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The Boston Phoenix Louis's View

Satchmo and the Jews

By Josh Kun

JANUARY 17, 2000:  There's a 1937 photo buried in the middle of Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words (Oxford University Press), a new collection of Armstrong's selected essays and letters, that shows the late trumpet giant with his trademark toothy grin about to sign a contract. It's for hosting Fleischman's Radio Hour, and next to Armstrong, showing him where to sign, is his manager, Joe Glaser.

This is the kind of image black-Jewish-relations junkies (a twisted cadre that this Jew pledges hesitant, vexed allegiance to) live for, precisely because it lends itself so well to the two classic black-Jewish paradigms. Either it's the black-talent/Jewish-money exploitation shot, with a yes-bossing black signing his art and profits away to a Jewish manager and a Jewish company. Or it's the black-talent/Jewish-money cross-cultural collaboration shot, with Armstrong and Glaser working together out of their histories of linked oppressions to get the music they both believe in out there for as much profit as possible.

Of course, it's never been this simple, and no one knew that better than Armstrong himself. In His Own Words begins more than three decades after the photo was taken, with what will surely become known as one of the more memorable first-person black commentaries on Jewish influence on black arts: a chaotic, pissed-off, messy diatribe titled "Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La, in the Year of 1907." The setting is perfect: Armstrong is lying in a hospital bed in New York's Beth Israel Hospital, his life having just been saved by a Dr. Zucker, who sings an old Russian lullaby that Armstrong's childhood employers the Karnofsky family used to sing to him. The memory of the song and the care of the doctor unleash a gushing, repetitive, obsessive valentine to Jewish goodness, Jewish generosity, Jewish perseverance, Jewish struggle, Jewish triumph, and good Jewish food -- all filtered through the lens of Armstrong's warm recollections of his days working on the "junk wagon" with the Karnofskys.

These people become Armstrong's Jewish prototype of admirable, heroic caretakers. They help him and his family with money, food, and shelter. They give him his first trumpet. They sing the Russian lullaby that inspires him as a musician and vocalist. Amid four separate yet identical transcriptions of the song's lyrics, he pledges: "It was the Jewish family who instilled in me Singing from the heart." You might as well stamp "Good for the Jews!" on the essay's title page.

It's not so good for the blacks, however. For every Jewish positive, Armstrong puts forth a black negative (save for his praise of his own family). Where Jews are helpful, resourceful, and unified, blacks are lazy, greedy, and divisive. Where Jews are honest, blacks are double-crossing and two-faced. Where Jews endure suffering, blacks "squawk" about it, sing the blues, blow their money on gambling and booze. At one point, Armstrong even goes off the deep end about slavery, claiming, "Most of the Negroes who went through some of those tortures, they asked for it . . . one Negro who has no ambitions or any intention of doing the right things, will bring suffering to a whole flock of Negroes that is at least trying to live like human beings."

To be fair, as the collection's editor, Thomas Brothers reminds us, much of Armstrong's vitriol toward American blacks stems from the frequent criticism of him as the consummate Uncle Tom entertainer and how as a result (especially in the later stages of his career) he came to rely on white audiences for continued applause and adulation. Yet for all of his black-directed criticism in the name of racial progress, Armstrong never loses sight of how the whiteness of American Jews (however unstable that whiteness may have been at certain moments in history) allows them a safer position in America's racial hierarchy. "Of course the Jewish folk had a better break than Negroes," he writes at the Jewish hospital, "because they were white people."

It's a crucial point, especially in light of the popularity and critical success of Barry Levinson's recent contribution to the comparative-victimization fray, Liberty Heights, which replaces Louis with James Brown and fetishizes Jewish difference at the expense of blacks and in the name of self-righteous Hollywood liberalism. The LA Weekly's Manhola Dargis joked that the film should have been called Guess Which Jew Is Coming to Dinner.

Liberty Heights is set in 1954, and yet comic references to the Holocaust drown out any sustained treatment of civil-rights realities. Levinson makes a point of having Jews go first in the "No Jews, Coloreds, or Dogs Allowed" sign posted at the local Baltimore country-club swimming pool. And because focusing on race would make the Jewish characters less marginalized, he emphasizes class instead, making the central black characters wealthy and the Jewish characters on the outs, still the winners of the oppression game.

Levinson uses blacks to show just how bad Jews have it; Armstrong uses Jews to show blacks how good they should have it. Neither strategy leaves anybody looking too good.


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