How did Louis Armstrong surmount pervasive racism to become the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century? Critic Terry Teachout, author of an upcoming biography of Satchmo, writes in the new issue of Commentary that one of the the musical prodigy’s first inspirations was a Jewish peddler family he worked for as a boy in New Orleans. In a recollection about his relationship with the Karnofskys, “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,” Satchmo told how at 7 years old, he recognized “the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handling the poor Jewish family that I worked for. They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me, he fondly recalled, just a kid who could use a little word of kindness.”
The experience was so transformative that Armstrong became a lifelong philo-Semite who wore a Star of David around his neck, given to him by his Jewish manager. But Armstrong’s relationship with the Karnovksys extended beyond personal affection. Teachout writes that Armstrong greatly admired how Jews overcame prejudice by banding together, seeking to better their lot through work. He was dismayed, by contrast, Teachout argues, with black reactions to racism, writing in his memoirs that “the Negroes always wanted pity, [doing] that in place of going to work.” Armstrong developed his open-mindedness and “gospel of self-help,” Teachout says, from the Jews.