Blowing his horn: a salute to Satchmo Jazz: Smithsonian exhibit of art, photos, music and other artifacts makes for a rich biographical portrait of Louis Armstrong.

August 07, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON JTC — WASHINGTON -- For many, the enduring image of Louis Armstrong comes from his later years, the days of old Satchmo with horn and white handkerchief, smiling and bugging his eyes before another raspy-voiced chorus of "Hello Dolly."

While that is a true image, there are others: the eminently stylish young man gazing in wonder at the instrument of his magic; the remarkable musician whose brilliant solo on "West End Blues" still wins admirers almost 70 years later; the little boy riding atop a junk cart in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, a tin horn at his lips.

"Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy," now on display at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, employs all of those images. The 150 letters, photographs, paintings, recordings, selections of sheet music, television and movie clips and other artifacts make for a rich biographical portrait.

It is a visit to the world and spirit of Louis Armstrong, who died 25 years ago. You come away with a renewed respect for this complex and quintessential American performer. You begin to understand the arc of his life, the impact. His musical contributions are so profound, so indisputable that Dizzy Gillespie, the trumpet giant of the be-bop generation, once said, "No him, no me."

His combination of showmanship, talent and personality made him a natural for stardom. But he became more than just another star. He became a cultural icon. His image appeared on the labels of the Louis Armstrong Special, touted as "the best 5-cent cigar on the market." LeRoy Neiman's splashy portrait is instantly recognizable. Who else could it be but "Pops," the jazz "ambassador" known the world over?

The love and admiration for Armstrong are obvious in this beautiful, deeply felt exhibit. The curator, Marc Miller, spent two years pulling the show together for its 2 1/2 -year journey through America. Washington is its final stop.

Albert Murray, the social critic and author, served as a consultant. His influence is seen in the introductory panel that places Armstrong alongside Pablo Picasso and James Joyce as one of the 20th century's greatest innovators.

"Looking at Armstrong in this heroic, loving way is done on purpose, because the whole handkerchief-waving, 'tomming' kind of caricature is all people knew about him," says Marquette Folley-Cooper, project director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. "They don't know that he's a revolutionary."

He was born to the horn. And he seems to have known he was good long before the world took notice. In a grainy, ancient photograph from the Jones Home for Colored Waifs, where he was sent at age 11 for firing a pistol on New Year's Eve, he has a cockiness and innocent's hauteur not seen in the faces of the other young band members. He is Gabriel, waiting to grow up and herald a new day.

By the time he leaves New Orleans in 1922 to join the band of his mentor, King Oliver, he seems more reserved, more content to be the respectful apprentice. That phase did not last long. He was a star by the mid-1920s, a recognized genius with his own band.

The portion of the exhibit dedicated to this period of Armstrong's life is displayed against a soundtrack that includes "Weather Bird," the phenomenal 1928 piano-trumpet duo with Earl Hines, and a 1929 recording of Armstrong's orchestra playing "St. Louis Blues."

'Blow my top'

Success in America set the stage for a triumphant tour of Europe. He returned to even greater acclaim. Yet, these were the days of Jim Crow. In some Southern towns, Armstrong's stardom meant little. Race was the defining factor. So what if he could put on a fantastic show? Law and tradition said he could not use a club's bathroom. One announcer refused to say his name. The man was later fired.

Armstrong's comments on race were rare. A hint of his inner world can be heard in his recording of Andy Razaf's "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue." When Armstrong laments, "my only sin is in my skin," you sense a deep pain behind the words. The exhibit recalls his disgust during the 1957 attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

"It's getting so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," he says. "Do you dig me when I say I have a right to blow my top over injustice?"

Those comments led some to call him irresponsible, a radical. Despite the slights, he never became embittered.

"He transcends the negatives of race," says Folley-Cooper. "He doesn't hold on to it. That's part of his greatness to us as human beings. He transcends the negatives of life, and every artist should do that."

In films of the 1930s, Armstrong provides an odd comic relief. He sings "Jeepers Creepers" to a horse, puts on the frightened face as a skeleton dances toward him. Hollywood offered an even wider audience, though his place was strictly defined. Still, he responded and became a familiar face in the movies.

'That Happy Feeling'

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