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Louis and Women 

Louis Armstrong's relationships with women not only changed his life and the lives of his several wives -- they made a mark on the world of jazz and on some of its pioneering musicians.

Editor's note: Tulane University's Bruce Boyd Raeburn might have a local reputation as an entertaining speaker, but nobody predicted the reaction when he delivered the lecture "Louis and Women" at last month's Satchmo SummerFest. The talk, which Raeburn first gave without incident at a 2001 symposium connected to the North Carolina Jazz Festival, prompted a debate over academic freedom when the New York-based Louis Armstrong Education Foundation threatened to pull its annual funding of the New Orleans event due to perceived slights against Armstrong's reputation. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch, vice president of the foundation, admitted he did not attend the lecture, but reportedly told The Times-Picayune that he heard it amounted to "psychobabble."

Laurie Toups, executive director of French Quarter Festivals Inc., says that the Armstrong Foundation's contribution to this year's festival amounted to $5,000, and stresses that FQFI is committed to maintaining the lecture series. She adds that she believes that Raeburn covered a difficult topic "beautifully." FQFI and the Armstrong Foundation have not yet met over the issue, she says.

The room where Raeburn gave the Satchmo talk holds 150 people; to date, few others have actually heard the lecture that sparked the debate. What follows is Raeburn's lecture in its entirety. His original paper includes footnotes that were not cited in the lecture; where appropriate, some of his citations are added in the text below.

In biographies and other works seeking to explain the unique trajectory of Louis Armstrong's pre-World War II rise to stardom, much effort has been devoted to analyzing his relationships with other males, such as Black Benny Williams and the two Joes (Oliver and Glaser), who are usually depicted as surrogate fathers, or Sidney Bechet, with whom he maintained an intense musical competition that lasted nearly a lifetime. By comparison, relatively scant attention has been paid to his relationships with females, despite the fact that he was nurtured in an environment that was essentially matrifocal, not just because of abandonment by his father, Willie, but also due to social and cultural imperatives present in New Orleans' black community. Given the attention devoted to the role of women recently by historians such as Sherrie Tucker, who has written on their marginalization in the story of jazz, this is a topic that deserves investigation.

Armstrong's treatment of women will help us to understand both who he was and how he influenced the jazz world. His universality as a jazz icon meant that the way he behaved toward women had broad resonance throughout the profession, setting standards of conduct for other males, and possibly for females as well.

Consider this caption from The Negro South, which ran a feature on Armstrong in April 1946: "Louis' marriages have not all been happy affairs. His particular temperament requires an unusual woman. But Louis is a big man and he is on friendly terms with all of his ex-wives." Armstrong is shown kissing an unidentified ex-wife on the lips. The facing page has another caption: "Ole Satchmo feels at home whenever he visits his home town, New Orleans. He is shown here with three big reasons why he likes to return often and why he has a good time when he does return." In the accompanying photograph, the "three big reasons" are identified: they are Miss Patterson Hotel, Miss Rip's Playhouse and Miss Grand Hotel, finalists in the Miss New Orleans contest. The beauties are all making eye contact with the photographer; only Louis looks elsewhere, probably at a fourth finalist standing off camera. At this point, Armstrong had been married to Lucille Wilson (his fourth wife) for three and a half years, but the persona he presents in The Negro South is not that of a devoted husband. He is what would today be called "a player," representing attitudes toward women that derived from his earliest experiences in New Orleans.

While the role of Storyville, the notorious pseudo-legal experiment in sexual tourism that attempted to regulate prostitution in New Orleans from 1898 through 1917, has been chronically overstated as the primary locus for the early development of jazz, its impact in instilling a certain gender ideology in the minds of pioneer jazzmen has been largely overlooked. Louis Armstrong's youth in New Orleans coincided chronologically and spatially with The District, and his experiences in the streets and cabarets of the demi-monde conditioned his views on gender: "Ever since I was a little Boy in New Orleans hanging around those ol' Hustlers and ŒPimps down there and they liked me very well -- And they used to tell me -- ŒNever worry over ŒNo One Woman -- no matter how pretty or sweet she may Be. Any time she gets down Œwrong and ain't playing the Part of a Wife -- get yourself somebody else, also. -- And get another woman much better than the last one at all times.'" (From the "Goffin Notebooks," circa 1944, published in 1999 in Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings, edited by Thomas Brothers.) These Sporting Life attitudes are evident in comments regarding his first marriage, to the razor-toting prostitute Daisy Parker, which lasted from 1919 to 1923: "The way those tough men such as gamblers, pimps, etc., got along with their wives and whores, that was the same way that I had to get along with Daisy. That was to beat the hell out of her every night and make love in order to get some sleep. That was supposed to be love Š" (Cited in Laurence Bergreen's Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life.) Armstrong's words read like a page from Barbara Smuts' classic study, "Male Aggression Against Women: An Evolutionary Perspective" in Human Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective (1992). Smuts notes that "male aggression toward women is more common when male alliances are particularly important and well-developed." Such a description could apply equally well to the Sporting Life crowd that Louis came up in, or to the world of jazz that he helped to create, both being social systems dominated by male alliances. Thus, one may well ask, are the two systems related and was Louis Armstrong's behavior a factor in that relation?

