How Louis Armstrong’s early work helped break down America’s racial barrier

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

For biographical information about Louis Armstrong, click here.

People often point to Louis Armstrong as being perhaps the biggest figure (and an early one) in producing jazz and love songs that were adored by both Black and white audiences. Ultimately, this was a triumph as there was a level of respect given to African-American culture that you would not find in any other sphere. As stated by Scott Deveaux, “There was always a way in which excellence in the music itself was read as political, and part of a struggle for the recognition of one’s full humanity.”

In tune with the theme of economic rights, this was all occurring during the 1920s and ’30s, when an explosive growth in dance music and American technology for reproducing things (such as radio and recordings) was taking place. Many Black musicians saw this as an ideal opportunity to make their music known. But as Deveaux points out, “Music has always been an area that white people have been comfortable having Black people do for them. In some ways, it’s kind of like the kitchen labour, butlers, things of this sort, musicians tend to wear black tuxedos, but that’s like livery for white people. It makes them feel like they’re being catered to.”

Dinah (1930)

Louis Armstrong’s version of Dinah was recorded in New York in May, 1930. The song was originally published by Ethel Waters at the Plantation Club on Broadway in 1925. The playful song is about a girl named Dinah, and how badly the singer wants to be with a girl as “fine” as her. Armstrong’s version from 1930 is a “tour de force,” offering us a brief glimpse of what his extended live versions must have sounded like.

Is there anyone finer 
In the state of Carolina? 
If there is and you know her, 
Show her!’

My Heart (1925)

The song My Heart was Louis Armstrong’s first recording with the Hot Five. The music of the Hot Five and the Hot Seven is considered by most critics to be among the finest recordings in jazz history. On Nov. 12, 1925, Armstrong made his first records that bore his name as ‘bandleader.’ The songs on the Okeh 78-rpm record were My Heart and Cornet Chop Suey. The band was made up mostly of musicians from King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Armstrong “picked all the musicians that he wanted to play on the sessions, and it is said that the record company generally left them alone to do what they wanted.”


References: “Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.”