Read an Excerpt
“Bastards from the Start”
Apprenticeship in New Orleans, 1901–1919
TO THE NORTHERNER New Orleans is another country, seductive and disorienting, a steamy, shabby paradise of spicy cooking, wrought-iron balconies, and streets called Desire and Elysian Fields, a place where the signs advertise such mysterious commodities as poboys and muffuletta and no one is buried underground. We’ll take the boat to the land of dreams, the pilgrim hears in his mind’s ear as he prowls the French Quarter, pushing through the hordes of tipsy visitors and wondering whether the land of his dreams still exists—if it ever did. Rarely does he linger long enough to pierce the veneer of local color with which the natives shield themselves from the tourist trade. At the end of his stay he knows no more than when he came, and goes back home to puzzle out all that he has seen and smelled and tasted. A. J. Liebling, a well-traveled visitor from up North, saw New Orleans as a Mediterranean port transplanted to the Gulf of Mexico, a town of civilized pleasures whose settlers “carried with them a culture that had ripened properly, on the tree.” He knew what he was seeing, but Walker Percy, who lived and died there, cast a cooler eye on the same sights: “The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace. . . . Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.” Unlike Liebling, he caught the smell of decay.
To the southerner New Orleans is part of the family—but a special, eccentric member, a city cousin who can’t be counted on to play by the rules, French and Roman Catholic in the midst of the hardest-bitten of Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultures, politically corrupt without limit and as morally latitudinarian as the rest of the South is publicly upright. In 1897 the city fathers went so far as to legalize prostitution in the restricted district that came to be known as Storyville. (It was named after Sidney Story, the councilman who drafted the ordinances that brought it into being, though musicians simply called it “the District.”) The vote supplied official confirmation of what a horrified visitor from Virginia had said six decades before: “I am now in this great Southern Babylon—the mighty receptacle of wealth, depravity and misery.” No one there pretended otherwise. “You can make prostitution illegal in Louisiana,” said Martin Behrman, the mayor of New Orleans during most of Storyville’s existence, “but you can’t make it unpopular.”
Not even when it came to race did the Crescent City always toe the line. In the twenties, Danny Barker remembered, it was
the earnest and general feeling that any Negro who left New Orleans and journeyed across the state border and entered the hell-hole called the state of Mississippi for any reason other than to attend the funeral of a very close relative—mother, father, sister, brother, wife or husband—was well on the way to losing his mentality, or had already lost it. . . . When it was decided to live somewhere other than New Orleans, Chicago was the place, and the trip there was preferably a direct one, by way of the Illinois Central Railroad.
New Orleans was no paradise for blacks, but it gave them a measure of personal safety that was harder to find elsewhere in the Old South. The same encroaching swamps that forced the city to “bury” its dead in tombs instead of graves forced its black and white citizens into closer geographical intimacy, and some neighborhoods remained racially mixed after the swamps were drained. Unlike the African slaves who had to wait for the Civil War to bring their freedom, New Orleans’s “Creoles of color,” the descendants of the mixed-race slave children who were freed by their French and Spanish owner-fathers before the war, did not consider themselves black. “My folks was all Frenchmans,” Jelly Roll Morton proclaimed proudly (and falsely). Some had owned slaves of their own, and long after slavery had been abolished, their descendants continued to look down on the children and grandchildren of the plantation immigrants who lived on the wrong side of Canal Street in the quarter of “uptown” New Orleans known as “Back o’ Town.” “The worst Jim Crow around New Orleans,” Pops Foster said, “was what the colored did to themselves. . . . The lighter you were the better they thought you were.” One dark-skinned musician recalled that some Creole bandleaders “wouldn’t hire a man whose hair wasn’t silky.” Slavery itself was a marginally more merciful affair in New Orleans, where most of the city’s slaves were domestic servants and some became skilled artisans. The freedmen who crowded into New Orleans after the war, more than doubling the city’s black population between 1860 and 1880, learned from the example of their urban brethren. As for the Creoles of color, they were already a full-fledged black middle class, among the first of its kind in America.
Yet such privileges as were enjoyed by New Orleans’s blacks, whatever their hue, could be withdrawn at any time, a fact of which the Creoles were intensely aware. With the coming of the post-Reconstruction “Jim Crow” laws, they were pushed back across the color line. It was a Creole of color, Homer Plessy, whose attempt to ride in the first-class section of a train car led to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made racial segregation legal. After an interlude of heterodoxy, New Orleans was back in the fold. “No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled,” the dark-skinned Louis Armstrong wrote of the light-skinned Jelly Roll Morton, “he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks.” A black man who came out of the kitchen, Armstrong knew, could end up dead: “At ten years old I could see—the Bluffings that those Old Fat Belly Stinking very Smelly Dirty White Folks were putting Down . . . they get full of their Mint Julep or that bad whisky, the poor white Trash were Guzzling down, like water, then when they get so Damn drunk until they’d go out of their minds—then it’s Nigger Hunting time. Any Nigger.”
In matters of sex as much as race, the city struggled with its confused heritage. Many plantation owners slept with the black women they owned, but in New Orleans such liaisons were conducted openly, and long after the half-open door of borderline acceptability slammed shut on interracial sex, the city’s bordellos catered as openly to white men who shared their grandfathers’ appetites. The same Basin Street celebrated in song as the street / Where the dark and light folk meet was also the main drag of Storyville, and when dark and light folks met there, it was often to engage in sexual commerce, sometimes accompanied by a still-unnamed style of music in which the written-out dance tunes performed by Creoles of color were infused with the rhythmically freer style of African American blacks.