Once he left New Orleans to join King Oliver in Chicago, Louis did try to distance himself from the Sporting Life ethos that had dominated his early relationships with women in the Crescent City. In 1924, Daisy came to Chicago to win Armstrong back, by which time he had already married Lil Hardin, a college-educated pianist from Memphis who had found a place for herself in the South Side jazz scene working with New Orleans musicians such as Lawrence Duhe, Freddie Keppard and Joe Oliver. As Thomas Brothers has observed, the contrast between a woman like Daisy and a "Big High-Powered Chick" (Louis' words) such as Lil "is powerful enough to give trance-like pause Š the difference Š is emblematic of the differences between Armstrong's New Orleans and his Chicago." Daisy did not stand a chance because Armstrong considered himself to be "a changed man since I came to Chicago and married Lil. No more ŒBoisterous, ŒBarrel house Œstuff. Am trying to ŒCultivate myself.'" Indeed, Louis' social progress reflected what was happening to jazz generally, even back home in New Orleans. From 1915 to 1925, jazz worked its way up from the bottom of society, showing up in the homes of the "better sort" of people as the music became fashionable. Trombonist William "Bebe" Ridgley of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra recalled the change in fortunes that occurred in these years for his band members: the usual sideman's rate of $1.50 a night plus tips in 1915 at the Tuxedo Dance Hall in The District climbed steadily once the band actually started wearing tuxedos, the result of a suggestion by "a white gentleman named Sim Black," a member of Uptown society. The new image led to work at the Southern Yacht Club, the Boston Club, and at Carnival and debutante balls where the musicians earned $25 nightly by 1925. In other words, black jazzmen in New Orleans were often able to rise above association with vice and poverty precisely because of the opportunities that the social acceptance of jazz afforded them. Yet, despite such aspirations, Louis could not help but find some residual satisfaction in Daisy's wild ways, especially when they were no longer being directed against him. In an essay in Ebony (August 1954) titled "Why I Like Dark Women," he again equated violence with love, but this time casting himself as a vicarious beneficiary: "I often think of my wives of the past and realize that even though we couldn't get along for long they had some good qualities. I've spoken of Daisy's mean disposition and violent ways. But she was loyal to old SatchmoŠ. After we broke up, she was in a honky tonk on 31st Street near Cottage Grove in Chicago and got into an argument with a man who had a bad reputation. He said some unkind things about me and Daisy resented it. So she slugged it out with this character toe-to-toe and, using a knife, almost cut him to death. That happened five years before she died. It shows the kind of love women have for Ol' Satch." Apparently some Sporting Life habits died harder than others, geographic and social mobility notwithstanding.

The New Orleans Wanderers session for Columbia that took place in Chicago on July 13, 1926 provides a suggestive case study of how gender ideology could bring the violence of the Sporting Life mentality into the business of jazz record production. In an interview on July 1, 1959, Lil Hardin told Bill Russell what happened: "Tommy Rockwell asked me to get a record date together. Six numbers -- I would compose three, Louis three. I wrote all six numbers. I got $120 for making the records. I gave half to Louis and I kept half. Louis was signed up with OKeh, you see, so Louis couldn't be on the date, but he wanted Louis to write three of the numbers. I didn't know why. So when the records come out, the numbers that Louis Œcomposed,' his name was written on there in big letters as though he was playing on it. So Louis and I had a big argument and he slapped me about it. He said that I knew about it, but I didn't know. Do I know what they gonna put on the label? Oh yes! That's the only time Louis ever struck me -- he slapped me -- he said I had no business making the records, that he told me not to, that he had already spent the half of the money that I gave him. But I was the one got the blame. Well, I got the band together, and that was the first time that we had made a recording session where the parts were written out. I wrote out every part for that ŒPerdido Street.' Oh yeah Š. After that, all the different band leaders were calling me up to make arrangements, and I was afraid to take a job making arrangements Š. I didn't want to get involved in writing arrangements for other bands."

