Louis Armstrong's Legacy, as an Advocate and Ambassador, Shines in a Virtual Conference
Louis Armstrong’s cornerstone contribution to jazz has always been a matter of settled fact. His role in American culture, and cultural politics in particular, has evolved considerably over the last generation or so.
Those shifting perceptions around his legacy can partly be credited to historians and scholars like those at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies — which will host a free virtual conference and concert, The Louis Armstrong International Continuum, this Thursday and Friday with the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation (LAEF).
Among the highlights of the event are a performance by Stefon Harris & Blackout; a talk by LAEF president Wynton Marsalis titled "Armstrong in a Time of Emergency"; and a discussion about Armstrong's enduring influence, with panelists including René Marie, Jason Moran and WBGO's own Bobby Sanabria.
Robert G. O’Meally, Founder and Director of the Center for Jazz Studies, will host the conference and moderate its first panel, on the subject of social justice. He’ll also interview Dan Morgenstern — former Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers, and this year’s recipient of the LAEF's Lifetime Achievement Award.
O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, is no stranger to the nuances of Armstrong’s iconography. “What do we make of Armstrong’s semicircular, shining smile?” he wrote in an essay published in the indispensable 2004 collection Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies. “His signature flourish of a blazing white handkerchief? If in these familiar scenes what he wears is a comic mask, then what does it conceal? And how do we understand the meaning of the mask (or, as Constance Rourke might say, the “double-mask”) itself?”
In advance of the conference, I spoke with Prof. O'Meally about Armstrong's public profile. Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
Can you reflect on how perceptions of Louis Armstrong, in academia and in popular culture, have evolved since his centennial? We're talking about a 20-year period that has been really eventful in the realm of Armstrong scholarship.
It’s a really good question. And I think it is true that since the centennial, there has been a manifold campaign to resuscitate and elevate the image of Armstrong. I think that we are still recovering from the limited view that Armstrong played a stereotypical figure and should be discounted. That’s a view, by the way, that I held as a youngster. I was in the school band, and Armstrong played a mile from where I lived in D.C. And I didn’t see him. I had something else to do that night. What did I do that was more important? And I never saw him live. I missed my one chance — because of the misperceptions created by The Ed Sullivan Show and the wise men and women saying, “There he goes again. He's giving in to stereotype.” I think we're recovering from that, learning to look again at those wonderful presentations on The Ed Sullivan Show.
And also, we are backing up and saying, “What is the history of this figure when we look at the history of the trumpet as an instrument?” Going from Ram's horns to the phenomenal new work across the world by composers and improvisers alike. Where does he fit in? And then once you ask yourself that, you’ve got this fantastically influential figure. There would be no modern trumpet as we know it without the example of this man. There would be no modern singing, as we know it, without the example of this fantastic man. And I’m very critical of the Ken Burns film, but I honor him for putting Armstrong at the center of that documentary. There have also been stage shows, there have been all kinds of efforts to get Armstrong’s story told. And almost every one of them has misfired, but nonetheless, there’s been overall a successful campaign — thanks to Ricky Riccardi and his books, thanks to Dan Morgenstern and his books, and the history as told now by Scott DeVeaux and others. Altogether, the statement has been, “This man’s importance cannot be denied.”
To kick off this symposium, you’ll be moderating a panel about Armstrong’s connection with social justice — one of those things that I think have become clearer in these 20 years. What would you say about that, especially in light of the conversation we had over the last year around protest racial injustice and institutionalized violence?
It strikes me that you’re right — that the world knows Armstrong through the trumpet, through the voice, and I think also through the story about Eisenhower. I think when people teach Armstrong, as they do all over the world, the story that that he saw the protests in Little Rock and realized that Governor Faubus was opposing the integration of that school, Central High. And that President Eisenhower was not sending in the troops to help. And what’s funny to me, Nate, is that we talk about Armstrong’s humor in different ways. To me, the humor of his saying, “He had two faces and no heart.” And that Faubus was an ignorant plowboy. And then to learn that he was translated. What did he actually say?