Sex, race, and music: put them together and you get New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, a city with one foot in Europe and the other in the Deep South, committed to a tolerance bordering on libertinism yet unwilling to fully recognize the humanity of a third of its people. “I sure had a ball there growing up,” its most distinguished native son would remember long after he moved away, never to return save as a visitor. He loved his hometown with all his heart—but he saw it as it was.
Until the day he died, Louis Armstrong claimed that he was born on July 4, 1900. He said so in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and Swing That Music, his two published memoirs, and on innumerable other occasions, and although at least one biographer found the date too pat to be plausible, it was only in 1988 that a researcher located an entry in Latin for “Armstrong (niger, illegitimus)” in the handwritten baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to that record, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, the natural son of William Armstrong (known as Willie), who spent most of his adult life working in a turpentine factory, and Mary Ann Albert (known as Mayann, though her son spelled it different ways over the years), a fifteen-year-old country girl who came to New Orleans to work as a household servant. The event went unremarked by the local papers, which had more important things to cover than the birth of yet another “niger, illegitimus.” The front page of the next day’s Daily Picayune concerned itself with a lynching in Mississippi and a speech in which a South Carolina senator declared that “the ‘niggers’ are not fit to vote.” (The latter story also made the front page of the New York Times.) Three weeks later Armstrong was baptized a Roman Catholic, the faith of his paternal great-grandmother, though he never practiced it and did not even know that he had gone through the ceremony as an infant. By then his father had left Mayann for another woman. In 1903 Willie and Mayann reconciled for a short time and had a second child, a daughter named Beatrice (known as Mama Lucy), but Armstrong did not live with his father, or spend any amount of time with him, until he was a teenager.
No one knows when or why Armstrong added a year to his age. He never celebrated his birthday as a boy, and it is possible, even likely, that he did not know the true year of his birth. All that can be said with certainty is that the incorrect year became a matter of legal record when he registered for the draft in 1918 and that he stuck to it with unswerving consistency thereafter. We do know, however, that it was Mayann who told him that “the night I was born there was a great big shooting scrape” in the neighborhood. Later on he claimed that it was “a blasting fourth of July, my mother called it, that I came into this world and they named me the firecracker baby.” She was right about the incident but misremembered the date—it took place a month later. It is only because of surviving baptismal and census records that we now know both the date and year to have been wrong. Outside of these records, most of the rest of what we know of Armstrong’s childhood is what he tells us in his writings, augmented by our knowledge of New Orleans and the memories of those who knew him as a boy. He wrote at length about his young years, and the picture he paints is often chaotic and sad, though he did not find it so. But he never glossed over the hardships that he faced, or left much doubt as to whom he blamed for them.
Beyond describing him as “a sharp man, tall and handsome and well built,” Armstrong had little to say about his father, none of it good. From childhood onward he attached himself to older men, and it is reasonable to suppose that he was looking for some small part of what his own father had failed to give him. In the same breath that he praised Willie’s looks, he added that “my father did not have time to teach me anything; he was too busy chasing chippies.” That was in Satchmo, in which he often withheld comment about matters he otherwise described frankly, letting them speak for themselves. In later years he was franker still:
The man who May Ann told us was our father left us the day we were born. The next time we heard of him—he had gone into an uptown neighborhood and made several other children by another woman. Whether he married the other woman, we’re not sure. One thing—he did not marry May Ann. She had to struggle all by herself, bringing us up. Mama Lucy + I were bastards from the Start.
Armstrong was born in his parents’ home, a wooden shack at 723 Jane Alley, located on the edge of “black Storyville,” the separate red-light district three blocks uptown from Storyville where blacks were allowed to purchase sex. When Willie left her, Mayann gave Louis to Josephine Armstrong, Willie’s mother, and moved into black Storyville proper. “Whether my mother did any hustling, I cannot say,” he wrote in Satchmo. “If she did, she certainly kept it out of sight.” In fact she was almost certainly working as a prostitute on Perdido Street, a part of town that was rough even by New Orleans standards, and when her son finally rejoined her, that was where he would live as well. For the moment he stayed with his grandmother in Jane Alley, and his memories of life there were mostly happy, though it, too, was in a rough neighborhood known to locals as “the Battlefield.” It was, he later wrote, a place full of “churchpeople, gamblers, hustlers, cheap pimps, thieves, prostitutes and lots of children.” Josephine kept her grandson as far away from the hustlers and pimps as she could, sending him to Sunday school and kindergarten and whipping him with switches that she made him cut from a tree that grew in the front yard. He sang gospel songs in church, rejoicing in the variegated clouds of sound emitted by a “sanctified” congregation of working-class blacks who took literally the psalmist’s command to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” worshiping loudly, jubilantly, and without any of the self-conscious decorum of their better-off brethren: “That, I guess, is how I acquired my singing tactics. . . . [T]he whole Congregration would be Wailing—Singing like mad and sound so beautiful.” On weekdays he played hide-and-seek with the poor white children of the neighborhood and helped deliver the washing his grandmother took in, earning a nickel each time he carried a load.
At some point it must have been made known to Louis that his parents were living together again and that he now had a sister. Yet Willie and Mayann made no effort to reclaim their son, and it was not until 1905 or 1906 that he first saw Mama Lucy. One day Mayann sent a friend to Jane Alley to tell Josephine that Willie had deserted her once again and that she was sick and in need of help. Louis went with his mother’s friend to black Storyville, riding on a segregated streetcar for the first time in his life. He found Mayann in bed with Mama Lucy in a one-room flat on Perdido Street. “I realize I have not done what I should by you,” she told him. “But, son, mama will make it up.” Then she sent him to Rampart Street to buy fifty cents’ worth of meat, bread, red beans, and rice, the staples of her kitchen and the main ingredients of the southern-style home cooking that he would savor all his life. (As an adult he signed many of his letters “Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong.”) On the way he ran into a gang of bullies who called him a mama’s boy and threw mud on his treasured white Lord Fauntleroy suit. He punched the ringleader in the mouth and went about his business.
