Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Beautiful American

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! Of course, to my fellow Pops nuts out there, that translates to, "Happy Birthday, Louis Armstrong." Yes, Louis wasn't born on July 4--I've covered that in the past and will do so again on Louis's actual birthday, August 4--but Louis believed it was July 4 and that's good enough for me.

Of course, there's lots going on today. WKCR is doing their annual Armstrong Birthday Broadcast (if you need a break, I'll be doing a one-hour live interview tonight on the Jim Bohannon Show at 11 p.m. EST). And at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we're having a special concert featuring Bria Skonberg's Hot Five (concert is SOLD OUT but if you're hankering for Bria, she's performing with the great Marty Napoleon tomorrow night in Long Island; details here).

It's obviously a big day for us at the Armstrong House, but it's also been a big summer as our new exhibit, "Swingin' with the All Stars: Louis Armstrong and Baseball," has been a hit (a solid double in the gap). Because of the proximity of our July 4 celebration and the Major League Baseball All Star Game coming to Queens on July 16, I was asked by my higher-ups to pen a little piece about Louis the American, the baseball fan and the man. We hoped one of the major New York newspapers would pick it up, but alas, they were already booked. The local Queens Courier agreed to run it but I'm kind of proud of it and wanted to share it with a larger audience. So here's my contribution to today's festivities celebrating "The Beautiful American":


Cultural critic Gerald Early once said, “When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” Early could have added a fourth "beautiful thing" that's uniquely American: Louis Armstrong.

Born in poverty, raised in the most dangerous section of New Orleans and armed with only a fifth-grade education, Armstrong changed the sound of music forever with his trumpet and his voice. in the process, he became one of the most recognizable and beloved entertainers the world has ever known, almost singlehandedly becoming the face--and sound--of America's greatest art form, jazz. He traveled around the world, "in the cause of happiness," as he famously once said. A noble cause, indeed.

 But as famous as he became, he never lost his humble nature. For this reason, he chose to live in a modest home in a working class section of Queens with his fourth wife, Lucille. Even with his fame and fortune, Armstrong refused to leave the neighborhood. He lived there from 1943 until his passing in 1971. 

Today, Armstrong's home has been transformed into the Louis Armstrong House Museum, which will be celebrating its tenth anniversary of being open to the public this October. Thousands of visitors from all across the globe, including scores of school groups, made the pilgrimage to Corona each year. 

A lot of attention will already be focused on Queens this summer as baseball's All Star Game is coming to CitiField. To tie in with this event, the Louis Armstrong House Museum is presenting an exhibit this summer about Armstrong's love affair with baseball. It should come as no surprise that one of America's greatest icons was also a passionate follower of America's national pastime. 

As a child growing up in New Orleans, Armstrong played baseball with his friends on the Black Diamonds, though it was the music of passing funerals—which often included future mentor Joe “King” Oliver and the Onward Brass Band—that really captivated him. When he returned to New Orleans a major star in 1931, he had the honor of having a baseball team named after him, "Armstrong's Secret 9." (Though the team had talent, they didn't win many games because they were too proud to slide in the new uniforms Armstrong purchased for them!) Later in life, Armstrong became an ardent follower of the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially admiring Jackie Robinson, whom was the subject of one of the trumpeter's famed collages. As someone who broke down quite a few barriers of his own for his race, Armstrong appreciated Robinson for more than just being a ballplayer. 

But Armstrong's stance as a Civil Rights pioneer was not appreciated during his lifetime. By the time of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, young African-Americans viewed the ever-smiling Armstrong as hopelessly out-of-date. They didn't realize that Armstrong had just as much of an interest in the third of Early's "beautiful things"--the Constitution--as he did baseball and jazz. In 1956, when his hometown of New Orleans passed a law prohibiting integrated bands from performing together in public, Armstrong kept his always integrated band, the All Stars, away from his hometown for almost a decade. "I'm accepted all over the world," he said, "and when New Orleans accepts me, I will go home."

The following year, Armstrong watched with interest as Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent the National Guard down to Little Rock Central High School to prevent nine black school children from entering. Armstrong blew his top to the press, putting his career on the line by saying President Dwight D. Eisenhower had "no guts" for letting Faubus run the country. After Armstrong's explosion made headlines, he refused to back down, telling reporters the following day that he would not go to the Soviet Union "until they straighten that mess down South. And for good....Because they've been ignoring the Constitution.....They're taught it in school, but when they go home, their parents tell them different. Say, 'You don't have to abide by it because we've been getting away with it a hundred years. Nobody tells on each other. So don't bother with it.' So, if they ask me what's happening if I go now, I can't tell a lie."

