Pronunciation of jazz great's name a statement of protest

RICHARD SWAINSON
Last updated 07:08 02/10/2012

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Richard Swainson

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What's in a name? After finishing a new, powerful biography of Louis Armstrong, I've been thinking about the importance of given names verses nicknames, of how we are labelled and how we label ourselves, with terms of affection and terms of abuse.

As scholar Terry Teachout makes clear, Armstrong was a genius who enjoyed a multiplicity of noms de plume. His most famous moniker, "Satchmo", came about through an English mispronouncement of another, "Satchelmouth". He also happily answered to "Little Louie", "Gate", "Dipper", "Dippermouth" and "Pops".

Interestingly, the one form of address that the world used most often bothered Armstrong. "All white folks call me Louie," he wrote in 1944. Twenty years later, when a young producer nervously suggested to jazz's most influential soloist that he use his own name to personalise the recording of a minor show tune, the white man was abruptly told that the correct pronunciation was "LEW-is".

If any have doubts as to how to refer to Armstrong, they only need listen to jazz's last No 1 hit, the song that briefly reasserted its genre's pre-eminence on the American charts, displacing even The Beatles.

When saying hello to that busybody matchmaker variously incarnated by Carol Channing and Barbara Streisand, we hear Armstrong, loudly and proudly, announce himself: "This is ‘Lewis', Dolly!"

There was a definite reason why Armstrong preferred to be called "Lewis". Growing up in New Orleans as a darkly pigmented African-American, he suffered discrimination from whites and at the hands of lightly shaded creoles, the descendants of freed French slaves.

In eschewing the Gallic pronunciation "Louie", he differentiated himself from the snobbish attitudes of a class who judged people according to the colour of their skin.

Strangely enough, though, it wasn't only the white and the ignorant who called him "Louie". Many of his sidemen and at least one spouse did so. In the film recording of his last real performing hurrah, a tribute concert at the Newport Jazz Festival for what was then believed to be his 70th birthday, everyone from producer George Wein to fellow musicians who had known him for 30 years to up-and-coming acolytes talk of the honour of playing with and for "Louie" Armstrong.

If there's anything to be taken from this story, it's that no matter how big you get or how important you might be, it's impossible to control the labels other people attach to you.

In his day, Armstrong endured a lot worse than a mispronounced Christian name. Lacking the holier-than-thou hypocrisy of the politically correct, he was sometimes himself indifferent when it came to using racially loaded epithets. He embraced the song When It's Sleepy Time Down South as a personal theme, complete with its refrain about "the darkies singin' ". When re-recording it in 1951, it was politely suggested to Armstrong that he change the lyric to "the people singin' ". He responded to conductor Gordon Jenkins the next day by asking, "What do you want me to call those black sons-of-bitches this morning?"

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A half decade on, when discussing his 1931 recording of Shine, an old minstrel number given wit and humanity through skilful reinterpretation, Armstrong criticised any who could not see past the song's name. "What's wrong with Shine? I mean, people so narrow-minded they worryin' about the title, they forgot to listen to all that good music."

Such wisdom speaks volumes in an age when every Tom, Dick and Harriet is falling over themselves to be offended about this or that, feigning outrage at the use of certain words or terms without any notion of context, content or meaning. When Armstrong sings about "darkies" or delivers lines like "just because my colour shade/Is different maybe/That's why they call me Shine", only a pedantic fool would take it as an endorsement of prejudice.

The most unjust of pejorative terms used with regard Armstrong was "Uncle Tom". Too many serious-minded jazz players and critics who followed in his wake, folk who had been liberated by his innovations whether they acknowledged the fact or not, were uneasy at the wide-mouthed stagecraft and handkerchief-waving schtick. Any who equated Armstrong's natural exuberance and showmanship with the clowning subservience of black caricature were as mistaken as those who drew false distinction between the early jazz "artist" and the later, crowd-pleasing "entertainer".

Whatever the label, Armstrong the man was always defined by his sublime music. For those who are really listening, a profound human warmth transcends the playful mugging.

- Waikato Times

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