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February 3, 2021 7:57 am

What Louis Armstrong Said About African-Americans and Jews in Music

avatar by Harold Brackman


Louis Armstrong. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Mutual indebtedness — and reciprocal “gift giving” — are at the core of the relationships between African-Americans and Jews. In the realm of popular music, Jewish composers and performers who were profoundly influenced by ragtime and then jazz included Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Al Jolson,  Sophie Tucker, and Fanny Brice.

But exchange and borrowing were two-way streets. Paul Robeson embraced Yiddish songs — including “ Zog nit keynmol,” the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song, and “The Kaddish of Rebbe Levi-Yitzhok of Berditchev.” Louis Armstrong privately told Cab Calloway that his signature scat singing style was inspired by Jewish ritual davening, but did not want to create religious controversy by publicizing it.

Indeed, there were similarities between African-American and Jewish music. This was true of the affinity of Jewish liturgical music (songs that Paul Robeson called “the Jewish sigh and tear”) with Black music (which a critic in the Forvertz newspaper argued was endowed with “the minor key of Jewish music, the wail of the Chazan, the cry of anguish of a people who had suffered”).

Black Sabbath: The Secret History of Black-Jewish Relations (2010) offers a musical feast of celebrated African-American artists singing classic Jewish melodies in Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as Yiddish.

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In 1969, Louis Armstrong was in Beth Israel Hospital in New York, recovering from surgery for a life-threatening illness. Ironically, his manager since 1935, Joe Glaser, whom he called “my dearest friend,” occupied another bed in the same hospital that proved to be his death bed. This was when Armstrong decided to write down “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.” Not surfacing until 30 years later, this reminiscence was Armstrong’s tribute to the Karnofskys, a family of Jewish immigrant peddlers from Lithuania who gave young Louis his first job in New Orleans. The Karnofskys made it possible for young “Satchmo” to buy his first horn.

Armstrong related his surprise to learn that Jewish immigrants “were having problems of their own — [a]long with hard times from the other white folks nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race. … I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for. They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me — just a kid who could use a little word of kindness. … When I reached the age of eleven, I began to realize that it was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from the heart.” Years later, his Jewish manager gave Satchmo a golden Star of David to wear. He wore it in honor of the Karnofskys.

Louis Farrakhan has demonized as “bloodsuckers” the Jews with whom Black artists made music. Without using that term, Jewish historian Jeffrey Melnick wrote A Right to Sing the Blues (2001), which also distorts the history of Black/Jewish relations in the sphere of music.

This is not how Louis Armstrong viewed matters. He said this about those who condemned Jews for exploiting African-American music: “Those people … they don’t know nothing about music, it’s no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.”

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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