It is close to impossible for anyone not born into poverty to picture such a scene, yet Louis appears to have taken it in stride, save for a moment of panic when he first saw his sick mother. After that he adjusted to his new situation with the resiliency of youth. He looked on as one “stepfather” followed another into Mayann’s bed (and remained tactfully silent as he and his sister overheard the sounds of lovemaking in their one-room home). “I couldn’t keep track of the stepdaddies, there must have been a dozen or so, ’cause all I had to do was turn my back and a new pappy would appear,” he recalled, adding that some of them “liked to beat on little Louis.” Whenever his mother “got the urge to go out on the town” and disappeared “for days and days,” he went without complaint to stay with an uncle. Though he had only just begun to attend grade school, he took it for granted that he would also work at odd jobs to bring in extra money and was proud to help pay the bills. But he was not a passive onlooker, recording without thinking: the more he saw, the more he questioned, and his father was not the only man on whom he would someday render judgment.
Louis knew that Mayann, unlike Willie, was doing the best she could to take care of him and his sister, and he loved and admired her for it. All that remains of her is a formally posed family portrait taken around 1919 (in which the teenaged Louis can be seen to take after his broad-beamed, plump-cheeked mother) and the recollections set down by her son in Satchmo and his other writings. Yet it is more than enough to come away with a sense of what she was like, and why he revered her memory. A plainspoken woman who liked a drink and knew how to fight, she taught him the simple code to which he hewed ever after: “I had to work and help May Ann,—put bread on the table, since it was just the three of us living in this one big room, which was all that we could afford. But we were happy. My mother had one thing that no matter how much schooling anyone has—and that was Good Common Sense (and respect for human beings). Yea. That’s My Diploma—All through my life I remembered it.”
He was similarly admiring of the Karnofskys, a family of Jewish peddlers from Lithuania for whom he worked as a boy. Armstrong had little to say about them in Satchmo, but two years before his death, he wrote an account of his relationship with the family in which he told of how surprised he was to discover that they “were having problems of their own—Along with hard times from the other white folks nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race. . . . 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.” He saw it up close, for they took him under their wing, treating him almost like a relative: he worked for them, shared meals with them, even borrowed money from them to buy his first cornet, a five-dollar instrument he saw in the window of a pawnshop. Before that he had tooted on a battered ten-cent tin horn as he rode through the District on the Karnofskys’ wagon, imitating the blues-blowing junkmen who pushed their carts up and down the streets of Back o’ Town. The Karnofskys’ affection made an impression so deep that it shines through every word Armstrong wrote about them six crowded decades later: “They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me—just a kid who could use a little word of kindness, something that a kid could use at Seven, and just starting out in the world.”
He saw, too, how the Karnofskys and their fellow Jews banded together in the face of prejudice, seeking to better their lot through work, and was struck by the contrast with what he came to feel was the irresponsibility of too many of his fellow blacks—and one in particular:
The Negroes always hated the Jewish people who never harmed anybody, but they stuck together. And by doing that, they had to have success. . . . Many [black] kids suffered with hunger because their Fathers could have done some honest work for a change. No, they would not do that. It would be too much like Right. They’d rather lazy around + gamble, etc. If it wasn’t for the nice Jewish people, we would have starved many a time. I will love the Jewish people, all of my life.
Armstrong grew up to be an ardent philo-Semite who wore a Star of David around his neck “for luck” (his Jewish manager gave it to him) and kept a box of matzos in the kitchen “so I can Nibble on them any time that I want to eat late at night.” His admiration for the Jews was not limited to their cuisine. Long after he consecrated himself to the art that let him give up his odd jobs and do nothing but play his horn, he gave “the Jewish people” credit for having taught him “how to live—real life and determination.”
Little Louis, as his family and friends called him, was also learning other lessons about life. Black Storyville was full of music, most of it played in honky-tonks like Funky Butt Hall, located across the street from the Fisk School for Boys, to which he started going in 1907. No child in short pants would ever have been allowed inside to watch the dancers bump, grind, drink, and fight, so Louis stood on the sidewalk and listened, peering through a crack in the wall of the rickety building: “It wasn’t no classyfied place, just a big old room with a bandstand. And to a tune like ‘The Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,’ some of them chicks would get way down, shake everything, slapping themselves on the cheek of their behind.” He soon learned to recognize the styles of Buddy Bolden, Joe Oliver, and Bunk Johnson, the best black cornet players in town. He liked Johnson’s sweet tone, but it was the “fire and the endurance” of Oliver that stirred him most powerfully, then and later.
He was stirred in a different way by the ever-changing panorama of whores, pimps, and johns to be seen on the streets of black Storyville. Sex could be bought for as little as ten cents in Louis’s neighborhood, where violence might explode at any time in a red storm of filthy words and sharp knives that left the whores mutilated or dead, sometimes at one another’s hands. (Three-quarters of the arrests made at the Funky Butt involved women.) Jelly Roll Morton claimed that “many a time myself I went on Saturdays and Sundays and look in the morgue and see eight and ten men that was killed on the Saturday night.” In a gentler world Louis might have been shielded from such horrors, but the child of a single mother growing up in black Storyville could hope for little in the way of insulation. He had already started to acquire a reputation as a “bad boy” when he dropped out of the Fisk School to sell newspapers, and after hours he teamed up with three other urchins to sing popular songs in the streets of the District for pennies, bringing the proceeds home to Mayann: “We’d go around to gamblers and the hustlers and pass our hat . . . a boy twelve years old bring a dollar and a half of his take home, afterwards divide it up, that’s a lot of money.” Older musicians took note of their barbershop harmonies. “I want you to go hear a little quartet, how they sing and harmonize,” Bunk Johnson told the young Sidney Bechet. But while such recognition might have led to bigger and better things, it seems at least as likely that Little Louis was on the way to becoming another piece of urban flotsam—until he caught the eye of a policeman.