This passage offers several issues to which Smuts' theories may be applied. First, the printing of Armstrong's name in capitals on the label placed him in a vulnerable position with officials at OKeh because it appeared to be a violation of his exclusive contract, thus threatening a male alliance -- a typical catalyst for aggression. Ironically, Columbia would acquire that company three months later, which would have obviated the problem. Second, in retrospect it becomes clear that Tommy Rockwell's subornation of Lil for the session may have been an attempt to insinuate himself into Armstrong's affairs -- three years later he became Louis' first manager -- and Lil's willingness to negotiate on her husband's behalf without his express approval might therefore be construed as disloyalty, despite the payoff, because it gave an outsider power over him. Third, Lil's control of the recording session, dictating parts to be played by Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr and George Mitchell (essentially the Hot Five without Louis), could be seen as a transgression of male prerogatives in the recording studio, as well as a major opportunity to advance female leadership in the industry that built on precedents set by Lovie Austin for Paramount in 1924 and 1926. Finally, her reluctance to make arrangements for other leaders, to take her gifts outside of the Hot Five family, so to speak, and her use of the word "afraid" in this context, can be interpreted as recognition of the limits of her independence and of her acquiescence to Armstrong's authority to control her destiny.

Louis may have already been particularly sensitive on the issue of activity beyond his OKeh contract, having run into trouble with company executives over his participation in two recording sessions for Vocalion, both arranged by his wife: one with Lillian Armstrong's Serenaders on April 20, 1926 and another with Lill's Hot Shots on May 28, 1926. The cuts released from the latter session had elicited a reprimand, probably from E. A. Fearn, who played the records for Louis and then asked him if he was on them, to which he is said to have replied something to the effect: "That's not me, but I won't do it again." (Cited in James Lincoln Collier's Louis Armstrong: An American Genius.) Had he used this explanation later as an excuse for the Wanderers records, it would have been an accurate statement. Rockwell's manipulation of Lil was thus part of a pattern in which pursuit of her own interests as a musician conflicted with those of her husband, resulting in an erosion of trust and reinforcing Armstrong's perception of his well-born wife as "an educated fool."

Louis was certainly capable of interacting with strong women in recording situations without conflict. His collaborations with Gertrude Rainey in October 1924 and with Bessie Smith in January and May 1925 had both gone extremely well. In her study of these women, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998), Angela Y. Davis found no problems with Louis Armstrong's behavior. She posits that Smith exerted a "considerable influence" on Armstrong, while together they inspired Billie Holiday: "She wanted Bessie Smith's big sound and Louis Armstrong's feeling." Indeed, Armstrong had fond memories of his experience with Smith, recalling that "Everything I did with her, I like." Yet, not all recording sessions with women went so smoothly. Weak women presented a different kind of challenge. In Satchmo (1988), Gary Giddins tells of a June 26, 1928 recording with Lillie Delk Christian, whom he characterizes as "a justly obscure cabaret singer whose vibrato quivered as fast and furious as Alvin and the Chipmunks.'" Armstrong and his Hot Four (including Earl Hines, Jimmie Noone, and Mancy Cara) were there as sidemen only, but on "Too Busy" Louis could not restrain himself from exceeding his charge by living up to the title. As Giddins described it, "She trudges through the sappy tune without the remotest suggestion of swing, but after an instrumental interlude, Armstrong sneaks up on her with some impromptu scat that swings so hard you can almost hear Lillie's stomach rising." In New Orleans, musicians who engaged in collective improvisation had a saying -- "He who fall down, stay down" -- which could be interpreted as "survival of the fittest" in musical exchanges. In this exchange, Louis trounced the lady, revealing an urge to dominate that was less than gallant.

Lil was certainly aware of Armstrong's insecurities regarding his image and threats to his supremacy in the jazz world, and she often sought to assuage them by building up his confidence: "While he was at the Vendome [with Erskine Tate], he was supposed to make this F on the end [of a number]. Do you know people would come to two and three shows to see if he's ever going to miss that F? He never missed it, but it started worrying him. He said, ŒYou know, people keep coming down there expecting me to miss that F.' So I said, ŒYeah, well come on and make some G's at home.' So then he would be hitting G's at home all day. So, psychologically, I was right. If you can hit G at home, you don't worry about an F at the theater." The problem was, Louis was hitting on more than F's at the Vendome. In 1926, Alpha Smith was a pretty 19-year-old who could always be found in the front row of the theater, and before long Louis was meeting her backstage. He later admitted, "I tried to keep from wedging into Alpha too deeply, know I was still married to Lil, and Alpha was so young and fine with it." (From "The Goffin Notebooks.")

