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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Laughin’ Louis Armstrong: The Trickster

Dedicated to the spirit of the Big Easy.

Proto-rock’s first international star humorist may also be its most enigmatic. Historically, Louis Armstrong’s wit has been as hailed and celebrated as his monumental contributions to the development of jazz and subsequent popular music. Yet, that humor has been hotly debated as to its nature, purpose, and effects. Some, particularly those of his succeeding generation, lambasted Armstrong for perpetuating the “grinning darky” traditions of minstrel humor into the twentieth century when such reactionary styles should have been emphatically and unapologetically interred; his nickname, Satchmo, was actually an abbreviation of “satchel mouth” and referred to the broad orifice that facilitated that infamous perpetual smile.

This school of criticism, spearheaded by the 1940s be-bop generation and particularly by its aesthetic figurehead, Dizzy Gillespie, was uncomfortable with the ease and eagerness with which Armstrong would appease white audience expectations, and even more disturbed by the demeaning roles he was willing to take on as his fame expanded into Hollywood movies and beyond. For these observers, Armstrong was certainly a humorist, but his nature was more inclined to sell-out than subversion.

Superficially, Armstrong’s ebullient stage image and fixed grin strike a sharp contrast to the dark wit and cynical characters that were to populate ’40s jazz icons and subsequent rock ‘n’ roll militants. However, to dismiss Armstrong as merely a subservient opportunist is to ignore the complexity of his humor and the socio-political circumstances of his times. Clearly, Armstrong did adopt comic masks in order to be accepted and to assist his crossover appeal, but these were essentially the masks of the trickster, a central persona of the African-American within racist America. Though the trickster is not a solely African-specific phenomenon, it has deep traditions in many of the African nations from which slaves were first captured.

The Eshu trickster from the Yoruba of Nigeria is a character who disturbs the peace by questioning norms and calling his people to be attentive skeptics of order. He also employs a crafty and cunning wit in the face of the more powerful, preserving his and others’ freedom where it might potentially be curtailed. The Yoruba also parallel their trickster to the artist, celebrating his imaginative capacities and malleable skills. In all of these respects, Louis Armstrong may be regarded as a quintessential trickster, part of a long legacy passed from Africa and through slave-holding and segregated America.

In a broader context, Armstrong’s trickster role can be tied to the jazz musical genre that he so transformed. Both were subject to — and responded to — unavoidable social realities, expressing pain and anger in reaction to a debilitating racism. Both also employed secret musical codes, employing protective masks that gave space to individual freedom and collective empowerment. Furthermore, both recognized humor as the license that permitted their liberationist expressions of thinly veiled social commentary. Jazz, like Armstrong, offered a language, the subtleties of which spoke to the in-crowd (the “hip”) and about the outsiders (the “squares”). Invariably, it would privately mock either or both.

Critic Frank A. Salamone adeptly analyzed the trickster humor at work in Armstrong’s popular song, “Laughin’ Louie”. Firstly, the “squares” are outed in the title itself, which parodies the common misinterpretation of his name in mainstream culture and mocks the one-dimensional stereotype with which he was regarded (and sometimes dismissed). From Armstrong’s point-of-view, the title’s humor might also allude to his habitual pot-smoking habits, this further underscored by the name of his accompanying band, the Vipers, a slang term for marijuana. The song’s music fluctuates throughout, between the “hot” sound “hip” critics encouraged from Armstrong, and the “sweet” sounds he always had such affection for, but for which he was criticized as compromising to mainstream tastes. Here, the trickster celebrates his own creative choices (laughing for himself), and satirically dismisses the imposing judgment of his critics (laughing at them). This is achieved through the humorous method of incongruity, the shock of the juxtaposed styles surprising listeners into recognition and appreciation.

“Laughin’ Louie” also showcases the artist’s patented array of nonsense words and stammering, periodically interrupted with outbursts of laughter. This is Armstrong’s comedic fanfare, his celebration of survival, his creative relief in a world often intent to wipe the smile of his (and his race’s) face. The double-consciousness of the trickster’s wily humor leads audiences to recognize that the artist might be laughing with you in communal celebration, but he is also laughing at you, and the humor inherent is a protective device that provides the social critique without fear of recourse. The average listener is at once disarmed, educated, entertained, and ironically also liberated by the comic who has freed the collective subconscious from its repressed condition. Such is the truth-telling power of a subversive humor that has its antecedents in tricksters and fools alike; both are beloved for providing a social critique that, but for their humor, would be unacceptable and inadmissible within a repressive culture.