The law of unintended consequences was working overtime when Louis pried open his mother’s cedar chest, stole a revolver belonging to one of his “stepfathers,” loaded it with blanks, and took it along with him on his nightly tour of the red-light district. It was the last day of 1912, and the city was in its customary New Year’s Eve hubbub. As Louis and his quartet strolled up Rampart Street, another boy from the neighborhood started “shooting” at them with a cap pistol. Louis promptly pulled the .38 out of his belt and fired back. All at once a policeman came up behind him and wrapped his arms around the boy. “Oh Mister, let me alone!” he cried. “Don’t take the pistol! I won’t do it no more!” He spent the night in a cell and went before a juvenile-court judge the next morning. What followed, unlike his birth eleven years before, was deemed worthy of coverage by the local papers: “Very few arrests of minors were made Tuesday, and the bookings in the Juvenile Court are not more than the average. . . . The most serious case was that of Louis Armstrong, a twelve-year-old [sic] negro, who discharged a revolver at Rampart and Perdido Streets. Being an old offender he was sent to the negro Waif’s Home.” The “old offender” was hauled away in a horse-drawn wagon, scared and unsure. All unknowing, he had come to the turning point of his life.
The Colored Waif’s Home for Boys was as Victorian an institution as could possibly have been devised in a place like New Orleans. Located just beyond what were then the city limits, it was founded in 1906 under the auspices of the Colored Branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children by an ex-cavalryman named Joseph Jones (known as Captain Jones). He was a hardheaded idealist who believed that children who got into trouble belonged not in jail, where they would be at the mercy of older criminals, but in the hands of reformers determined to give them a chance to change their lives. Captain Jones ran the Waif’s Home like a military school, tolerating none of the vicious excesses of latter-day “reform schools.” Though the routine was rigid and the food plain—white beans, bread, and molasses were the invariable bill of fare—the young inmates knew that no harm would come to them, from each other or anyone else, so long as they followed the rules to the letter. (If they didn’t, the captain beat them bloody.) They woke to the sound of a bugle and spent the day drilling with wooden rifles, cleaning the buildings, and learning the rudiments of carpentry, gardening, and music, retiring to their bare bunks at nine o’clock sharp, there to smell the honeysuckle trees that scented the evening air.
Louis, “being an old offender,” may have already spent a brief stretch of time in the Colored Waif’s Home for stealing newspapers, though his own memory of a previous visit was blurry at best. Whatever the truth of the matter, we know by his own account that he thrived on the predictability of life there. Except for the Karnofskys, there had never been men in his life who expected anything of him. Now there were, and he knew how to please them. No sooner did he get over the shock of being ripped away from his familiar routine than the eleven-year-old dropout became a model inmate, one whose only wish was to join the twenty-piece Waif’s Home Brass Band, whose repertoire ranged from the classics to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” According to Armstrong, Peter Davis, the band’s manager and director, believed that “since I had been raised in such bad company I must also be worthless.” But his passion for music, Davis recalled a half century later, was too evident to ignore:
He organized quartets, singin’, then he’d do dancin’ out there, tap dancin’. The boys would clap and sing and he’d sing and dance. And I was playin’ in a jazz band at that time, and when I’d leave [my] horn [out] intentionally, he’d sneak around there and pick up the horn and go to blowin’ in it. So we had an old bugle out there, and we used to blow the police whistle [to assemble the children]. And I said, “Well, you know, that sounds too much like jail for children and all,” and next time he learned some bugle calls. . . . Louie blew the bugle for the line, the mess calls, and he blowed it so well, I tried him on the horn.
In the summer of 1913 he was permitted at last to play with the school band, first on tambourine, then drums, then alto horn. Eventually he became the band’s first-chair cornetist, taking as much pleasure in the unfamiliar classical pieces to which Davis introduced him as in the spirituals that he already knew and loved: “I played all classical music when I was in the orphanage. . . . That instills the soul in you. You know? Liszt, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler, and Haydn.” He can be seen in a group photograph of the band, the earliest surviving picture of Armstrong, in which he looks perfectly serious, as if he knew how important it was for him to be sitting there. Perhaps he did. “Pops, it sure was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said in one of his last interviews. “Me and music got married at the home.”
One of the unsolved puzzles of Armstrong’s early life is the question of exactly when and how he started playing cornet. In Satchmo he says that it was Davis who first taught him to play “Home, Sweet Home,” and he later told a friend that “I did learn to play the cornet in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. . . . The first horn I blew was in Jones’s home.” In his memoir of the Karnofsky family, though, he goes well out of his way to explain that they advanced him the money to buy his first instrument, on which he taught himself to play “Home, Sweet Home” and the blues: “I kept that horn for a long time. I played it all through the days of the Honky Tonk. People thought that my first horn was given to me at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys (the orphanage). But it wasn’t.” He unequivocally denied Bunk Johnson’s claim to have given him lessons when he was eleven, though the older man asserted no less unequivocally that “I showed him just how to hold [the cornet] and place it to his mouth and he did so and it wasn’t long before he began getting a good tone out of my horn. . . . As for Waif’s Home Louis did not start cornet in there because when Louis began going there he could play on cornet real good.” Sidney Bechet comes closest to reconciling these contradictory statements: “Of course, Louis was playing the cornet a bit before he went into that Jones school, but it was, you know, how kids play. The school helped, it really started him up.”