By the time Louis divorced Lil in 1938 to marry Alpha, his own standing within the entertainment industry was such that he no longer required a wife with a pedigree, whose education, manners and ambition had proven to be irksome anyway. Alpha came from poverty: "She was a poor girl -- not near as fortunate as Lil was when I first met her -- Maybe the one reason why Lil and I didn't make a good go of married life together." By way of further comparison, Armstrong wrote in Ebony, he thought that "Alpha was young and polished and her views were modern. Lil was better educated but less mature than Alpha."

But with his new wife, Louis soon found a whole new set of problems: "Alpha was all right but her mind was on furs, diamonds, and other flashy luxuries and not enough on me and my happiness. I gave her all the diamonds she thought she wanted but still she wanted other things. She went through most of my money and then walked out. We had some real spats. She'd get to drinking and grab that big pocketbook of hers and hit me in my chops with it. Then I'd want to go after her and beat on her awhile, but some of the cats would grab me and say, ŒDon't hit her, Pops.'" The pattern for the first three marriages thus suggests a progressive shift away from violence in the way Armstrong translated gender ideology: Daisy was beaten "every night," Lil was slapped once, and with Alpha, Louis was tempted but held back. Of course, it is almost too easy to conclude that Armstrong was most aggressive when his testosterone levels were highest and his class standing was lowest, but it is hard to dispute the prevalence of such trends in the biosocial literature covered by Smuts. Yet, despite his progress, when Alpha finally abandoned him after little more than three years of marriage, Louis wrote to the columnist Walter Winchell on Jan. 19, 1942 about the "melting" of this relationship, revealing a fatalism that bordered on misogyny: "I am one ŒCat' that's from the old school Š I always become Surprised when a Woman does ŒRIGHT' and not when she does ŒWRONG' Š. Well, all I can say is maybe with all of that that I gave to that Gal -- just wasn't enough -- but from the way she's raving about Cliff [the Drummer with Charlie Barnett's Band] -- ŒUm-mmmm -- He certainly must have given her Just the Amount of Everything that she wanted Š Because she proudly admits that it was Cliff Lehman whom took her away from me Š. And Thank God Š If I only could see him and tell him how much I appreciate what he's done for me by taking that ŒChick away from me Š. And with all of that -- I still think he is one of the greatest drummers we have here in our U.S.A. Š. I am telling you ŒPops -- it's a hard pill to ŒSwoller Š But ŒMan -- I can take it Š An .. How Š.. Afterall -- That ŒNote that comes out of my Trumpet is all that counts in my young life." The emphasis on women as predictably unreliable and disloyal is impossible to miss, as is the bid for male solidarity. Especially important is Armstrong's admission that music comes before personal relationships -- it is the nepenthe that obliterates the problem and frees him from the pain.

Louis married Lucille Wilson almost immediately after his divorce from Alpha in 1942, and the mantra for this marriage reiterated the statement of priorities that had been imparted to Winchell: "I always made it plain to all my wives that that trumpet must come first before anybody or anything. That horn is my real boss because it's my life."

In his commentary in "Why I Like Dark Women," Armstrong attributes the success of his final marriage to Lucille's malleability: "She's just a fine human being who knows what it takes to relax me and make me feel good Š. The women who marry me must respect my program and way of life Š. Lucille has done such a swell job of being my wife that I doubt I'll ever want to replace her with another. She's almost an ideal type of woman to me. We get along real well and as I have said before, understand each other. We can stay at home for hours and days without any friction. She doesn't bother me until I want to be bothered. She also senses the right moment. That kind of woman is rare today."

