Oliver Twist, he attacked the workhouse system. In Nicholas Nickleby, he exposed the exploitation of children by ruthless schoolmasters more interested in profit than education. The Marshalsea became the primary setting and symbol of Little Dorrit, and John Dickens the model for William Dorrit.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens created an image of children who lived without hope, food, or education. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two desperate, starving children. He tells Scrooge, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all their kind, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow is written ‘Doom.’” Dickens came to believe that the privileges and priorities of the wealthy men who controlled Parliament would obstruct all attempts to solve the national problems of poverty, poor working conditions, and substandard education. This only made his vision of British society more uncompromising. His work evolved from melodramas of good characters beset by evil ones to complex tapestries of good people victimized by a system of corruption.

Through 15 novels, the work of his imagination was an attempt to understand a world in which debtors’ prisons and workhouses could exist. Through a public spirit forged from private pain, he found a purpose for his life, giving voice to those whom society ignored. The journey of Charles Dickens’s life was from concern for self to dedication to others—just as it is for Ebenezer Scrooge.
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