One sign that he started playing on his own is that certain aspects of his mature technique were unorthodox. His embouchure—the placement of the mouthpiece of the cornet against his lips—was incorrect, a problem common to self-taught brass players. He seated his mouthpiece low on his upper lip and pressed it too firmly against his mouth when playing in the upper register, and he created his distinctive vibrato by shaking his hand instead of merely rocking his fingers or flexing his jaw. The result of these methods was to place excessive strain on his “chops” (as he called his lips) virtually from the start of his career. Had he demanded less of himself, the long-term results might not have been so dire, but he never held back, even as a youngster, and he split his upper lip a year or two after he started playing. It was the first of many such incidents. Technically speaking, Little Louis was living on borrowed time, and when it ran out two decades later, the price he paid would be terrible.
At the time, though, nothing mattered to him but the horn itself, which gave him a place in the world exalted above his wildest imaginings. Once he had been part of the “second line” of happy stragglers who followed the city’s elaborately clad marching bands to and from the festive funerals for which they played “Nearer My God to Thee” at graveside and rowdier fare on the way home: “And when that body’s in the ground, man, tighten up on them snares and he rolls that drum and they march back to their hall playing ‘When the Saints’ or ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’” The only time that Armstrong speaks admiringly of his father in Satchmo is when he tells how handsome Willie looked when marching in those parades. Now Willie’s bastard son was leading the Colored Waif’s Home Brass Band through the same streets, dressed in a brightly colored uniform of his own.
Louis was so attached to his new life that he was reluctant to leave it behind when the time came for him to return to his family. He had already come to see Peter Davis as a father figure—on occasion he spent the night in Davis’s home—when, in the summer of 1914, Willie Armstrong persuaded the court to release Louis into his custody. The boy was skeptical, and not just because he was glad to be where he was: “My father had never paid me a single visit. . . . I had never lived with him, and I did not even know his wife.” His suspicions were well founded. Willie’s purpose in removing Louis from the home was to secure his services as an unpaid babysitter and cook, and he soon fled to Perdido Street and “that great big room where the three of us were so happy.” He never again lived with his father.
As an adult Armstrong remembered the Colored Waif’s Home with fondness. “I feel as though although I am away from the Waif’s Home, I am just on tour from my own home, I feel just that close at all times,” he wrote to Captain Jones years later. Around that time he paid a similar tribute in Swing That Music: “I know lots of men who are successful in life are always saying they owe their success to their hard knocks—and the harder the better. I think that’s sometimes true and it sometimes isn’t. But I do believe that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy . . . Because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something.” He knew that the artisan’s way to which Peter Davis introduced him had been his salvation, giving shape to his inchoate yearning for discipline. Mayann and the Karnofskys had showed him how to live. Now he knew why. Music became his reason for living, the untroubled center of his existence. He spoke of his horn as if it were an extension of himself: “Me and my horn, we know each other. We know what we can do. When I’m blowing, it’s like me and my horn are the same thing.” He can even be heard talking to the instrument on his 1931 recording of “Chinatown, My Chinatown”: “We’ll have a little argument between the saxophone and the trumpet, ’cause these cats just told me they gonna get away, and the little trumpet just said it’s gonna do the same! Ain’t that right, little trumpet? Say ‘Yes, sir!’ Ha, ha, ha, ha! Oh, that little devil.”
Nothing comes easily to the poor, and it would be a few more years before Louis could devote himself solely to the pursuit of his art. His first duty was to his family, and he never shirked it: his school days, he knew, were over for good. The morning after he moved back in with Mayann, he ran into a friend who went by the name of Cocaine Buddy (many of his New Orleans friends had that kind of nickname) and said that he was looking for work as a musician. Buddy sent him to a honky-tonk across the street that was run by a man named Henry Ponce. “All you have to do,” he explained, “is to put on your long pants and play the blues for the whores that hustle all night. . . . [T]hey will call you sweet names and buy you drinks and give you tips.” Louis got the job, which brought in a dollar and a quarter in tips each night (about twenty-three dollars in today’s money). It wasn’t enough to pay the bills, so he went to his latest “stepfather,” who found him a job on a coal cart pulled by a mule. For the next six months he put in ten-hour days hauling and shoveling coal at fifteen cents a load, then came home, washed up, pulled on his long pants, went to Ponce’s club, and played until four in the morning. “I loved it,” he said years later. “I was fifteen years old, and I felt like a real man when I shoveled a ton of coal into my wagon.” On Perdido Street that made him a man, one who fed his family by driving a mule in the daytime and playing music for whores at night.
What kind of music was he playing? The first chapter of Swing That Music is called “Jazz and I Get Born Together,” by which Armstrong meant to suggest that jazz was “born” in 1900. Jelly Roll Morton said roughly the same thing, claiming that “I, myself, happened to be creator [of jazz] in the year 1902” (when he was twelve years old). Of course no one “created” jazz, Morton least of all, but both men were right to claim that a style of music preliminary to that heard on the recordings made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in New York in 1917 was being played in New Orleans some time around the turn of the twentieth century. It was not called “jazz,” however, nor was it the only kind of music played by the dance orchestras of New Orleans, and it was not jazz as the term later came to be defined.
