It is no surprise to anyone that celebrities often get scrutinized for voicing unpopular opinions to the public. It is, in a sense, expected for some form of controversy to befall a much-adored public figure at some point in time. In the case of Louis Armstrong, he was no exception. When viewing Armstrong based on his status and position in popular culture; we often overlook the criticism he received.
Everywhere Armstrong and his band traveled and performed, he was almost always the headliner or main attraction. Often thought to be the best show in town and even considered to be the King of Jazz by many, Armstrong was adored and revered for his playing and the level of entertainment he delivered to audiences. Late into his career it was white and older Black audiences that seemed to be his main draw. As the civil rights movement gained steam, some of the younger Black artists and influencers criticized Armstrong both as a public figure and representative of Black people in that era. To the young Black and radical crowd, Armstrong was thought of as a “Coon” and “Uncle Tom” caricature. The Animated bulging eyes, massive ear to ear grin and white handkerchief waving was seen as minstrelsy.
Furthermore, by the late fifties and early sixties, other styles of jazz such as “Cool” and “Avant-Garde” had already taken hold of the art as the new, more sophisticated playing of jazz. And, as the palate of jazz audiences shifted, so did the feelings about Armstrong’s showmanship. Armstrong’s art and style were critiqued; it was a distinct contrast and frankly opposite of artists such as Miles Davis who embraced the ethos of “Cool.” Cool wasn’t just a performance style; it was an attitude that served as a form of resistance and protest to the expected standards and respectability politics that whites expected from Blacks. Although Davis admired Armstrong’s ability and trailblazing, he didn’t like the way Armstrong entertained. On this Miles states, “As much as I love Dizzy and loved Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, I always hated the way they used to laugh and grin for 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”.
In addition to his persona, Armstrong was faced with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Some people felt that Armstrong should have been more supportive of the marches and demonstrations against Jim Crow. Others felt that Armstrong’s methods on stage in front of white audiences, made him unfit to speak up or voice his opinion on the struggle for civil rights. Many things could be unpacked here but, most important is the often overlooked ways in which Armstrong actively resisted and fought against a racist and oppressive government. Louis was one, if not the first, famous African American musician to have written into his contract to not perform at any hotel or estate that would not allow him to stay. Armstrong also in his own right resisted Jim Crow laws by refusing to play in anywhere that would not allow Black and whites to share the stage together. This would always be the case given that Armstrong’s band was integrated often consisting of Black, white, and Hispanic musicians. These are just some of the examples of ways Armstrong protested the racism in America, long before the civil rights movement kicked off. It is a shame that Armstrong felt this kind of criticism by his own people no less, and yet, not many cared to even ask his stance on the matter. Armstrong was not a political individual, yet he still felt that he could provide by donating money to help any organization or cause that needed it. The double standard that Armstrong faced is that he was attacked if he spoke out and attacked if he didn’t. What Armstrong risked was destroying a decades-long career by voicing an unpopular opinion on the climate within America.
In 1957 Armstrong commented on President Eisenhower’s reluctance to interfere with the then Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus using the National Guard to prevent Blacks from integrating Little Rock Central High. Armstrong said Eisenhower had “no guts” and described Faubus as an “uneducated plow boy.” He also called Eisenhower “two-faced” and in a quote described the conditions in America for Blacks as such: “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.”
Armstrong would face backlash on both sides, some felt his comments ill-timed and distasteful. Undoubtedly, Armstrong was hurt not only by the treatment of Blacks but also by the way his people felt about him. He had endured, poverty, racism, and segregation to go on and become the King of Jazz through pure talent and character. Sadly, despite his accomplishments and celebrity, Louis had to deal with an exquisitely unique pain from society and his community.
Armstrong has always been the same person, his passion was to play music, whether singing or blowing his trumpet the way no one else could. The fact that people questioned his stance on the treatment and position of Black people in America in hindsight seems ridiculous. Armstrong experienced levels of racism that his detractors couldn’t imagine; while growing up in New Orleans, Armstrong was first arrested at age nine for being a “suspicious and dangerous” character. True to hindsight, many of the people that had negative things to say about Armstrong double-backed on their statements, regrettably admitting they were wrong. Armstrong was a person whose actions spoke for him, I believe that Armstrong felt that what was already understood didn’t need to be said or explained. He brought an energy of joy and positivity through music, and he felt that was the best way he could make a statement; if people couldn’t understand that, it is possible that Armstrong knew very well there was not much he could do to change the minds of others.