As revealed with “Laughin’ Louie”, the targets of Satchmo’s subversive humor were multiple — and often struck simultaneously. As with jazz in general, his stylistic and technical innovations were also musical comments, references to what jazz had been, what it could be, and sometimes what it should and should not be. Setting a precedent for a central historical trajectory of rock humor, Armstrong was an internal comic, wielding his superiority by satirically commenting upon his contemporaries.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his rendition of “Up a Lazy River”, which is tantamount to a revolutionary manifesto for jazz to shed its Euro-stiffness and to “swing”. The first part of the song sees his band offer a series of pat horn riffs, each sufficiently melodic and comforting in its own way. To each, Armstrong inputs an aside, saying “O.K.” and “fine” with professional and professorial restraint. Then, suddenly, the master steps up, blowing the song open with an extended trumpet solo that jumps, swings, and answers. Strict time is stamped on and polyrhythms intertwine, as Armstrong hilariously deconstructs the rigid jazz structures symbolized by the prior solos and so institutionalized by the popular white big bands of the time. Time and space are hereby re-formulated in a way that was to inspire all jazz innovators from then on.

Such musical breakthroughs were supplemented by similar “eureka” moments in Armstrong’s unique vocal contributions and his loosening of the English lexicon. The greatness of his trumpet playing has sometimes shrouded the significant contributions Armstrong made to vocal styling. Eschewing strict-time sentimental pop singing, Armstrong fused the blues singing style with his own trumpet techniques, creating a vocal delivery which broke down rhythmic conventions and offered an understated humanity that was both moving and amusing. This “scat” style deconstructed traditional singing styles and liberated the art of improvisation for succeeding jazz greats like Billie Holiday, as well as the entire future history of R&B and soul singing.

The humor with which Armstrong sang was partly a self-effacing recognition of his own range limitations, and partly a way of projecting his very intent: to deconstruct jazz and other popular music forms in his own time. He furthered this by contributing considerably to the subcultural identity of the jazz community, a subaltern alternative world that would not only revolutionize music, singing, and black cultural identity, but also language. An inspiration to Cab Calloway and to a history of rock subcultures that have expanded youth dialects with their witty contributions, Armstrong is credited with providing and popularizing many of the key terms of the jazz argot: “cool”, “cats”, “chops”, “riff”. He has even been cited as one of the first African-Americans to dispense with the word “negro” and offer “black” as a more proud and appropriate alternative.

Louis Armstrong’s contributions to the history of subversive humor, both within jazz and as a forerunner for subsequent popular music, were clearly considerable and multi-faceted. However, his subversive intents were personal as well as artistic. Raised in abject poverty and offered few opportunities to pursue the American dream, he had many reasons to not be “Laughin’ Louie”. Subjected to the patronizing flattery and manipulations of the white-owned musical establishment, Armstrong saw and felt firsthand the hypocrisy and injustices of Jim Crow America. Thus, humor for Armstrong was the armor of survival. He lived a life of constant restraints against expression, but chose to laugh upwards and onwards anyway, projecting an unflagging optimism and good humor that befuddled his critics.

There were times in his career when Louis Armstrong removed the trickster mask, or at least wore one more thinly veiled. Sometimes he showed great courage as a prominent public figure, speaking out on behalf of social justice. Quitting a State Department tour in 1957 when then-Governor Faubus obstructed school integration in Arkansas, Armstrong scornfully quipped that President Eisenhower lacked guts and should have walked the children across the threshold himself; such was not the outburst of the “Uncle Tom” some had characterized him as. In his memoirs, published in 1979, Dizzy Gillespie reflected upon the youthful attacks he and many of his be-bop peers had leveled at Armstrong and his comedic persona. And in an about-face, Gillespie gave recognition to the all-pervasive racism of the times that had necessitated Armstrong’s conciliatory gestures. He also gave credit to the trickster survival of Satchmo, and paid tribute to his strength and dignity, as well as to that “fantastic smile” that symbolized his refusal to be denied.

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The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.