Because no recordings of jazz were made before 1917, we must rely on the memories of the people who played and heard it prior to that time in order to imagine what it sounded like. Their recollections, however, are for the most part both consistent and detailed, and one point that they stressed was that the dance music played in New Orleans around 1900 could be divided into three broad categories. As Pops Foster put it, “You had bands that played ragtime, ones that played sweet music, and the ones that played nothin’ but blues.” “Sweet music” was the waltzes, polkas, and one-steps that were written out and played note for note at “rich people’s jobs.” The slow, sensual blues were mainly heard in the honky-tonks and whorehouses of the District. Somewhere in between was ragtime, with its marching-band two-four beat and “ragged” off-center syncopations. No sooner had orchestrated versions of such piano rags as Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) and “The Entertainer” (1902) made their way to New Orleans than they were enthusiastically taken up by local bands. Joplin’s lively instrumental miniatures, like sweet music, were played as written, or with only the most self-effacing of embellishments. “[I]f you played what he wrote,” Foster said, “you played enough.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the “musicianers” who prided themselves on their ability to read difficult arrangements at sight found that their audiences wanted to dance to something more daring than waltzes. George Baquet, a Creole clarinetist who played with the sweet orchestra of John Robichaux, heard Buddy Bolden’s band for the first time in 1905, an experience that he recalled clearly thirty-five years later: “All of a sudden, Buddy stomps, knocks on the floor with his trumpet to give the beat, and they all sit up straight, wide awake. Buddy held up his cornet, paused to be sure of his embouchure, then they played ‘Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.’ I’d never heard anything like that before. I’d played ‘legitimate’ stuff. But this—it was somethin’ that pulled me! They got me up on the stand that night, and I was playin’ with ’em. After that I didn’t play legitimate so much.”
Although Bolden did not record, we know that he was less an outright jazzman than a transitional figure. Morton specifically said that he “didn’t play jazz. He was a ragtime player.” But Bolden also played the blues, and it may be that he was among the first musicians to learn ragtime tunes by ear, loosening up their syncopated rhythms and flavoring them with the vocalized inflections and ambiguous tonality (not quite major, not quite minor) of the blues. The distinction is a subtle one, for Joplin’s rags were written-out reflections of the way in which instrumentalists of an earlier time had “ragged” the popular tunes of their day. The first jazz players referred to the music they played as “ragtime,” as did their listeners. A 1913 Times-Picayune report of a gunfight at a Storyville club, for instance, mentions that “[h]ere a negro band . . . plays varied rags, conspicuous for being the latest in popular music, interspersed with compositions by the musicians themselves.”
However it came about, it was the blending of the styles that turned classic ragtime into early jazz, and by 1912, when the word jazz first appeared in print, the change must have been complete. The records made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band five years later, not long after its members left New Orleans, sound like jazz as we know it, primitive but recognizable, with the now-familiar front line of clarinet, cornet, and trombone playing the loosely woven, rough-and-ready counterpoint that would soon become known the world over. We have it on the best authority that these recordings were recognized as such in their makers’ hometown, for Louis Armstrong listened to “Livery Stable Blues” and “Tiger Rag” on his first phonograph, along with the opera arias whose Italianate ardor and showy virtuosity also left their mark on his style. “Between you and me, it’s still the best,” he wrote of the ODJB’s 1918 recording of “Tiger Rag” in Satchmo.
By then jazz (or jass, as it was then widely spelled) was popular enough to attract the disapproving attention of the Times-Picayune, New Orleans’s biggest newspaper: “In the matter of the jass, New Orleans is particularly interested, since it has been widely suggested that this particular form of musical vice had its birth in this city—that it came, in fact, from doubtful surroundings in our slums. We do not recognize the honor of parenthood . . . Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great.” But New Orleans players continued to call it “ragtime,” just as they drew a bright line between the trained “musicianer” and the self-taught semi-amateur who could play the blues only “by head.” Louis had learned to do more than that in the Colored Waif’s Home, but he was by no means a “musicianer.” “The only thing Louis could play then was blues,” Pops Foster remembered. Nor did the patrons of Henry Ponce’s two-room honky-tonk want him to play anything else. The blues were what Little Louis’s listeners liked to dance to between drinks, bumping and grinding their cares away.
Louis’s first job lasted for only six months, coming to an abrupt halt when Ponce’s club closed its doors in the wake of a shootout between the owner and another bartender. The boy dodged a bullet that day—probably not his first and definitely not his last—and considered himself lucky to have gotten away with his skin. Still, his playing had caught the ear of such first-tier jazzmen as Joe Oliver and the trombonist Kid Ory, and the interest they took in the promising teenager would serve him well. He was not yet in a position to set himself up as a full-time professional, though, and for all the pride he took in supporting his family, he found no joy in delivering coal, as we know from a song he wrote as a boy and recorded a quarter century later: The cart was hard / And it almost killed me up. He started looking for “a hustle that was a little lighter,” even going so far as to try his hand at pimping, an occupation for which he had no aptitude. Women brought out Louis’s shy streak, and he later admitted to having been afraid of the “bad, strong women” who sold themselves in the uptown district, adding that “I always felt inferior to the pimps.” His lone venture into sexual salesmanship ended in an absurd combination of violence and comedy. The lady in question invited him to spend the night with her, to which he ungallantly replied, “I wouldn’t think of staying away from Mayann and Mama Lucy, not even for one night.” Enraged, she pulled a knife and stabbed him in the shoulder. When Mayann saw the blood on his shirt, she marched straight over to her son’s whore’s crib, grabbed the woman by the neck, and started choking her. By then, Louis recalled, Mayann had “got religion and gave up men,” and she was in no mood to see her boy trifled with. It took several of his friends to pull her off. “Don’t ever bother my boy again,” she told her terrified victim. “You are too old for him. He did not want to hurt your feelings, but he don’t want no more of you.”