Right — an “uneducated plowboy.” Classic journalistic fig leaf.
So you’re aware of this complicated man saying what was on his mind, and translating it. He signed it, “Solid!” He would not back off from the importance of what he was saying. So I do think that he was an ambassador from what might be called not just the civil rights movement, but the uplift element of our planet. At that moment, he was one of the most famous men in the world, and he reached through this situation and said, you know, “You can’t do this. These are my people.” And it’s clear all throughout his life that he wasn’t talking about black people only. You can’t do this to the to the weakest, most defenseless ones around me. Not while I’m sitting here. Elsewhere he’s asked, “Why didn’t you march? Why weren’t you marching?” And he said, “They would break my jaw. And then I couldn’t do my job playing the trumpet.” And he was in Europe somewhere, and someone says, “Oh, you’re Louis Armstrong. They wouldn’t break your jaw.” And he said: “They would break Jesus Christ’s jaw if they had a chance to do it. Don’t make a mistake about it.”
“And we have to do what we have to do. But I’m not going to risk everything because I know what the dangers are.” But his saying that, and making clear that he understood the situation, was part of his being part of what I call this kind of larger uplift element. But I think it’s bigger than that. He says things occasionally, you can see through the writings that he never misses anything. He knows what’s going on. And he says what has to be said from time to time. But to me, the dignity that went with his playing and singing, the projection of a human who was so manifold in his senses of life, his capacities to feel things, and then to project them — that assertion of a hugeness. You know, I’m looking out the window and seeing Columbia across the street. The university now is talking about not just humanism, but our relationship with animals, our relationship with the air, the land, the sea. We know more about that than we ever did before. And there is Armstrong. He seems so big in his expression that there’s a life force that requires us to react as if we all knew that we were interdependent as fire, air, water. Not just humans now, but plants, animals, all of us.
And when he sings almost anything — but I’m listening recently to his singing “Ochi Chernyie,” and he gives it this passionate thing. And then he says, “Lookee here, Ochi Chernyie. Where’s Caldonia?” [laughs] There’s an assertion of a life force that goes with that that I consider part of the social justice movement. Amiri Baraka says that in the timbre of his trumpet playing, there’s a “take no shit” attitude. There’s a lovely lyricism, but there’s also a — “Goddammit, you know that I’m here and I’m not to be denied.” And to me, that’s the largest thing. And that’s why we wanted to have someone like Cornel West taking it out of the music thing. Cornell talks about a tidal wave of influence that Armstrong had that insists on injustice. Again, someone like Dwight Andrews, a minister and a musician, putting it in a larger frame. Gina Belafonte putting it in a larger frame. Tongo Eisen-Martin, a poet who is definitely a part of a social change agenda, influenced by everything going on in modern poetry, but also influenced by the music.
The conference brings in other scholars from outside the jazz discipline — like Daphne Brooks and Emily Lordi, who produced two of my favorite new books. What thoughts do you have about this generation of academics, in and out of jazz studies, and how they’re accessing the jazz tradition in different ways?
Well, let me say first that jazz enthusiasm can sometimes seem to be owned by older white men. And I have so many buddies who have a wall of records and a wall of jazz books, and they can afford to go to quite expensive clubs. And there they are. But when we offer our jazz survey course at Columbia, we don’t have a room big enough to accommodate all the students who want to take it. And most of them are women. And a huge percentage of them are Black and brown people from all walks of life. So I wanted our symposium to make the point that there are lots of young people, and lots of young women, in this conversation. And Daphne and Emily are not teenagers, but they’re half my age and younger — and boy, the work they do is eloquent. Daphne has such a broad band of material that she writes about. She’s tracking that revolutionary impulse, and Emily is tracking that soul music impulse, so thoughtful about what soul has meant. And so for me, the two of them stand for this widening of the road in the conversation about jazz. It’s not just the jazz nerds writing out Armstrong’s solos and trying to play them or anything like that. It’s all these others who recognize that there’s more. I notice that in Skip Gates’s Black church film, his example of jazz and church music, he says, “Don’t forget ‘Go Down, Moses,’ and there’s Pops.