As Told By Women

Telling Louis Armstrong’s life story featuring the voices of women he encountered during his journey was a goal that Fellow Maglyn Bertrand and I were assigned during the Fall. I believe creating a tour that highlights women’s perspectives has inspired Maglyn and me to draw on and reflect on our own experiences as women. By working together and making great use of the LAHM Archives, our voices have merged with those narratives of women who experienced Louis first-hand. Here are a few of our reflections and most impactful moments.

Reflection from Maglyn Bertrand: 

Writing various versions of a tour script that centers women’s voices in the telling of Louis Armstrong’s story with my associate Fellow Tatjana has allowed me to increase my knowledge of the important women in Louis’s life and challenged me to think about ways that the LAHM could continue spotlighting the contributions of women jazz musicians, especially those who are actively trying to dismantle racism and patriarchy within the jazz world.

Additionally, crafting a women’s tour has made me consider what unique insight each featured woman offers on Louis. One of the great “finds” made during the development phase of the tour was locating a CD that featured an interview between Yoshio Toyama and Mama Lucy, Louis’s biological sister. Hearing Mama Lucy’s voice for the first time was special. I enjoyed listening to her recall memories of times she spent with Louis and other family members, such as her grandmother and great-grandmother. Some of Mama Lucy’s words, featured below in the written form, shed light on what it was like to grow up in the New Orleans’s section of town known as The Battlefield and Louis’s determination to pursue a career in music.

We didn’t have nothing, we was very poor, very poor. My brother Louis died a rich man, but he went to school barefooted. Yes, he did, went to school barefooted. And he didn’t have nothing but when he got onto this here music then he just kept on trying. My brother went and played in the honkytonks. And played in the honkytonks and played all night long….

Beatrice Collins “Mama Lucy” Object ID: 2001.63.4

Another interesting sound object featured in a draft of the tour is an audio clip from an interview between the BBC’s Steve Allen and Ella Fitzgerald. In the interview, Fitzgerald discusses working with Louis in the studio for the making of their three Verve albums, Ella and Louis (1956), Ella and Louis Again (1957), and Porgy and Bess (1959). Her remarks reveal that Louis brought his sense of humor and personality into the studio. 

One of the reasons I enjoy discussing the Louis-Fitzgerald connection is that Louis made records with Fitzgerald and listened to the albums he made with her for fun in his Corona, Queens house. Interestingly, the night before Louis died, he recorded and listened to his album of Ella and Louis. The final song on the album is “April and Paris,” and this was the last song he heard before passing away in his bed in the morning of July 6, 1971.

Reflection from Tatjana Lightbourn

When considering Louis’s story and how he was perceived by others, I think about what the people closest to him thought about him. It makes me think what the people closest to me think of me. How do they see and perceive me? In this interview with Lucille Armstrong, Louis’ wife of 29 years. She speaks of Louis understanding the current events of the world. The matters that were important to him and the people that were affected in ways similar to himself. It seems to me as her perspective of telling his story showed how much she supported Louis’s choices and appreciated the person he chose to be in various settings. Louis loved people and everyone around him could recognize that. Listen in on Lucille talking about Louis’ character.

One other moment that I feel speaks strongly towards Louis’ character as well as offers a bit of history towards the type of challenges that he faced during life and career, is an interview that was done by historian Mia Bay. It poses some interesting answers to questions about Louis’s placement in a racially segregated world and the way he was viewed by giving a backstory on his beginning. Her insight as a female historian examining Louis’ life, has helped to fuel my research and interest in Louis’ plight. I learn how to understand the life, my young black men, in the world face while sharing a perspective of being a woman.

Much of the content that I have discovered while researching Louis’s story to be told by women, has brought back memories of my own childhood growing up in the south. It has offered me insight into what life for my brother may have been like and how I as a Black woman can support them.

The LAHM has preserved stories and moments that can offer the opportunity for change. We take into account the histories and plights of great men and women that came before us, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Velma Middleton to name a few. By exploring their various perspectives, we have allowed new stories to emerge.

For more stories about Louis and the important women in his life, please join us on May 8, 2021, at 12 pm ET on Zoom for the inaugural Louis Armstrong Den Series Virtual Experience. More information about this event is available on Eventbrite and the LAHM’s social media pages! We hope to see you on May 8th!

This weeks Blog was written by Maglyn Bertrand and Tatjana Lightbourn

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