Saturday, February 5, 2011

Black History Month IV: Move Over Gabriel! Here Comes Satchmo!

Welcome to the 4th annual Black History Month for 1 On the Town. Check out the archives for 2010, 2009, and 2008 (there's some amazing prognostication or just hopefulness about our current president in the Pettigrew for President entry).

Move Over Gabriel! Here Comes Satchmo!

So said radio/TV man Fred Robbins at the end of his eulogy for Louis Armstrong in 1970. I can remember growing in the 1960s, the Golden Age of free television. A middle class kid could see the greatest artists of the 20th century on free TV on the late afternoon talk/variety shows and beg his parents to stay up and watch a late night show (9 pm) if it was a school night. Louis Armstrong was a frequent guest in that era, always welcome in the home. His avuncular ubiquitous presence was anodyne to the occasional racism a kid was exposed to by his older siblings. I can't recall feeling prejudice toward blacks and my Irish father scolded anyone in the house who used the N-word, but I can recall that one sibling liked to tell offensive Black jokes and another favored anti-Semitism. We had little exposure to African Americans inside the house, except for my father's friend from work, Holcombe Hall, who fixed TVs as a sideline, and the Edison man.

I recently read Terry Teachout's 2009 bio POPS (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and recommend it. What comes though is the underlying sadness of the humorous trumpet icon who brought so much joy to the world. If Tracy Morgan wants to get his EGOT, he should star in the biopic.

"(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?" Louis sang courtesy of Fats Waller and Andy Ratzaff. Twice Teachout comments and reports on Louis's interpretations of the song. From the first time he recorded it in 1929, Louis "made a point of blunting its confrontational edge," Teachout notes. When I hear anyone criticize Louis this is usually the thrust, that his good-natured stage and real-life personas made his people look meek or happy in their oppression, ignoring the reality of racism. They conveniently ignore the mixed-race bands he led, which did more to break down legal barriers and hidden prejudices than any professional speakers ever did or will do.

There's a beautiful scene in the documentary JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY (1959) (thank you Netflix streaming) with Louis and Jack Teagarden doing their old chestnut, "Rockin' Chair." Teachout describes a 1957 TV perf "in which the broad shouldered Teagarden puts an arm around the shorter Armstrong and looks affectionately at him as they amble through their well-worn routine:
 [JACK:] Fetch me some water, son!
[LOUIS:] You know you don't drink water, father.
If you don't dig this kind of good humor and bonhomie, then you can't dig Pops.

One more note on Louis and childhood: I think every kid in the family did a raspy impression, which was always followed by Mom warning that you'd ruin your throat. I can even remember bringing out a handkerchief for verisimilitude.

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