Just finished the terrific biography of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout entitled Pops. It paints an image of the jazz trumpet master as a man of great emotional, artistic and intellectual complexity. That might be surprising to many who only knew him as a clownish, gravelly-voiced pop vocalist with an outrageous ear-to-ear grin.
Anyone who watched Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about the history of jazz knows that Armstrong was a genius on his instrument. It’s been gratifying to see him get the recognition he so deserved for his role in the creation of that most American musical art form.
Reading the story of his life as outlined in Teachout’s book, I was struck by another role that Satchmo played for us all: the roll of spiritual teacher. He was not a particularly religious man in the traditional sense. But here are Armstrong’s words about an encounter he once had:
“Years ago I was playing the little town of Lubbock, Texas, when this white cat grabs me at the end of the show – he’s full of whiskey and trouble. He pokes on my chest and says, ‘I don’t like—’” and here, Armstrong says the guy used the n-word. Continuing with Armstrong’s words: “These two cats with me was gonna practice their Thanksgiving carving on that dude. But I say ‘No, let the man talk. Why don’t you like us, Pops?’ And would you believe that cat couldn’t tell us? So he apologizes – crying and carrying on… And dig this: that fella and his whole family come to be my friends! When I’d go back through Lubbock, Texas for many many years they would make ole Satchmo welcome and treat him like a king.”
That theme ran throughout Louis Armstrong’s life. He returned love for hatred. What a man. What a life. And what a lesson for us all.