So, women must worship the trumpet, follow the program. As Louis often put it, "the trumpet comes first." Krin Gabbard has written suggestively on Armstrong as "only the first of many African American jazz artists to attract international attention by establishing phallic authority with that most piercing of instruments, the trumpet." Indeed, Gabbard argues that through a canny use of "signifyin(g)" on his instrument, Louis was able to subvert the emasculating racial stereotypes that were thrust upon him in films such as Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932) and Going Places (1938). He goes on to state that "like many African American entertainers of his generation, Armstrong made Signifyin(g) a regular feature of his performance persona, engaging in a great deal of ribaldry and self-deprecation. Part of Armstrong's success was surely related to his ability to play the sexual and asexual jester in different registers and at different moments in a performance. Although Armstrong did not give the impression that he was a sexual threat to all women in his audience, he often kept a teasing edge on his ribaldry. Along with the poetry and the pathos, there was a libidinal energy in Armstrong's solos that could create a kind of foreplay leading up to climaxes." If one applies these insights to Armstrong's writings on gender ideology and his relationships with women, viewing them as an alternative performance medium, references to beatings, knifings and lavish expenditures, all in the quest for "relaxation," take on a very different meaning. The poetry, the pathos, and the teasing are all there, adding allure to the story of a man who was, essentially, a workaholic when it came to jazz -- perpetually "on." Whether the representation of a "player's" Sporting Life mentality in these writings constitutes myth or reality is therefore not always easy to determine. Since this is Pops we are talking about, it is incumbent upon us to provide the benefit of the doubt before rushing to judgment.

An interpretation recognizing the potential for "signifyin(g)" in Armstrong's writings on gender relations thus differs markedly from Smuts' conclusions regarding aggression and its rewards, which are always about power over women. If Louis finds true domestic happiness with Lucille only after abandoning the aggressive strategies that informed his previous marriages, it means that he has earned his rewards rather than taken them. Armstrong has grown on two levels: he has learned to relax with his own success, thus enabling him to curb the violence and enjoy his happiness. Writing in 1969, he comes right out and says it: "Force and brute strength is no good. Not even [for] love and sex. It's nicer to know and feel deep down in your heart that you have something, anything that you've worked for and strived for honestly, than to do a lot of ungodly things to get it. Yes, you appreciate it better" For her part, Lucille had to learn to cope with jealousy, understanding, according to Louis, that "talking to other women Š is bound to happen in my profession." Revisiting the Miss New Orleans pageant photograph from 1946, one can now look at Armstrong's averted gaze another way. It may be a momentary lapse in the "player" persona -- his way of letting the viewer in on the joke -- or maybe a sign that he is getting weary of the game and thinking about his real home, with Lucille.

In the final analysis, the story of Louis and women is about music -- the real source of his power with women -- and how women responded to it. In Swing Shift (2000), Sherrie Tucker mentions Thelma Lewis, "whose mother, a Louis Armstrong fan, coaxed her daughter to pick up the trumpet at age thirteen." Later on, Tucker "cheered trumpet player Ernestine ŒTiny' Davis as she offered her woman-identified explanation for why she turned down a better-paying job offer from Louis Armstrong. ŒI loved them gals too much!' declared Davis, imbuing the word gals with a meaningful nuance." The emphasis for our purposes, however, is not on rejection but intent, on Louis' desire to bring an accomplished female trumpet player into his band. Tucker also tells of trumpeter Clora Bryant, who "perfected her respectful impersonation of Louis Armstrong's trumpet playing and singing to the point that bandleaders who hired her in later years, including Billy Williams and Johnny Otis, would feature her doing ŒLouis' at some point in their shows." Further evidence of the high esteem in which jazzwomen have held Armstrong can be found in Ethel Waters' impersonation of him in "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" with Duke Ellington's Orchestra on a recording for Brunswick in 1932, Ella Fitzgerald's scatting a la Louis in the closing tag of their duet on "Tenderly" for Verve in 1956, and in the feminist entertainer Charmaine Neville's vocal tribute to Armstrong as a perennial feature in her New Orleans act since the mid-1980s. Some performers went even further. The male impersonator Gladys Bentley may have been doing Louis in toto at the Clam House, Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club, possibly as early as the mid-1920s.

Of special interest, then, is the way in which Louis can be perceived as influential in the reconfiguration of gender roles in jazz. Angela Davis' statement concerning the respective influences of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong on Billie Holiday is telling in this regard. From Bessie she wanted power, usually regarded as a masculine attribute, but from Louis she wanted feeling, something explicitly feminine. Whatever his writings may have to tell us about jazz gender ideology and the search for a useable past and present with the women in his life, the fact remains that Louis Armstrong did more to break down conventional thinking about music, race and life in general than most of his contemporaries ever dreamed of. If his progress on gender was slow by comparison, he may be forgiven, because he inspired women to get involved themselves by giving them music they could relate to. If he was, in fact, part of the problem after all, he was still much more about solutions. As he said in Ebony, "As long as the human race exists men will need women -- I hope so, anyway."

click to enlarge HOGAN JAZZ ARCHIVE, TULANE UNIVERSITY
  • Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University
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