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.’”