Jazz great Louis Armstrong is mostly remembered as the happy, smiling entertainer he played in movies like High Society and Hello, Dolly. But his audio diary shows he was privately seething at the racism he and other black Americans faced every day.
In nightly sessions from the late 1940s until his death in 1971, Armstrong dictated his private thoughts, as well as conversations with friends, into a reel-to-reel tape recorder he carried in a steamer trunk. He recorded more than 650 reels, decorating the tape boxes with his own collages.
The tapes, which he entrusted to the archives at New York's Queens College, present the Armstrong that his closest friends and musician friends knew, says Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, who recently listened to hours of the recordings.
"They will see that he's not this one-dimensional caricature, that he's not the smiling get-happy entertainer, that he's also a real human being. He's as torn about race as the rest of the country is…. There's so much more than the kind of minstrel-show facade that Armstrong self-consciously projected."
Anger at Being Mistreated Because of His Race
In language often laced with street talk and colorful profanity, Armstrong recalls his anger at being mistreated because of his race.
In one incident during the filming of Glory Alley, he remembers blowing up at a white stagehand for calling him "Satchmo" instead of the more appropriate Mr. Armstrong, which is how the stagehand addressed the white actors.
Referring to him as an "ofay" (a derogatory term for a white person), Armstrong recalls telling him, "You tell M-G-M to shove that picture up their ass…. Say, I ain't no movie star, so why you handing me that s--t? Because I'm colored?"
On a visit to Hawaii, he remembers a white sailor who told him to his face, "I don't like Negroes, but you're one sombitch I'm crazy about."
Armstong's conclusion: "I've said it for years. I've said, you take the majority of white people, two-thirds of them don't like n-----s, but they always got one n----r they're just crazy about, god---n it. Every white man in the world has one n----r at least that they just love his dirty drawers. Ain't that a bitch?"
Armstrong's reactions are at odds with the persona he played on stage and in film — which was often criticized by younger jazz musicians. "The tapes show that the presentation that Armstrong gave onstage was more than just instinctive. It was very calculated. It was a way, or at least it was Armstrong's way, of disarming an audience."
'Vipers' Who Smoked 'Gage'
On the tapes, Armstrong speaks of marijuana and the healthful effects of laxatives — two daily habits he was openly enthusiastic about during his lifetime.
On one tape, recalling his life in the 1930s, he draws a distinction between "vipers" like him who smoked marijuana, and "dope fiends" who took harder drugs. Among other things, he says, the dope addicts had problems with personal hygiene. "They stayed funky, filthy, dirty, grimy, all the time. Show a dope fiend a bucket of water, and they'll run like hell to keep it from touching them. But a viper would gladly welcome a good bath, clean underwear, top clothes, stay fresh and on the ball. Never a discussion no time about dope."
Armstrong says marijuana — which he called "gage" — was preferable to alcohol, because it promoted "better thoughts" and brought "warmth" from other people.
Saying that marijuana could "quite naturally make you eat like a dog," he moves on to the subject of nutritional health and laxatives, which he believed promote good health.
He recalls how when he was growing up in New Orleans his sister Beatrice (known as Mama Lucy) used to boil up pepper grass and dandelion into a "physic" so powerful that "we'd make sprints getting to the toilet." Armstrong used laxatives daily for the rest of his life, famously favoring the Swiss Kriss brand.