Another reason why Louis did not yet dare to concentrate exclusively on music was that he had lately assumed financial responsibility for the care of Clarence Myles Hatfield (later Clarence Armstrong), the illegitimate son of Flora Myles, Mayann’s second cousin, who died not long after giving birth to the boy. It was an astonishing thing for a teenager to have done, but he thought nothing of it, for Louis was the only member of the family who was making “a pretty decent salary,” and he took it for granted that that fact obliged him to do his duty. He must have had in mind his own father, who had left Mayann, Mama Lucy, and Little Louis to fend for themselves. Then and for the rest of Louis’s life, Willie was to serve as his role model—in reverse.
So he kept on hauling coal and playing as often as he could, which for a time wasn’t very often at all. Not long after the United States entered World War I, the Department of the Navy, concerned for the health of its sailors, demanded that the city fathers crack down on Storyville, and on November 12, 1917, the District was officially closed. It was, historians agree, a futile gesture. The only effect its closing had on prostitution in New Orleans was to spread it throughout the remainder of the city, in the process driving down the price of commercial sex. It also put dozens of musicians out of work. The role played by Storyville in the development of jazz has long been exaggerated by those who like to suppose that jazz was born in the brothels of New Orleans. What Storyville did do was make it possible for some of the first jazz musicians to pursue their craft full-time. Until he started playing there, Pops Foster had taken it for granted that he would always have to work as a longshoreman to support himself. Playing bass in Storyville, he could count on making nine dollars a week—the top price for a District musician—plus tips that might run as high as twelve dollars a night. (A New Orleans carpenter made about thirteen dollars weekly.) “When all of us were playing the District,” he wrote in his autobiography, “we couldn’t wait for night to come so we could go to work. . . . Sometimes I didn’t go home for weeks.”
Louis had expected to join their ranks when he came of age. Instead the rug was pulled out from under him, and he mostly saw Storyville from the cart with which he delivered coal to its tenants. In 1947 he penned a reminiscence of the District for True, the Man’s Magazine, and his sardonic tone does not conceal the frustration he must have felt at its closing:
I’m telling you it was a sad situation for anybody to witness. . . . [A]t that age—being around from a real young age delivering stone coal in those cribs—hanging around the pimps, Cotch players, etc., I really knew what it was all about. . . . So I had to feel sorry just like the rest of them. . . .
After Storyville closed down—the people of that section spreaded out all over the city. . . . So we turned out nice and reformed.
One measure of Louis’s poverty—and his determination to do right by his family—is the Dickensian passage in Satchmo in which he matter-of-factly describes how he helped make ends meet by picking through the overflowing garbage barrels of the produce houses in Front o’ Town, looking for “half-spoiled chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and so on.” These leavings, however, were not for Mayann’s table. Louis and his mother cut out the rotten parts, dressed what was left as carefully as possible, and “sold them to the fine restaurants for whatever the proprietor wanted to pay.” It is an appalling story, and the fact that he tells it without a trace of self-pity makes it no easier to take.
But Louis’s luck was changing, perhaps because he was growing more mature and self-assured. He had an affair with an older prostitute named Irene to whom he lost his virginity. Not long afterward he landed a gig at Matranga’s, one of the toughest honky-tonks in black Storyville, and made a go of it. Best of all, Joe Oliver gave him one of his old cornets and started tutoring him on an informal basis. Unlike most of the older musicians that Louis met in New Orleans, Oliver was patient with the many youngsters who asked him for musical advice: “I loved Joe because he’d take more time with the younger musicians. . . . [L]ike, you were a boy, you might say, well, ‘Would you show me how this passage goes?’ You know, you’re a little stuck with a division. Suddenly, ‘Oh, boy, I ain’t got time to be bothered with that!’ But Joe would stop. ‘Listen here! This is the way that goes.’” Louis became attached to the older man, as well as to Stella, Oliver’s wife, who fed him red beans and rice and treated him like the son she never had.
When Oliver left New Orleans in 1918, Louis took his place in the band of Kid Ory, who later claimed to have told him that “if he got himself a pair of long trousers I’d give him a job.” Working for Ory made it possible for him to give up his coal cart. Before then he had taken little note of anything that happened beyond the city limits, but November 11, 1918, stayed in his memory. He was delivering a load of coal to a restaurant that morning when he heard “several automobiles going down St. Charles Street with great big tin cans tied to them.” A passerby told him that the armistice had been signed. He went on shoveling coal for a moment or two before the meaning of the news hit him: now that the war was over, the nightclubs of New Orleans would come roaring back to life. He looked at Lady, his mule, and said, “So long, my dear, I don’t think I’ll ever see you again.” Then he abandoned Lady and the cart. “The war is over, and I quit the coal yard job for the last time,” he told Mayann. Never again would he do anything but make music for a living.
It was the second of two unforgettable things that happened to him in 1918. The first had been eight months earlier, when Little Louis Armstrong took a wife.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans is the candor with which Armstrong, by then one of the best-known entertainers of the Eisenhower era, describes the seamy side of life in the New Orleans of his youth. In 1954 it was no common thing for a famous man to suggest that his mother had been a prostitute, much less admit outright that his first wife was in the same line of work.
Armstrong met Daisy Parker at the Brick House, a honky-tonk across the river from New Orleans that was frequented by levee workers and prostitutes who worked the room on Saturday nights, trolling for customers. One night he noticed a shapely girl looking him over. He introduced himself and they made a “date” to meet after work at five the next morning. When she stripped, he saw that she was wearing padding on her hips and was put off as a result. But they went to bed anyway, and after a few more dates decided they were in love. Like Irene, Daisy was a few years older than her lover, and she already had a common-law husband who caught the two of them together one afternoon (in flagrante delicto, it would appear from Armstrong’s poker-faced description of the encounter). Daisy’s new beau ran for the nearest streetcar and went straight home, determined to give her up as “a bad job.” She showed up on his doorstep a month later, full of reassuring words. They spent the night together at a hotel and were married at City Hall the next day.