When the Little Rock integration crisis was resolved, Armstrong sent a congratulatory telegram to Eisenhower. Yet, what hurt him more than anything else was the criticism he received in the press by both white and black figures. It wasn't too long before the "Uncle Tom" epithet got trotted out again. On a private tape recording made with friends in 1961, Armstrong blistered, "
When the fuck have I Uncle Tom'd in my life? Here I am blowing that fucking horn for people all over the world."

Today, Armstrong's stance on Little Rock is seen as one of his defining moments. After his initial outburst, the elevator operator in the hotel he was staying at told him, "Mr. Armstrong, that will be in the history books." And he was right. 

Even with his frustrations over the treatment of his people, Armstrong remained a proud American and one of the country's greatest cultural ambassadors.
 In 1959, Armstrong was asked about his title of "Ambassador of Goodwill," Armstrong told a German reporter, "I'm an American first of all. And I don't know let my country down. And that's the way it should be."

That's why it seemed so right to celebrate Armstrong's birth on July 4 every year. He was told as a child that he was born on July 4, 1900 and he stuck with that until his dying day on July 6, 1971. When researcher Tad Jones discovered a baptismal certificate 15 years after Armstrong's passing that stated Armstrong was actually born on August 4, 1901, many longtime Armstrong fans felt a sense of disappointment. Armstrong should  have been born on July 4. 
Who was more American than Louis Armstrong? Even when Duke Ellington dedicated a composition to Armstrong in 1961, he simply named it, "The Beautiful American."

Because of this, the Louis Armstrong House Museum continues to celebrate Armstrong on the Fourth of July every year. This year is no different, as the event will feature a performance by young Armstrong disciple Bria Skonberg. Armstrong's favorite dish, red beans and rice, will be served. A special recording of the trumpeter performing the "Star Spangled Banner" will be played to tie together Armstrong, baseball and America. Even after the Little Rock ordeal, Armstrong continued to play the "Star Spangled Banner" after almost every performance.

While in Palm Springs in 1960, a journalist asked him, 
"You were born on the Fourth of July, which is America's birthdate. And you played the 'Star Spangled Banner' at different places at different times. What feelings or what impressions go through your mind when you play it?"

Armstrong said, "Well, we had military training in the orphanage [Armstrong spent a year-and-a-half at Colored Waif's Home for Boys after he was arrested on New Year's Eve, 1913] and 'Star Spangled Banner,' we was taught that. That was our National Anthem. And you're supposed to stand up and salute. And I was taught to play that tune with every spark I had in my soul, on our land, that's the way we was taught. And when we play it, that's the feeling I have. When the hoist that flag..." At this point, Armstrong launched into a gravel-throated, half-sung, half-scatted version of a portion of the National Anthem.

"Do you have a happy feeling when  you play that song?" the interviewer asked.

"I feel that I'm somebody!" Armstrong responded forcefully. "Yeah, when I finish playing 'Star Spangled Banner,' I feel just as proud as anybody that ever picked up a gun, shouldered a rifle and say, 'Forward march.'"

By the mid-1960s, a tiring Armstrong was still performing to packed houses around the world, especially after his 1964 hit, "Hello, Dolly," though he was now, more than ever, performing to predominantly white audiences. He still told the press about his love of baseball, but by that time, a scrappy new team emerged in Queens, just a short distance from Armstrong’s Corona residence: the New York Mets. By the end of the decade, Armstrong had become a Mets fan, even attending Game 5 of the 1969 World Series and sporting a Mets cap at home.

Privately, though, Armstrong had a desire that Lucille didn't make public until 1973, two years after he passed away. "The two things Louie wanted to do in his lifetime that he never did was to record [the Beatles'] 'Yesterdays' and sing the 'Star Spangled Banner' at Shea Stadium," she told radio host Joe Franklin. "And he used to have me rehearse with him. I'd write out the lyrics for the 'Star Spangled Banner' and he would rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it. And he'd say, 'They're going to ask me one day.' And they never got around to it. "

This Fourth of July, if you really want to do something patriotic, listen to Louis Armstrong's version of "The Star Spangled Banner." (It's on YouTube.) You'll understand why, after hearing Armstrong close a performance at Newport with it in 1958, author James Baldwin turned to jazz journalist Dan Morgenstern and said, "You know, that's the first time I've ever liked that song." Read up on Armstrong's invoking of the Constitution during the Little Rock episode. Watch some baseball. Celebrate jazz, baseball and the Constitution, and most of all, celebrate the uniquely American--and uniquely beautiful--Louis Armstrong.

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