photo & text by nacrowe
SATCHMO: MY LIFE IN NEW ORLEANS (DA CAPO, 1954) as its title succinctly states, is a memoir by JAZZ great and AMERICAN cultural icon of the first order LOUIS ARMSTRONG concerning his humble beginnings in NEW ORLEANS at the turn of the century up to his departure for CHICAGO to join fellow NEW ORLEANIAN musician KING OLIVER and his CREOLE BAND.
to call his early life humble is really putting it mildly, since you get the sense fairly quickly how destitute and poverty-stricken his area of NEW ORLEANS was at that time. surviving most have been absolutely brutal. ARMSTRONG throughout the book offers only a few details here and there concerning the lengths at which him and his mother MAYANN and half-sister MAMA LUCY resorted to for food and shelter, his bigger concern was shedding light on the strength and support of the overall black community at the time. in fact, this memoir is really a love letter to those people and that period of time before he became famous.
that community extends mainly to the small arts community at the time which played in JUKE JOINTS and brothels in NEW ORLEANS. as a young teenager ARMSTRONG would play at brothels in the famed section of STORYVILLE (before it was shut down by the UNITED STATES NAVY and local law enforcement) both for the clientele in lounges as well as in more intimate settings, providing a kind of soundtrack to the night's illicit proceedings. what is interesting is the absolute lack of philosophizing or judgement placed on the participants. these are all people attempting to survive doing what they have to do, and for that they are worthy of his respect, even in retrospect.
ARMSTRONG also elucidates on the extreme violence that was a part of life during that period. in a sense, most of it had a sense of honor about it. participants in such pugilism only engaged in dirty tactics when provoked by others to do so. again, the motivation for such scrapes were due to arguments concerning money or women, often in gambling houses or brothels. ARMSTRONG tells about women arguing over men resulting in death and physical disfigurement as teh result of ugly brutal fights utilizing razors.
again and again, ARMSTRONG does not denounce these people and their actions, instead thankful that his focus was solely on music and providing for his mother and sister. he had priorities regarding the survival of his family which were not shared by others that squandered their earnings or made poor choices.
a great, quick read which really gets at the heart of a community that shaped the new AMERICAN century. NEW ORLEANS was and is a jewel of AMERICAN CULTURE and i am glad this book exists. well worth checking out.
if you are in NYC definitely check out LOUIS ARMSTRONG's house in CORONA, QUEENS. it is one of the most emotionally moving places i have ever been as it provided ARMSTRONG his first and longest-lasting home. on the road most of his life, his last wife as part of agreeing to marry him made him promise to settle down in a new home. the modest house in QUEENS is fairly mundane with no real frills of a man of his enormous stature. he was just part of a community that really took him in as one of his own. its the perfect coda to this memoir which depicts his love and adoration for his youth in NEW ORLEANS. his grave in nearby FLUSHING is similarly unadorned and absolutely befitting a true man of the people. i'm pretty jaded and i get teary-eyed thinking about his love and embrace of NYC and how the city loved him right back.