“All she knew how to do was fuss and fight,” Armstrong later said of his first wife. She was good at both, especially the latter, and most especially when seized with jealousy (for which she had cause—he started seeing another woman early on). Like most other New Orleans prostitutes, Daisy carried a razor and was willing to use it, and she was also known to hurl bricks at her husband’s head. After one of their noisier battles, she was hauled off to jail, cursing all the way. On another occasion he awoke to find her holding a bread knife to his neck and saying, “You black son-of-a-bitch, I ought to cut your goddamn throat.” For his part he claimed that her refusal to “give up her line of work” lay at the heart of their domestic disputes. Yet he spent “four years of torture and bliss” with Daisy, a prime example of his passivity in the face of provocation, which in this case he could explain only by saying that “we did love each other and tried hard—and that is the funny part of it, and the sad part.”
It was an impossible situation, made worse by Armstrong’s decision to take in Clarence, who was three years old and in need of a home, and worse still by what happened after that. One rainy day Louis and Daisy were listening to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band on their Victrola while the boy played by himself in the next room. Suddenly they heard him crying. Armstrong ran in and discovered to his horror that Clarence had slipped and fallen off the back gallery of their second-story apartment, landing on his head. The accident left him “feeble-minded” (Armstrong’s word) and unable to care for himself in later life. Until his own death Armstrong saw to Clarence’s care, adopting the child and enrolling him in “a School where they teach the Backwards Boys.” He could never bring himself to refer other than euphemistically to Clarence’s retardation, writing in 1944 that “[a]s Clarence Grew older he outgrew it all—And now is doing wonderful.” But he remained devoted to his adopted son, going so far as to appear with him on a TV show during which Clarence spoke a few halting words. It would never have occurred to Armstrong to hide the boy away: Mayann’s son was not one to shrink from his responsibilities, least of all the ones he assumed voluntarily. But it must have put a strain on his marriage all the same, for he was the kind of man who would have reflexively blamed himself for what happened to Clarence—unless he had reason to blame Daisy.
The marriage continued to deteriorate, and when things grew intolerable, Armstrong packed his bags and moved back in with Mayann, taking Clarence with him. Thus he was in a receptive mood when Fate Marable, the bandleader on the S.S. Sidney, an excursion steamer that cruised the Mississippi River, invited him to join his shipboard orchestra in the summer of 1919 for a trip from St. Louis to Minneapolis and back. Armstrong was already playing “moonlight cruises” with Marable, who had heard him with Kid Ory’s band earlier that year, but this was a different matter altogether, at once a great adventure—he had never set foot outside the state of Louisiana—and a great opportunity. Marable was a stern taskmaster who insisted that his players be able to read music at sight. According to the drummer Zutty Singleton, another of his alumni, “When some musician would get a job on the riverboats with Fate Marable, they’d say, ‘Well, you’re going to the conservatory.’”
Though Armstrong knew how to read music, he had yet to work full-time with an ensemble that played written arrangements, and he saw in the offer a chance to hone his skills: “Fate Marable had just as many jazz greats as Kid Ory, and they were better men besides because they could read music and they could improvise. . . . I wanted to do more than fake the music all the time because there is more to music than just playing one style.” For all the gaps in his training, he was “deadly serious” about his music, so much so that he considered Marable’s players to be “better men” than Ory’s because they could read fluently. He was well aware that a black musician had fewer career options than a white player of like ability, so it would have been natural for him to want to make the most of the ones he had. Already he was thinking of himself as a professional who could do whatever the job might require.
It was not that Armstrong didn’t place the highest value on improvisation. He always remembered with pride the day that the Ory band outplayed John Robichaux’s all-Creole group at a 1918 street parade: “[W]e’d proved to them that any learned musician can read music, but they can’t all swing.” But Armstrong’s interest in becoming a better sight reader had at least as much to do with his desire to become a complete artist, a hot soloist and a “musicianer,” an aspiration not shared by all, or even most, of his colleagues. Even a supremely exciting soloist like Sidney Bechet was content to remain musically illiterate, believing that “[t]here ain’t no one can write down for you what you need to know to make the music over again.” Armstrong was different. According to Satchmo, one of the reasons why he had originally joined Kid Ory’s band was that it gave him “the chance to play the music I really wanted to play. And that was all kinds of music, from jazz to waltzes.” Ory, he knew, could take him only part of the way down that road. To continue growing, he would have to move on.
Not only was he an ambitious young musician, but he was also an unhappy young husband trapped in a bad marriage, and the S.S. Sidney, at least for the moment, looked like his ticket to freedom. So he told Daisy of Marable’s offer, explaining that it was his “one big chance to do the things I have been wanting to do all my life.” And what were those things? Four decades later he claimed to have been content playing in the barrelhouses of New Orleans: “[W]e made good tips—that is, as far as tips goes, for a barrel house honky tonk. Where nothing but the lowest of guys comes into town on payday looking for anything to happen. And believe me, it did. And I was right in the middle of it all. . . . I was perfectly happy. That was my life and that was that. And I’ll gladly live it all over again, so help me.” But was he really as happy as that? Or did he have something else in mind for himself, a destiny that he might not yet have fully fathomed but to which he was still firmly committed? “I’m just the same as one of those people out there in the audience,” he liked to say, but he also admitted that it was because he had “big things in mind as far as music’s concerned” that he had wanted to join the Marable band.
Might Daisy, too, have somehow sensed that her young husband’s gifts were too great to be brought to fruition in broken-bottle joints? Whatever she knew or did not know, she kissed him and let him go. Though Armstrong would come back to New Orleans—and even, briefly, to Daisy’s bed—he had cast off his moorings and set sail for another, more abundant life.