Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism
By Thomas Brothers
W. W. Norton & Company, 608 pages, $39.95
A massive, and massively detailed new biography, reminds music mavens that jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong assimilated lessons from Judaism and expressed them through music and writing during his long career.
“Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism” by Thomas Brothers is a tribute to an unsurpassed jazz trumpeter and singer who relished Yiddishkeit. Born in 1901, Armstrong performed and recorded nearly until his death in 1971. Grateful early on for the respect, encouragement and affection he received as a boy from the Karnofskys, a Lithuanian Jewish family in his hometown of New Orleans, he later became dependent for decades on his manager Joe Glaser, a Jew with mob ties. Toward the end of his life, he repeatedly jotted down thanks to Jewish doctors who prolonged his career. At home, Armstrong snacked on matzoh as a preferred treat and wore a Star of David (accounts differ over whether it was given to him by the Karnofskys or by Glaser). The jazz photographer Herb Snitzer, who captured an image of Armstrong on a bus in 1960 with the Star of David clearly visible, commented: “[Armstrong] wore the Star his entire life.”
Brothers, a Duke University musicologist, offers up captivating details about Armstrong, who was very vocal about his overindulgence in marijuana, laxatives and extra-marital affairs. More than any previous biographer, Brothers lets us get to know Armstrong warts and all, rather than glossing over, for example, his relationship with Al Capone at the start of his career. A magnificent researcher, Brothers previously published “Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings,” a key volume that includes the text “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.” Penned from Beth Israel Hospital in 1969, itis dedicated to Glaser, “The best Friend/That I’ve ever had/May the Lord Bless Him/Watch over him always” from “His boy + disciple who loved him dearly.” (The off-Broadway play “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” currently running at the Westside Theater Upstairs, depicts Armstrong and Glaser as having a more fraught relationship.) “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family” also praises a physician at Beth Israel: “Dr. Gary Zucker M.D. (my doctor—He saved my Life at the Beth Israel Hospital, N.Y. Dr. Zucker took me out of Intensive care “Twice. Yea.)”
Dr. Zucker inspired Armstrong by singing a Russian Jewish lullaby that the latter had heard from the Karnofsky family decades ago. This inspired a vehement series of declarations of love for the Jewish people in which he expressed disappointment that the African-American community had failed to mobilize for Jewish causes:
“I had a long time admiration for the Jewish People. Especially with their long time of courage, taking So Much Abuse for so long. I was only Seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for. It dawned on me, how drastically. Even ‘my race’ the Negroes, the way that I saw it, they were having a little better Break than the Jewish people, with jobs a plenty around… to me we were better off than the Jewish people. But we didn’t do anything about it. We were lazy and still are.”
Compassionate toward poverty and other forms of suffering, and identified with the African-American struggle against oppression, in his writings, Armstrong used Jewish courage and resolve in the face of oppression as a goad to inspire African Americans. A great musician who was both a product of African-American heritage and influenced by Jewish tradition, Armstrong used his music as a platform to express tough love to his community.