Just finished reading What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by Ricky Riccardi. In the last twenty years of his life, it seems the jazz great was criticized from just about every corner. For critics, his music then wasn’t as good as it once was, his stage show relied too heavily on comedy and not music, his audiences were too white. (Never mind that he was one of the world’s great showmen.) On and on.
Furthermore they said (and wrote), he wasn’t doing enough for civil rights, that he performed in front of segregated audiences. On and on.
Louis took most of it with the good nature for which he was known all of his life. Until one night in Grand Forks, North Dakota, of all places. Armstrong appeared at Central High School and after the concert spoke with University of North Dakota journalism student Larry Lubenow who was working for the Grand Forks Herald. Having seen television images of a white man spitting in the face of a little black girl in Little Rock, Arkansas, finally Armstrong had had enough. He unloaded his feelings to the reporter about the government in general, and the President Dwight Eisenhower in particular, not doing enough to end the school desegregation crisis then ongoing in the South. He denounced the president as having “no guts” and much, much worse.
The story became famous. It was picked up by the Associated Press and made headlines around the world. With time, Louis backtracked from his harsh comments only a little.
In the long run, none of it tarnished the legend that is Louis Armstrong. One example: trumpeter Winton Marsalis rarely does an interview today (including one with me once) without repeatedly invoking Armstrong’s name. To him and many others, jazz began with Louis Armstrong.