Louis Armstrong is known to the world as the most influential jazz trumpeter of the 20th century. Author Gary Giddins calls him "the genius who transformed American music."
Through the decades, Armstrong won over new audiences outside the jazz world with his appearances on popular TV shows and in hit movies. As 'Ambassador Satch' his face became famous in the far corners of the earth. He performed throughout Africa, Asia and Russia on official State Department tours—long before such international jet-setting was commonplace.
Few people were aware of how articulate and prolific a writer Louis Armstrong was until the publication of his journals in Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings, edited by Thomas Brothers and published by Oxford University Press in 2001. On the road, Armstrong always traveled with his Smith-Corona typewriter and filled handwritten notebooks with his musings.
Armstrong wrote candidly on a wide range of subjects including—the history and styles of jazz, his career, his personal relationships and the racial politics of the era. Thomas Brothers comments on Armstrong's writing, "The candor in [these writings] should sufficiently challenge the one-dimensionality of the cheerful, even obsequious public image that Armstrong could project so well. It should warn the reader that there was more to Armstrong than the entertainer's mask..."
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, Broadway's Vernel Bagneris, a New Orleans native, reads from Louis Armstrong's journals and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band performs his music. Among the episodes re-told on this broadcast is the story of Armstrong's involvement in the landmark school integration battle in Arkansas. In the fall of 1957 the nation was gripped by the racial crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. In response to the Governor's stand-off, refusing to allow black children to integrate the local high school in Little Rock, Armstrong refused to represent the United States on a State Department tour.
On September 24, 1957, Louis Armstrong sent this telegram to the White House.
Mr. President. Daddy, if and when you decide to take those little Negro children personally into Central High School along with your marvelous troops, please take me along.
In all of his writing, Louis Armstrong's deep affection and concern for children and teenagers is strong. Vernel Bagneris reads the advice Armstrong gave to young people in a December 1969 article in Esquire magazine as he himself was aging.
My belief and satisfaction is that, as long as a person breathes, they still have a chance to exercise the talents they were born with. I speak of something which I know about and have been doing all of my life, and that's Music. Music has no age. There's no such thing as "on your way out." As long as you are doing something interesting and good. You are in business as long as you are breathing. "Yeah."
The complete collection of Louis Armstrong's personal writing is housed at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives in Queens, New York. Michael Cogswell is Director. Guided, 40-minute tours of the house are available most days. Further information: 718-478-8274.
Photo credit for home page teaser image: Armstrong backstage with his Smith Corona typewriter. Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House and Archives
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2000