Louis Armstrong was a jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and singer. He was from New Orleans and became well known in the 1920s. He is known for some of his most famous hits such as “What a wonderful world”. Louis had a difficult life growing up with an absent father and a mother who turned to prostitution. At one point in his childhood, he was sent to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys when he was arrested for firing a pistol in the street during a New Year’s Eve celebration. There, he received musical instruction on the cornet and fell in love with music. In 1914, the home released him, and he immediately began dreaming of a life making music (Biography 2017). In the summer of 1922, he received a call from King Oliver to come to Chicago and join his Creole Jazz Band on second cornet. He made his first recordings with Oliver on April 5, 1923; that day, he earned his first recorded solo on "Chimes Blues”. Even though he was one of the biggest stars in jazz history, he still faced discrimination because he was black. He faced employment issues, denied performance opportunities, was not given equal treatment, had touring issues with hotels, and faced discrimination in the criminal justice system.
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When Armstrong became quite famous and traveled a lot he still faced issues with staying at certain hotels. He would refuse to perform at hotels during the daytime because he was not allowed to stay overnight due to the fact the hotels were only for white, he also was denied use of bathroom facilities at a restaurant. The criminal justice system was also hard to deal with as Armstrong had another run in with the law later on in his career in 1931, when he sat next to his manager’s wife, a white woman, on a bus. Armstrong and his band were thrown in jail as policemen shouted that they needed cotton pickers in the area. Armstrong’s manager got him out in time to play his show the next evening. During the show he dedicated a song to the local police. He cued the band to play “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Old Rascal You.” The band expected another night in jail for that stunt but afterward, the cops on duty actually thanked him. His joke was not understood by anyone except the African-Americans in his band. (Schwartz 2014). One major issue that showed the significant amounts of racism that was happening during that time was when Louis was performing at one of his concerts in Tennessee and someone exploded dynamite, luckily no one was hurt. During this time Louis quit King Oliver’s band due to lack of pay. He tried to find another band as soon as he could, when he met Sammy Steward, one of the band leaders. Steward rejected his application because Louis skin was too dark. This form of discrimination was practiced among black musicians against other blacks. Armstrong was quite subservient when it came to speaking up about racism and segregation. Everyone wanted him in the front of the crowds marching, but he simply refused because he didn’t want to be a target. This decision branded him the nickname “Uncle Tom.” In 1957, however, he angrily spoke up about segregation to President Eisenhower when a group of black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” were being prevented from attending an all-white high school in Arkansas. When asked about the crisis in an interview, Armstrong replied, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” He added that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts” for not stepping in, and declared that he would no longer play a U.S. government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union. This caused the whites to boycott Armstrong’s shows which eventually over time, all blew over. (Andrews 2018).
He grew up in an era when Blacks dealt with Racism by playing dumb, and hiding their truest thoughts in order to survive. Even fellow Jazz performers acted this way. Miles Davis was one of the most famous Bebop players at the time. He dated white women and even straightened his hair. Miles wrote in his autobiography that he hated the way Louis would grin and “clown” on stage for his white audience. This was looked down upon by Beboppers, whose attitude during performances was described as “cool”. Louis Armstrong, on the other hand, turned down an invitation from President Nixon to perform at the White House in 1969. He believed it was a ploy to convince Blacks in the country of their, nonexistent, inclusion in post-civil rights America. (Burks 2018) Rather than a Tom, he was a hero who not only survived, but in many ways, triumphed, going boldly where no black performer had ever gone before. (Mcnally, 1997)
Despite living in an era that had so much hate and discrimination which could easily bring anyone down and stop them from doing what they loved to do, Armstrong never let anything stop him from the pride and joy he felt when making music. He gave thanks to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys as that is where he learned he had a passion for music and that was what he wanted to spend the rest of his life learning and performing. There were many times when he had to face racism in his career, but he never let that stop him. Even with a reputation and nickname of “Uncle Tom”, Louis Armstrong was an admirable, passionate, devoted, courageous and wise Jazz trumpeter, singer and song writer. The racism he encountered from employment issues, denied performance opportunities, unequal treatment, touring issues with hotels, and discrimination in the criminal justice system, it all helped him rise above and become one of the most famous Jazz players in the world that we still, to this day will learn about and enjoy his legendary music and will always remember his name, Louis Armstrong.
Biography.com Editors Louis Armstrong Biography A&E Television Networks April 2, 2014 Accessed12 November 2019 Web https://www.biography.com/musician/louis-armstrong
Discrimination of African Americans from the perspective of black jazz musicians at the turn of the 20th century Google sites Accessed 12 November 2019 https://sites.google.com/site/discriminationofjazzmusicians/3-1-louis-armstrong
Burks, Arnold Louis Armstrong, white women, and Uncle Toms Medium.com 21 May 2018 Accessed 12 November 2019 Web https://medium.com/@ArnoldBurks/louis-armstrong-white-women-and-uncle-toms-916fd1981fad
Andrews, Evan 9 things you may not know about Louis Armstrong A&E Television Networks, 22 August 2016 Accessed 12 November 2019 Web https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-louis-armstrong
Schwartz, Ben What Louis Armstrong really thinks The New Yorker 18 June 2017 Accessed 12 November 2019 Web https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-louis-armstrong-really-thinks
Mcnally, Owen Louis Armstrong in the context of his time Courant 27 July 1997 Accessed 12 November 2019 Web https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1997-07-27-9707230098-story.html
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